Monday, August 28, 2006

Outside the firewall processes with intelligent documents

In my post last week I discussed embedded attributes in documents and how there is more and more intelligence being pushed into what were traditionally very static document files. Adobe is probably the greatest proponent of this trend, with almost every facet of their proprietary PDF format being leveraged to embed more features. Adobe LiveCycle is possibly the best example of this, offering document centric BPM centered around the Adobe PDF format.

Much of Adobe's appeal is the pervasiveness of the Adobe reader. The bloat that some users experience with the reader is what actually enables interaction with intelligent LiveCycle forms and PDF documents. By enabling form entry, signatures, digital rights and other features dynamically in the reader Adobe has ensured that almost every PC user has access to LiveCycle workflow without large software installations. Since workflow client installations are considered a huge burden for the IT team due to the number of users typically involved, the pre-installed application is appealing. With forms being edited directly in the reader, Adobe has provided a rich user interface that is hard to beat with competitors browser driven offerings.

In LiveCycle, a forms designer provides the creation of forms (rendered as PDF or HTML), which are the primary way of representing and interacting with tasks. The forms are documents that can contain data representing the task status, audit history and can be signed to confirm actions performed within the workflow. A form therefore is a completely self contained task, that may be as simple or complex as required.

Form intelligence is central to the capabilities of LiveCycle. It enforces required fields, provides autocalculation of attributes and enables complex validation of entries. Since all of the state information about an activity can be stored within the attributes of the document, flexible delivery to users can be performed not just by the LiveCycle process engine, but email, collaborative systems and shared filesystems. Since everything is contained within a document file, the integrity of the underlying business process is ensured even as the document passes outside of the firewall and the confines of the process engine. The document security and signatures that are contained within the document and managed by the Adobe viewer enforce access control and recording of actions, even when a form is completed offline.

Since tasks may be delivered to end users by email or on the web as opposed to soley through the LifeCycle forms manager, the Adobe approach may be ideal for requests where customers are typically unknown at the outset and the availability of specific software or even reliability of connectivity to the Internet may not be asssured. In the worst case, Adobe forms can generate 2D barcodes that represent all of the entered information on the form, allowing the completed form to be printed and snail-mailed. The US immigration service (INS as it used to be) used this approach for visa applications since it allowed the capture of a wet signature on the printed form.

Bruce Silver provides research papers on a range of BPMS offerings in conjunction with the BPMInstitute. His research on Adobe provides a detailed description of their LiveCycle BPMS offering (going into the full breadth of the BPMS offering), with an interesting use case early on that describes a financial services firm that uses the software for new account opening involving signatures, backend system integration and distribution outside of the firewall.

It is by embedding workflow information, security and signature intelligence into documents that Adobe can offer powerful online and offline document processes. The rich forms with the appearance of paper can be less threatening to some users and delivery through the pervasive Adobe reader enables this. Embedded intelligence in documents provides powerful outside-firewall capability for virtually any PC user, which can be a great enabler for some business processes, especially when interacting with previously unknown members of the public.

Since Adobe does not offer a content repository, organizations must rely on their current (or a new) content management system to enable management of documents through their lifecycle. The security of a document / records repository is essential to ensure that documents can be found to prove transactions at a later date, since search tools do not cater for structured search of embedded metadata at this stage and a filesystem may not be a trusted document store. With this approach it is the integration of metadata in the content management system with the embedded document attributes that can cause complexity and inaccuracy. This could be a downfall if not handled by integrations with common content management systems out of the box.

As Adobe and soon Microsoft Open XML (in Office 2007) push more intelligence into documents, the restriction of keeping workflow inside the firewall may start to go away. The complexity of 'work-in-progress' document repositories may also start to shrink. Managing records centrally throughout their lifecycle will remain though, to ensure that these intelligent documents can still be found when needed - finding themselves is one thing that standalone documents can not do.

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