Friday, July 28, 2006

BPM could drive online office applications

Business processes automated by a BPMS require human interaction at points in the process, like exception handling and knowledge working. In this post I want to share my opinions on how these human steps could benefit from the new generation of online word-processing and spreadsheet tools by embedding them directly into the user’s processing application. Tools like Google Spreadsheet, Zoho Writer and Office Suite represent the available capabilities. The IT|Redux blog provides a good listing of online office tools.

Use desktop tools for collaborative 'processes'

My post Collaborating in structured business processes talked about the extreme case where a dedicated collaborative application is required to enable users to complete a complex set of human driven tasks at specific steps in the process. I illustrated an example where extensive anti-money laundering reviews were required during the account opening process for a new high-risk financial customer.

In scenarios like this, collaboration enables a set of users to work together using the tools that are most convenient to them. Typically they will produce documents using MS Office products, research tools and business specific application. The users record their working and final decisions as text documents and spreadsheets, stored within a specific collaborative workplace. Due to the lengthy and varied work that the users are performing this is probably the best approach to improving their effectiveness.

Knowledge workers and other human interaction

More commonly occurring than full collaborative requirements are the steps in a business process that require input from a single knowledge worker, to process a case and make decisions based on information presented to them.

An example is an insurance new business process, where at certain steps an underwriter is required to assess policy terms. The underwriter is delivered the work, being presented the customer details and full application form to assist in the assessment. At this point, typical systems will leave the user to utilize external workbench tools to make their decisions. More often than not this requires that the underwriter re-key information from the original application form into a spreadsheet that enables him to determine risk and policy value. At the end of his manual processing he saves any documents that assisted in the decision to his desktop and attaches them manually to the customer case file or a shared file system.

Online productivity tools provide just enough

This is where I believe that online productivity applications like word-processors and spreadsheets could be valuable. Despite the fact that the functionality in these tools is probably insufficient for power-users, what is available right now is ideal for the specific tasks required at human steps in business processes, like the one described above.

Most online email users or bloggers will attest to the fact that the editing and formatting capabilities of these tools are sufficient for everyday document production, and that the vast majority of MS Word capabilities are left untouched. Especially where there are targeted requirements for document production, like customer correspondence, documenting basic research findings, and so on, more extensive features just get in the way.

Value to the user

By embedding online applications into an underwriter’s BPM application the key tools of a basic underwriter workbench can be presented seamlessly alongside the customer information and application form. For the user this has many possible advantages:

  • Seamless access to key applications in a single browser application
  • Ability to open template documents with data transferred directly from the application form and customer information data, avoiding re-keying
  • Direct and enforced storage of documents back to a central repository, not requiring additional steps storing to the desktop first
  • Simple, easy to use features appropriate to the limited user requirements

Value to the Business

From the point of view of the business, there are many advantages, including:

  • Reduced cost per desktop, by not requiring expensive MS Office installations, and reduced hardware requirements due to the editing applications not being bloated with unnecessary features
  • Improved audit and compliance through enforced recordkeeping of process related documents
  • Improved accuracy of human processing due to the reduced requirement for re-keying information
  • Improved user efficiency by using tailored, streamlined applications appropriate to the user requirements

Value to IT

The IT group will see benefits that enhance the savings the business may see:

  • Zero desktop installation and upgrade requirement
  • Reduced risk of macro viruses
  • Ability to more effectively lock down user desktops, since no documents or files need to written locally
  • User support calls reduced due to simplified application usage and no 'lost' files saved to an unknown directory


BPMS driven processes have always offered the option of tailoring the user facing applications used for delivery of work. In more mature customer systems these will integrate business systems specific to the users' work, but will rarely take into account the desktop tools that they must use to complete their tasks.

By including online word-processing and spreadsheet capabilities directly in the user interface there are many advantages to user, business and IT. It could be that this ability to embed seamlessly into the user process 'workbench' becomes a strong driver for this new breed of office tools.

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