Thursday, 11 September 2014

5 Types Of Cloud Workflow

Last Wednesday, Box Workflow was announced. It was a expected move for them to go higher up the stack as the cost of storage “races very quickly toward zero”.  It made me realize there are actually 4 different types of workflow solutions available on the cloud.

Box, Salesforce, Netsuite and many others have bolted workflow on top of their products.  In this case workflow is offered as a feature on a product with a different focus.  The advantage is they are well integrated with the product and that it’s available when you have the product already.  The downside can be that the scope is mostly limited to the product.

Another type is the BPM as a service (aka cloud enabled BPM).  BPM as a service has an online service for which you can register an account and use the product online without setting up or maintaining any IT infrastructure for it.  The cloud poses a different set of challenges and opportunities for BPM.  We at Effektif provide a product that is independent, focused on BPM and which is born and raised in the cloud.  In our case, we could say that our on-premise version is actually the afterthought.  Usually it’s the other way round.  Most cloud enabled BPM products were created for on-premise first and have since been tweaked to run on the cloud.  My opinion ‘might’ be a bit biased, but I believe that today’s hybrid enterprise environments are very different from the on-premise-only days.   Ensuring that a BPM solution integrates seamless with other cloud services is non-trivial.   Especially when it needs to integrate just as well with existing on-premise products.

BPM platform as a service (bpmPaaS) is an extension of virtualization.  These are prepackaged images of BPM solutions that can be deployed on a hosting provider.  So you rent a virtual machine with a hosting provider and you then have a ready-to-go image that you can deploy on that machine to run your BPM engine.  As an example, you can have a look at Red Hat’s bpmPaaS cartridge.

Amazon simple workflow service is in many ways unique and a category on it‘s own in my opinion.  It is a developer service that in essence stores the process instance data and it takes care of the distributed locking of activity instances.  All the rest is up to the user to code.  The business logic in the activities has to be coded.  But what makes Amazon’s workflow really unique is that you can (well.. have to) code the logic between the activities yourself as well.  There's no diagram involved.  So when an activity is completed, your code has to perform the calculation of what activities have to be done next.  I think it provides a lot of freedom, but it’s also courageous of them to fight the uphill battle against the user’s expectations of a visual workflow diagram builder.

Then there is IFTTT and Zapier.  These are in my opinion iconic online services because they define a new product category.  At the core, they provide an integration service.  Integration has traditionally been one of the most low level technical aspects of software automation.  Yet they managed to provide this as an online service enabling everyone to accomplish significant integrations without IT or developer involvement.  I refer to those services a lot because they have transformed something that was complex into something simple.  That, I believe, is a significant accomplishment.  We at Effektif are on a similar mission.  BPM has been quite technical and complex.  Our mission is also to remove the need for technical expertise so that you can build your own processes. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Personal Workflow

How much government is ideal?  How much should be organized by the community?  Each country answers that differently.  In some countries a lot is organized by the community.  In other countries, more freedom is left to the citizens and less aspects are managed centrally.  I’ld say that Business Process Management (BPM) doesn't have any such balance yet.  At the moment, BPM is limited to top-down initiatives.  This would be similar to only having government initiatives and no freedom or initiatives from citizens.  

Corporate executives start by analyzing how work gets done in an organization.  This analysis is often challenging as people doing the work optimize their piece of the puzzle.  To get a complete understanding how people actually collaborate is not that easy.  It’s even hard for employees that get interviewed to explain all their knowledge that goes into tackling a given task.  Therefore, the procedures that result of such BPM initiatives are often incomplete.  That uncertainty creates risk for the people driving a BPM initiative.  They have the power to change things, but they don't have all the detailed knowledge that goes in to the tasks.  And this approach doesn't scale very well as there is usually just a single top down BPM improvement initiative at a time.

Still these centrally lead initiatives can lead to the biggest gains in efficiencies as top down initiatives can create the necessary momentum and executive buy-in to change things.  And the efficiency improvements are multiplied by the number of times these procedures have to be accomplished.  Imagine you can bring down the average time spent on handling a damage claim in an insurance company from 3 hours to 2h30.  For an insurance company dealing with thousands of damage claims per day, these savings add up. 

In countries with less government, self-interest is an important driver and motivation to take initiatives.  That’s an angle totally missing at the moment in BPM and a very interesting one if you start thinking about it.  

What if employees could start automating their own repetitive and tedious work patterns without having to think globally.  As an example, think of Jack's tasks like this: For every invoice email that he gets from Supplier XYZ, he extracts the attachment and uploads it to Google Drive, then passes a link to the document on to Jane in procurement.  What if Jack can build a workflow by himself for his own repetitive work.  He can start improve his own work without requiring any change to be discussed between colleagues.  Since people keep working as they work before, it's really easy and fast to start automating these process snippets. That really reduces the risk and makes it a much faster approach.  All the fine details of how work is done, what's important and what not doesn't have to be talked through.  Instead, employees can just build workflow snippets directly themselves.  

Personal workflow adds an interesting approach next to top down BPM initiatives.  Picking the low hanging fruits like that is easy and scalable.  Imagine all employees creating their own workflows.  This doesn't require meetings and decisions that take months.  Instead it takes 5 minutes to get going.  And all employees can start doing it simultaneous.  Just like societies require a good mix of centrally controlled government and self-interest initiatives, I think that both personal workflow should complement top down BPM initiatives to harvesting those low hanging fruits.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Cloud governance and partner ecosystem

Scott Francis is a distinguished member of the BPM community. Recently I demoed Effektif and tried to convince him that it was easy to use. His blog title Effektif: Spelling It Is Harder Than Using It seems to indicate he's convinced :-)

Scott highlights some really interesting points like this one:
I think the most difficult point for Effektif, and the tools it is inspired by, is adoption by mainstream businesses. ... when you get out of startup mode and into enterprise mode (even as a single user within the enterprise) there are rules for what kind of data can be transported from one cloud environment to another. I may not be allowed to use my personal Salesforce credentials to expedite transiting data from Salesforce to some other cloud-based tooling. Enterprise IT gets involved, HIPAA comes into play.
Right on. I agree this is the challenge. Companies have switched on-premise software solutions for cloud based SaaS alternatives. This trend continues and accelerates. Some conservative CIOs will try to ignore or even forbid this from happening, but eventually it's unavoidable. In the next decade, companies will use a mix of on-premise and cloud solutions. My advice to CIOs is to embrace that fact, get involved and learn how to control that mix.

When I talk about Effektif being cloud native, most people think it's about map-reduce or horizontal scaling on the technical side. But Scott pointed out the end user concerns of being cloud native. For our customers, those are even far more important then how it's implemented. Being cloud native, Effektif will have to provide that control. Aspects like 3rd party login, OAuth, service accounts, blocking certain data from leaking out of the system, reports on which documents were shared externally, etc are crucial in that respect. That's exactly why I believe that a native cloud workflow vendor is very different from an on-premise solution that is also offered on the cloud.

The second interesting point Scott brought up is the business model for consulting partners:
So how to bridge the gap between the startup or personal users, and the enterprise user? Traditionally, this is where consulting partners come in. And the biggest challenge I see to the business models of such firms is the lack of a business model that supports implementation partners. Implementation partners can help create successful references, build out a pipeline of new customers, and innovate on top of the platform. But there has to be a path to making a living, or those implementation partners won’t show up.
I understand Scott's question like this: If workflow becomes as easy as GMail or IFTTT, then why would companies get consulting firms involved? For Effektif, that answer is straight forward. We added the simple workflow layer to the app enabling professionals to start automating basic tasks on their own without the need for consultancy. But we didn't remove the more advanced layers that allow for extra flexibility where needed.

I believe the extra simplicity will increase the demand for consultancy. The companies that will use Effektif self service, would not have used a full blown BPM system in the first place. For example: for all emails that arrive at, extract the attachment and upload it to /Accounting/Invoices/Incoming on Google Drive. That's convenient and easy. People would not install a BPM system for that. In that sense we compete with non-usage more then with other incumbent BPM systems. But many of those companies that would not have used a BPM system, might eventually expand their usage and then they need consultancy.

Companies will not loose their appetite for customization or stretching Effektif to its maximum. Workflows are an easier (*far* easier) and cheaper (*far* cheaper) approach then developing custom integration applications. For many use cases, Effektif is the basis of the solution. It's often cheaper and much less risk to extend and customize Effektif in comparison to custom development. So that interest will not go away when we raise the bar for simplicity in workflow. In fact, the opposite is true. As more companies will be able to start with workflow, more people will see more use cases to start using workflow.

In respect to customization, there is one feature on our mid term roadmap in particular that we're very excited about: Custom actions. Consulting companies or internal developers can extend Effektif by configuring their own custom action types. Other users in that organization can then start using this new action type. As an example, Signavio is adding a state update action to be used in approval workflows for Signavio process models. Separate, another example could be an action that generates a document based on a template and instance data. When using JavaScript to implement the behavior of the custom action, users don't even need their own infrastructure. We also plan to support external action workers. In that case, developers use our open API to know what actions need to be executed and signal when they are done. They can write their code in any language and deploy it anywhere, even behind the firewall inside their organization. This also enables any service provider to offer their features as actions in Effektif. That is going to be so awsome! Can't wait to get it out :-)