Monday, December 01, 2008

The history of workflow and BPM

Congratulations to everyone in the States that survived 'death by turkey-sandwich' over Thanksgiving, and hopefully managed to spare just a moment to remember the meaning of the long weekend. Unlike Independence Day (where I just get jokes about how the Americans threw the English out, and my jokily sarcastic replies fall flat), I can buy into Thanksgiving.

Serious stuff over, its back to work now. My Monday was spent turning over a new leaf and making sure I get my head out of the tasks I'm doing long enough to look around and see what else is going on out there. I find that anything involving really using software (I've been building some demos with the sales engineers using Global 360's case management software) can quickly pull me down into the weeds of 'doing it right' rather than 'getting it done'. Anyone that has worked around Sales knows that the deadlines rarely let you really do anything 100%, so this can be a challenge for me.

In looking around, I came across this nice morning coffee post by a guy I hadn't read before, Arshad Nazim. In it he writes about the brief history of BPM, and in doing so I think answers the question that many long-time software people have when they first see BPM: 'what's the difference between BPM and workflow?'. Not mine to answer, but I think that Arshad does a good job of doing so. [Note: it seems the credit should go elsewhere, since Arshad forgot to credit Sandy Kemsley who wrote the whole series series A Short History of BPM, which was a pleasure to re-read in its original format on her Column 2 blog. I've moved the link to Arshad's post to here, so that readers can review the additions Arshad made subsequently].

I'm looking forward to starting to write more regularly again, so keep an eye out for my next 'original' post.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Oracle buys into Business Rules Management?

Oracle announced today that it acquired RuleBurst Holdings, the parent company of Haley, providing what is described as policy modeling and automation software. Carole-Ann on the EDM blog talks a little about Haley's focus, which she says is more about natural language rules than the structured business rules definitions that I'm more familiar with.

Either way, its interesting that Oracle is currently saying that it intends to match Haley with its ERP and (Siebel) CRM products. I can certainly understand the rationale for this, matching compliance policies to core systems makes a lot of sense, enabling best practices to be enforced at the heart of the business. I wonder whether Oracle have thought much about embedding Hayley into the Oracle BPM Suite as well, since there seems to be a fairly natural match.

Like all rules systems, Haley probably offers more value from being a centralized service than being limited to automated business processes, so strict embedding probably doesn't offer Oracle BPM much more than marketing spin and analyst kudos (both important obviously). In practice customers really want their rules to be used by any process, system or application, so loose integration is likely to be acceptable.

With this, the number of independent rules vendors has shrunk a little further, with IBM already having acquired Ilog and SAP acquiring Yasu (according to James Taylor on the EDM blog - I had missed this news). So HP and its growing software division will probably need to snap someone up just to join the party, and EMC will need to work out whether its partnership offering of Corticon is appropriately profitable before making a move into owning its own technology. Microsoft must have a play in here somewhere as well, though it seems to be happy with the Business Process Alliance as a provider of best of breed process and rules technologies, at least for now.

Where does this leave independent BPM vendors? Owning rules technology outright is appealing for the marketing and analyst reasons stated above, but are business rules management systems owned by BPM vendors appealing to customers when they plan to deploy them as centralized services? As rules become just another capability of company ERP systems, maybe the push will be for BPM software to provide clean integrations to these new ERP rules engines, much as content management software often leverages the storage and full-text search capabilities of the database. Time, and a some heavy IBM/Oracle/SAP marketing will probably tell.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Friday, October 10, 2008

Finovate in NYC

I was hoping to take a visit to the Finovate event in NYC next week, to see some of the hot new innovative financial services products and software coming out of the industry.

Unfortunately my travel schedule seems to be as unreliable as the markets right now, meaning that I can't attend. So I'd like to wish the organizers and companies that are presentering the best of luck for the event and I look forward to seeing some feedback from some of the bloggers and media who'll be onsite.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Processes in the cloud

Amazon, in its new incarnation as cloud computing provider, has announced that its EC2 service will have the ability to run Microsoft Windows Server or SQL Server before the end of the year. Why does this matter?

Companies are under pressure to deliver applications for a better total cost of ownership than ever. This isn't just a matter of cheaper software and less sys admins to support it. Already we see the importance of virtualization, helping reduce the cost and increase the flexibility of corporate server rooms, at least for the products that certify themselves to run under products such as VMWare. Side this with the new 'green' push of Intel, AMD, Sun, etc - to show a reduced cost of electricity powering and cooling the masses of servers that are still required, and the complexity of organizing server rooms to do so. According to Sun, 25% of IT budgets is consumed by energy costs.

So why not just save the valuable office space that server rooms have expanded to overtake, the power costs, complex network wiring, and the cost and risk of knowing how to, and actually doing this infrastructure stuff well? Just deploy your applications to the 'cloud', make sure you have a powerful and fault-tolerant Internet connection, and away you go.

Does this work for your critical business processes, perhaps run by a business process management (BPM), enterprise content management (ECM) or traditional imaging and workflow solution? AIIM talks about SaaS for ECM, and adds some nice commentary on the key tests for an organization selecting a SaaS solution: does SaaS meet the tests of speed, functionality, cost, flexibility and suitability?

Since BPM should be about running your differentiated processes, the cookie cutter approach to cost effective SaaS solutions may not be appealing. But when you have the ability to build exactly your solution and run it in the cloud on a common Windows operating system and database, BPM might become viable without complex infrastructure requirements (at least those that your boss can see).

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thick or thin for heads-down workers

Thick or thin, that is the question. At least for 'heads-down' workers typically involved with processing large amounts of information on screen extremely rapidly, thick client applications have long been considered the only way to go.

Proponents of thick clients used to argue for the richness of UI that could be presented, but I feel that modern browser based apps on the web show that this doesn't have to be the way. I'm sure you have your favorites you use every day.

So it comes back to performance - speed of refreshing the screen and displaying information. Heads-down users need the applications to work fast, update dynamic data rapidly, display document images in sub-second times, so that their boss can benefit from an aggregate of 'per-click' savings. Thick client-server apps claim the gold standard here.

Can dynamic AJAX applications really keep up? After all, the limitation here becomes the latency of the network. Can browser applications compete with the thick client running on an over-inflated PC generating dynamic displays from data cached ahead of time? Unlikely, as the thick client probably wins every time, pulling data behind the scenes in large chunks.

So, can we really say that browser based UIs are suitable for heads down workers, or are they just more convenient for IT in not having to roll out complex installable applications? Or are browser based apps up to the task? After all modern networks are fast, clever data caching can be built in, and new Javascript engines are claiming to get orders of magnitude faster.

Silverlight and Flash are battling for the new rich Internet application space. I question whether they just provide a nice toolset for building highly dynamic application UIs that roll out easily, or can they really provide a higher performance operation? Don't get me wrong, anything that speeds the design and deployment of applications is a good thing, but when they are really a nice skin on Internet technology, can they offer the performance of a true thick app?

When the standard heads-down applications typically are plain, keyboard driven, frankly having little glitz or glamour, is there a place for rich Internet application technologies? Or will software vendors just adopt them as a sales tool, to out-pretty the other guys.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Monday, September 15, 2008

Do you trust this blog?

As most educated users of the Web know, there is a lot of misinformation, speculation and lies out there. So who better to trust on the future approaches to help users identify trustworthy sources of information than the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Reported on the BBC News website, Sir Tim discussed a range of issues facing the Web, as he publicized the creation of the World Wide Web Foundation.

Interestingly, the issues faced by consumers outside the firewall should be concerns for organizations deploying web style collaborative and social tools inside the firewall. In a small organization, my job title and personal contacts are usually enough to generate trust that the information I post on a Sharepoint site or blog is authoritative and can be used appropriately. People know me, or at least know of me, and trust that my role in the organization can help answer a question they have accurately.

In a large organization, as with the Web, reputation is harder to ascertain. Toby Bell at Gartner talks about reputation from many angles, often with the view that reputation can only come from the aggregation of everything you write and link to, as well as your closest contacts. This doesn't give me a view of someone new at a glance though, which is one of the issues that Berners-Lee would like to see addressed, since how many of us have time to read enough to really assess a person's authority.

I'm sure that there is no easy answer to this issue. Much as Wikipedia tries hard to separate truth from fiction, organizations need to be sure that formally published policies, procedures and compliance documents are instantly recognizable and clearly segregated from more democratically published information, however authoritative the author may be. For CYA that seems to be a defensible approach.

I strongly believe in the value of collaborative technologies. I don't know that they will change the world, but certainly as more of us try to travel less, their use will grow, and the risks of 'wild wild web' need to be understood to ensure we all realize their value.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

SharePoint for Production Applications?

First, imagine you run a claims department for a large insurance company, or the customer service center for a top-tier bank. Then imagine the many line of business and information systems your employees use every hour of every day to get their jobs done. Finally, consider how much better their productivity and job satisfaction could be if all of the information and resources they needed were presented within a single application environment. No more carpal tunnel syndrome inducing Alt-Tab maneuvers, mornings spent carefully arranging application windows in that early Windows style, or lengthy (dull) training on several very different applications.

I have spoken to many the leaders in many organizations, run by people that you are currently imagining you are, who have recognized the appeal of bringing together all the applications their people use into one place. The approaches that are taken vary, depending on the exact need, and which software industry analyst makes the most compelling pitch. Anything is possible, including enterprise portals, 'roll your own' SOA/EAI applications, consolidation to a single platform in the SAP R/3 style, and presentation with the line of custom applications built on document management and business process management suites. And without naming names, there are many examples of the different approaches becoming extremely successful, or becoming another annoying window on an already overcrowded screen.

SharePoint, accompanied by its enormous marketing budget can't fail to make it into the departments you are imagining you run. Its appeal of being cheap, easy and 'good enough' makes it an important option to be considered. So, ask yourself this:

  1. Does SharePoint offer enough value as a pretty configurable presentation mechanism / portal to make up for the fact that (in my experience) its just painfully slow to use?
  2. Does it provide the integrations you need with the many core systems and information systems you have in place to plug and play (how many BizTalk skills do you have in house)?
  3. Do the Web 2.0 style, collaborative team space capabilities of SharePoint provide application components that truly benefit your workers?
  4. Does your organization need another application layer of 'can do lots of stuff' that pays little attention to the value it offers to the business?

In some cases, the business leaders I have met could answer 'yes' to all of the above, and are starting to try out SharePoint in their environments. In other cases, other business leaders actually have a vision to address the root cause of the mosaic of applications their employees endure. They have asked themselves a different set of questions:

  1. Is there a way to show users just the information they need within the context of a single business application, not a series of segregated application portlets or panels?
  2. Is there a solution that can deliver work and guide users to complete the tasks I know need to be done, rather than having to train them to always remember what must be done next?
  3. Can the skilled knowledge workers have the flexibility to do what they need to do, without being limited by a production line workflow?
  4. Is there a solution that can provide the best of both worlds - a targeted business solution and a flexible platform which allows me to adapt to a changing business environment?

I personally don't think that there is any one answer. As the imagined business leader, you'll be balancing an operations/IT budget against a need to deliver business value in the shortest amount of time. Some organizations will make use of SharePoint where it fits their needs best. Others will try and force fit it into applications it doesn't do well.

As the business leader, I think you have an easy question to ask yourself. Does a software solution help you meet the objectives of the business (increase revenue, reduce expenditure, etc) with the better working practices that it offers, or alternatively just provide an attractive UI and collaboration functionality around your current working practices?

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Privacy or personal responsibility?

Privacy of your personal information seems to be almost as hot a topic in Europe as the price of gas is in the States. Much like tax on petrol in Europe seems to be the cost of doing business, anything less than identity theft seems to be acceptable here in the US.

The fact that there has been yet another lost PC, USB drive, backup tape, or whatever, with tens of thousands of records of personal information on it is worrying. Cloak and dagger stories aside, the fact that these are routinely linked to the security services or the company contracted to provide secure ID cards for every UK citizen, big brother is failing (or not, depending on who picks up that information, says the cynic in me).

I work with government agencies and financial services companies who routinely are subject to their own internal security audits and ethical hacker test scenarios. And like anything with a moving target, sometimes they miss. Fortunately I will say, I work for a company that takes this very seriously - in line maybe to preventing production data loss from a software 'glitch'.

The problem is that individuals aren't held equally responsible. Catching up on a few days of many weeks of missed blogs, I ran across this one, A true, global Big Brother case. The story here is how trackable you become when you use a Bluetooth headset, and you don't take the responsibility to understand that it being in range of some other device that can 'discover' it, means that you can effectively be tracked as you move from place to place.

Should you have to care? Probably not. But I'd hate to see another mandatory warning having to be put in the oversized headset box, when perhaps the software that helps you set this thing up could warn you of the risks that naming the device with your phone number or name makes you identifiable - your risk, choose to be stupid if you want to. Of course, the phone you are carrying with it, with the SIM card, GPS, and so on leave you pretty open anyway, just more anonymously.

Privacy, or having your movements tracked anonymously at least, could be nothing to be feared, as long as you don't put yourself in a position where the use of the tracked device could incriminate you. Being concerned about big brother is reasonable, but worrying about it may only be for those with a guilty concience.

Am I concerned about having big brother track my movements? Of course, but Google does so virtually with every online step. There is, it seems, no escape!

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I've considered getting back into blogging more frequently. The last post was end of last year, so it shouldn't be hard to do just a little better. I considered starting a whole new blog, with a new name, new style and so on, though that represents a large barrier to (re)entry, so I'll just jump right in. The biggest change will be that I'm going to try and write short, sharp and maybe

Over the next few weeks, you can expect me to write about my opinions on the trends in technology, business solutions, social networking, ECM, BPM, SOA and maybe the occasional unrelated rant as well. As ever, the thoughts, expressions and opinions are mine and mine only, so no blame should be aimed at my employer. And if you work for competitor, you are welcome to read this blog, but don't expect to find any insight into the intellectual property of Global 360!

I'm looking forward to posting and hearing your comments too!

-- Phil

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog