Friday, July 21, 2006

Collaborating in structured business processes - Part I

Most enterprise-level collaboration products (think MS Sharepoint, Vignette Collaboration, Documentum e-Room, etc) offer some level of process automation capability or workflow engine. This is employed to enable the coordination of tasks revolving around documents, folders or workspaces, to provide some structure around what would otherwise be a completely ad-hoc (possibly chaotic) environment. Typical use cases are:

  • Guided document authoring, review and approval
  • Coordinated contract creation, negotiation and execution
  • Tracking of business events and issues through to resolution
In all of these cases the workflow runs purely to manage the tasks within a single collaborative workspace populated by a defined set of users -- it never ventures outside of those four walls, and from a systems standpoint is generally very introverted, never really talking to anyone outside either.

Most structured business processes require tasks to be performed both before and after the working life of a particular document and across multiple constituencies. They run as the result of some trigger, using and abusing varying resources along the way until an eventual outcome is reached somewhere down the line. This is way out of the scope of the four walls of a collaborative workspace and BPM rises to the challenge.

The thing is that in the life of every business process there comes a time when you just need ad-hoc user interaction. BPM doesn't really do a good job of this, having neither the tools nor the inclination to let people run free and do their own thing for an extended period of time. Collaboration has both the tools and the inclination, but it doesn't have the social skills to achieve it.

New Account Opening as an example

Lets take the example of new account opening. The extended end to end process is highly summarized as the block arrows at the top of this diagram:

Collaborating in BPM

The blocks below the main process show key interactions: data interchange with business partners and systems; exception handling; audits. The last two may be very unstructured.

For instance, the requirement to perform enhanced due diligence on certain high-risk customers requires extensive ad-hoc research and human knowledge to perform. Audits, well the randomness of them goes without saying, and in this scenario they may be performed on a sample of account applications that pass through the system.

As can be seen, there is a need for true collaboration capabilities at certain points (usually well defined) within a structured business process. The challenge is to get ad-hoc, introverted collaboration to play well with highly controlling, extroverted BPM (I'm sure someone could tell me the zodiac signs for this pair!).

Collaboration as a service

Rather than treating collaboration as a pure user application we need to treat it as a service. This provides us an approach for BPM to orchestrate a complete process including points that interact with a collaborative environment. At specific steps in the process, BPM can now call out to the collaboration service, allowing the ad-hoc work to be completed before carrying on with its structured duties.

What next?

I have seen plenty of use cases that could benefit from collaboration inside structured business processes. I haven't really seen a system that does it well, so if you have, let me know.

In the next post I will talk in a little more detail how I believe collaboration as a service could work to meet this requirement.

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Michael said...

Check out LAMS: It's currently geared toward teaching, but it's basically a workflow engine for collaboration. The creators recently got a large grant to adapt it for the purposes of coordinating collaborative academic research. It may do most of what you're looking for.

Bruce Silver said...

You are right on. Processes that require such ad hoc team collaboration are one of the specific use cases described as part of my product evaluation in the 2006 BPMS Report series. There are some structured BPMSs that do it, though: EMC Documentum, FileNet, and Global 360 (with SharePoint). All of these are ECM vendors, and come to BPM from a document management heritage. Strange that the "straight" BPMS guys don't get it yet. A key bit of functionality is the ability to create the room, populate it with documents and data, invite the participants, and return the results -- from steps in the structured process.

Phil Ayres said...


Thanks for pointing me to this, I'll take a look at it. It sounds like it has a good niche.


Phil Ayres said...


Thanks for pointing me to the BPMI docs. I had been put off previously by the enormous form to fill in, so hadn't bothered. But there's some good stuff in the site once you're inside.

I wasn't aware of the G360 approach, assuming that they only had basic foldering for Case Management, and only found out about the Documentum approach with e-room this morning through a colleague. I guess I need to ask more questions!

Given the information you have pointed me at I may or may not choose to publish the follow up post to this one on monday. It addresses some of the key bits that you talk about, so it might still be worth the effort of a final proof read and clicking that Publish button!

It certainly makes sense that its the ECM vendors that do this. My background is with the Aussie firm Tower Technology (acquired by Vignette), and Case Management was always a central play for them, originally built on Staffware, now on their own technologies (I led the team that created the skunkworks version of one of these technologies, way back).

A document centric view of the world is essential to understand why you would want to ever collaborate around a business process. For a while it took the pure play BPMS vendors a while to even realize they had to integrate with a document repository, let alone how to handle them effectively.

Hey, that was too much excitement for a Friday afternoon. Have a great weekend!


Jean-Christophe said...

Excellent point, and I fully agree with your analysis.
On the vendor side, FileNet does this coupling the BPM Suite range of products and its Collaborative TCM offering. That's what we call "In Process Collaboration".
To me it has to be part of a basic BPM Suite, and event more integrated as it is today even at FileNet.

Phil Ayres said...


I absolutely agree that collaborative features should be integrated fully with the BPMS in the core suite. When done correctly, like a good implementation of Case Management, or pure integrated imaging and workflow, it should save a significant amount of risk and effort in every project that wants to use it.

I expected to see this from a product set like FileNet, and I'm pleased to see other vendors have it too.

I need to research a little what the Collaborative element to the FileNet product actually provides (is it their own or an integration, is it a standalone collaborative too, how does it rank against Documentum, Vignette or MS, etc?). Its not a tool I have run up against, especially outside of the BPM arena.