Collaboration in your business?

26 01 2010

After doing my usual scouting around blogs and discussions, I noticed that there are quite a few people not grasping what Collaboration is, and more to the point wondering who would take responsibility, or be a business sponsor if you like, of collaboration within an organisation…

So what is Collaboration?

Well let’s not get caught up in too many definitions here. Basically Collaboration is a way of working together to achieve a similar (or the same) goal, be it individuals within a department, departments within an organisation, or organisations with other organisations. For me a big “No No” is thinking of collaboration as a set of “tools” or “workspaces” such as wikis and blogs. I think of Collaboration as a group of many different elements, each element being made up of a particular tool or technology… So let’s work on the basis that Collaboration is a goal and a way of working, which may well utilise many tools and multiple mediums.

How do I understand Collaboration in my organisation?

Like many questions / problems I find it best to break down Collaboration in this sense into smaller chunks or in this case, categories. By understanding each category and what it is, we can soon start to grasp where collaboration occurs currently in an organisation and also start to understand what it can do within an organisation (also – sometimes more importantly – start to assign a business owner to collaboration)

Messaging Collaboration: Think of how messages get sent around your organisation. Typically you will use eMail, but messaging collaboration also includes instant messaging and SMS texting for example. This type of collaboration can lead to some rather bad practices – such as multiple large attachments embedded within emails, massive Cc and BCc lists in an email etc.

Content Collaboration: Think of working in a group to put together and create a word document – say a contract or proposal for example. ECM is a great example of a tool within this type of Collaboration,  allowing multiple people to work on single files, providing annotations, and generating multiple versions, all working to get to the goal of a “Published / released” version

Conversation Collaboration: Think conversations you may have between individuals within an organisation – especially those that are spread geographically across the country or the world. You can also lump into this form of Collaboration certain forms of Social media. Tools within this form of collaboration include micro-blogging, blogging, wikis, instant messaging.

Business Process Collaboration: Think people working together within a business process to complete “work”. In essence, true workflow and BPM is a form of collaboration as it brings people / departments / organisations together to complete the workstream. However, you can also collaborate at singular steps within a process to move the process along or deal with exceptions. BPM can pull in other forms of Collaboration quickly at this point – such as messaging, conversation and content – just to process a piece of work more efficiently.

Collaboration Management: Think sharing calendars and workspaces. This type of collaboration is ensuring people are free to collaborate at a particular time.

Now that you can understand the different components of Collaboration – you can quickly see that your organisation already uses a number of collaboration tools and elements.

Using collaboration more effectively

This is where tools for that are good for a particular form of collaboration help. Obviously collaboration goes on every second of every day within your business in some form or another. The trick is to make collaboration on a particular piece of work / topic easier to occur and manage. This means you need a good and clear strategy on how you wish to use collaboration within your organisation, more importantly where do you see collaboration taking place and how does it take place. Once you have done this your business can start to identify tools that are easy to integrate into other areas of your business – so pick an instant messaging tool that potentially can be added to your BPM software. Far too often organisations end up with a multitude of collaboration tools, many of which do the same job and are costing the organisation a fair few pounds and pennies in licensing…

 Identifying a singular business owner as such is tough. I think it is better to identify as many business owners as possible and bring them together in a “steering” type group. After all, with Collaboration your business professionals must collaborate with your IT professionals to ensure Collaboration is a success…(oohh the irony…)

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Intelligent BPM maps

14 01 2010

I have posted about BPM maps hindering flexibility and capabilities to some extent before (regarding systems integration). See:

https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/bpm-mapping-tools-integrating-data/

https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2010/01/08/incorporating-automation-into-your-processes/

However, in this post I want to take this further by looking at how BPM maps (I use the term map loosely here) can become intelligent and hold much more than just business process routing rules…

The role of the map

For many this is the “definition” if you like of a business process, shown in a graphical map format. This is great, and it’s true to some extent. However, I believe the primary role of a workflow system is to deliver systems integration, not a predefined diagram of a process.  BPM and workflow only works well when it brings together systems, people and data to maximise the efficiency of a business requirement (or process if you like).

So what is the role of the map? Well it is there to provide business rules for a cross section of applications to deliver a solution that allows users to do their work effectively. (Not easy to read that sentence). This work is shown as a process. For me, I prefer to see processes graphically, but not in my BPM system, well not used to define the rules etc within my BPM solution. Graphical representations are great for identifying the business requirement, and should be done by a BA. But process maps should be used as a “specification” if you like for a developer to build my intelligent process map…

Using a developer to implement my business rules

I know that many of us want to have a nice mapping tool that allows a business analyst (BA) to create and modify maps / business processes. However, in the real world, this means you have a couple of restrictions / issues.

  1. You can’t easily integrate with other LOBs and data required for a particular step
  2. You can be limited to other business rules / factors (that are outside the scope of your map)
  3. Automated steps often require “Robot” type step applications to be written (specifically for your requirement)
  4. Much more emphasis is placed on developers for the actual implementation / front end of much of the system (if you require intelligent integration / more complicated system integration)

As mapping tools get more powerful you still have these issues, mainly because a BA is just that, not a technical person who wants or should be bogged down in the technicalities / functions / calculations etc required for the business.

By using a developer to take your map and build business rules into a BPM system (if your BPM architecture allows this type of process definition), you open up a world of systems integration and flexibility. Effectively your business rules / map can now become intelligent.

Intelligent maps

An intelligent map is more than just business processing rules. It contains actual business processing logic, it has the capabilities to bring in data from third party software, carry out complex calculations and functions, raises events and triggers and does all of this within the map itself.

 Most BPM maps cannot provide this level of integration or capabilities to execute / carryout processing functions. Many times these types of functions are provided in the form of “Robot” applications or step processors. These are background applications or services written by developers to include business rules and functionality into the process map, because the map itself cannot support this level of intelligence. The outcome is a solution that requires much more processing power, requires greater input from developers and one that is harder and more costly to maintain.

By shifting emphasis of functions and rules to an intelligent map, you provide a BPM solution that delivers greater out of the box functionality, keeps initial costs far lower and requires less development work / bespoke step processors to be written. In addition, when your business needs to adapt and change, updating processes are far easier and quicker. Since the map itself contains the business rules of your processes (as well as the definition of that process), you need only modify one thing, your intelligent map. There are no background processors that need modification, no new application changes to be made etc. Because the business intelligence is all stored in a singular place…

Quick example…

A good example of a BPM platform that works in this way is workFile BPM. It has been architected to ensure the “map” holds all the business rules as well as having the capabilities to integrate with other LOBs and execute functions, triggers etc within the map. Developers have to build the map in this case, based on information provided by BA’s.  

The out of the box user interface is in most cases the only interface you need, simply because of the intelligence available at the map level. However, there will always be occasions when “bespoke” processors are required, and the workFile BPM platform provides a complete XML Web Service API in which developers can build on the intelligence provided in their maps within workFile BPM…

Conclusion: System integrator or process definer…

I see the main aim of BPM and workflow to raise the efficiency of businesses by making it easier for users, and the business, to complete work. Defining processes allows us to visualise this work, however, the BPM platform brings together everything that is required to complete the work. So a BPM platform should be a systems integrator first and foremost, this is the real beauty of BPM and workflow…





BPM and BI enable better decisions

14 01 2010

There are many recognised and well documented benefits of BPM (Business Process Management), many of which focus around the benefits that empower users to make better decisions. The same can be said for high level staff, people who take decisions on how the business should go about doing business. Many BPM suites provide a dashboard that allows management and key staff to review process performance, throughput etc. However, do we need to know more than these basic operational facts?

Business Intelligence (BI) can help

Now I don’t have a great amount of experience in the BI field. However, I am very aware that BI (at least the concept, practices and technologies) can add real value to BPM management dashboards. While it is great to know the through put of a particular process for example, it would be far more informative to see the type of “cases” or “workitems” that are in that process. The type of customers involved, their requests, who are carrying out the majority of cases here, what other applications are having a factor on performance etc. This is where BI can add real value.

By integrating either good BI practices or a good BI solution with BPM, you enrich the overview of how a business process is performing, and to an extent, how your business itself is performing. In addition, vast time savings will be made with regards to gathering decision making variables and showing these as informative reports.

BI solution or an intelligent BPM platform?

This is the question…It’s all well and good trying to integrate a good BI solution with your BPM platform, but this won’t be simple. Because of this the market is moving to BPM vendors purchasing BI providers (maybe vice versa) in order to bring something different and more informative to their product offering.

To write a complete BI solution would be hard, however BPM vendors can go a long way to providing BI in their own dashboards, the key is time and investment. The outcome may not demonstrate as nicely “Out of the box” as established BI solutions, but many of the benefits of using a BI solution will be incorporated. I am sure we will see many BPM solutions including “open source” BI solutions in their own product offerings over the next 18 months…

There are of course exceptions to the rule. My own company provides a BPM platform that can provide BI capabilities within processes and reporting dashboards. This is done because the maps themselves and the data stored are implemented at a more technical developer level (rather than at a high level mapping environment). This provides great flexibility in what information you want to gather and effectively store ready for reporting on. The same integration capabilities are available with custom reporting and custom dashboard controls, allowing reports to integrate with other LOBs and or its own BI type of system.

Conclusion

No matter how you choose to implement richer reports, the point is that organisations should look to BI principles when executing BPM reports or viewing dashboards. The more relevant information that is available, the more likely you are (as a business) to make better more informed decisions, which can only be a good thing. In addition, financial savings are very apparent when looking at how much money it costs to generate similar types of reports from legacy systems / other LOBs…All in all, BPM and BI is a natural fit, one which vendors and customers alike should take advantage of.





Incorporating automation into your processes

8 01 2010

This may seem quite simple, however, it is often something that is neglected somewhat. When designing your processes, ask yourself just what can be automated, and how much automation will add to the efficiency of that business process.

Identification

It can be tricky to identify everything that can be automated straight away. Only after a good analysis phase will the majority of processes / tasks that can be automated, be identified. Some of these will be obvious candidates for automation; typically these are calculations or actions that can be completed with all the information stored within the BPM system. Other automation candidates may not be so obvious. The less obvious processes / tasks are often overlooked because of the way the process is currently worked, typically requiring integration between systems (maybe even multiple LOB applications). It is always important to try and automate as much as possible, or at least indentify everything that in an ideal world, could be automated…

Restrictions

Once you have identified all your possible automated “steps”, you really need to see what you can realistically automate given your current BPM technology, LOB application integrations capabilities and of course, your budget…

One of the big problems with BPM modelling tools is that they can become very restrictive in what can be achieved with regards to integration. This is something I have blogged about in the past, https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/bpm-mapping-tools-integrating-data/ with many automated “steps” you will require the services of a developer, hopefully your chosen BPM platform will support this kind of integration and processing…

The next hurdle is to identify what integration capabilities your other LOB applications provide. If you cannot integrate with them at all, then your step cannot be automated and will have to rely on some good old fashioned user processing power, not so efficient. Having a good IT department or use of a good IT consultancy typically means that your company will have a good and clear understanding of its IT and have some form of strategy / roadmap in place. If so, you will probably find that your LOB applications (unless very old) will provide some form of API allowing integration possibilities. (Ideally your business will have proffered technology platforms, such as .NET, Windows etc). If this is the case, then you can start to investigate just how much integration is possible and evaluate the costs involved in automating your process step…

The benefits

Automated process steps provide a number of benefits, the main two of which are:

  1. Efficiency
  2. Accuracy

There are obvious efficiency gains by automating a step, which obviously raises the efficiency of your process and improves SLAs etc. However, accuracy is often overlooked. Automated steps are far more accurate (once they have been fully tested) as they simply remove human error from that particular step. Now I am not saying this means your process will not have “issues”, but what I am saying is that an automated step removes user error from that particular part of your process, something that can be very time consuming.

With these two main benefits you also get a great “cost” benefit. If you measure your time and resources and place a monetary value on these, you will soon see a clear ROI timeline for automating a particular process step. This will typically be the deciding factor (if possible) in choosing to automate a particular step or not…

Conclusion

Whenever you review your business processes, even if you don’t have a BPM system in place, always ask yourself which processes or “steps / tasks” could be automated. Don’t feel restricted because a process spans multiple systems, departments or geographical spaces just indentify candidates for automation. A good way of doing this is by using a good independent consultant.

Automation is a great way of raising efficiency, accuracy, productivity and reducing operational costs. It there is always in the benefits of a company to automate as much as possible…





ECM access on my phone?

7 01 2010

There is a lot being made of ECM and the ways in which users interact with content stored in an ECM repository. There is a real belief that more of us will choose to access ECM content via a multitude of devices, the most obvious being my mobile phone.

With smart phones, such as the iPhone, Windows 6.5 mobiles and now the Google’s Nexus, the real question I find myself asking is “will I really want to access content on my phone?” For many the answer will be “NO”, and for many others the answer will be a very loud “YES”. So what are the real benefits and issues, without getting bogged down in technical jargon…?

ECM on my phone…

Most of us like to be as flexible as possible when it comes to doing work. By this I mean, if I am on the train, instead of wasting my time (maybe sleeping?)  I can get on with some work. With your phone you can check and send some emails, respond to meeting requests etc and in many cases get quite a bit of work done before you are even in the office. The same flexibility is required when we may not be in the office for a while. Obviously my device of choice will be a laptop; however, the flexibility to be without my laptop and use my phone is something that will appeal to many of us… Because of this, being able to connect and work in a “flexible” fashion is very important to individuals and businesses as a whole.

Will my phone interact with our ECM solution?

Basically “Yes”. Most phones these days now come with a web browser (all smart phones do), and if your ECM solution can provide a browser based front end, then interacting with your ECM system isn’t technically very hard. The issue you may well face is using the device itself to navigate around the web pages and download / view the content you want. For me, this is a basic way of allowing content to be shown on a mobile phone. Most of the issues faced then are based around the device itself and what you can realistically achieve on it…

Do I have to use a browser on my phone?

Again the answer is “No”. Using a browser gives us the simplest way of interacting with content on our ECM system; it’s also probably one of the cheapest. However it isn’t the best solution for such a small device, it does make certain features “fiddly” to use, think;

a)      Searching

b)      Checking in / out a file (if you would do such a thing)

c)       Reviewing properties

d)      Reviewing an audit log / history

e)      Tracking in a Case Management / BPM system

This is because you will need to use a lot of clicks and zooming in and out using the browser etc.

The best solution is to provide mobile based applications that can interact with your ECM solution.

ECM mobile applications

If we realistically want to work and interact with our ECM platform, and for that matter, Case Management / BPM solutions, then mobile based applications is the way forward. With the power of smart phones ever increasing, having dedicated applications on your mobile phone isn’t a problem. With mobile applications comes greater flexibility as each application will be specifically designed to be accessed via devices with limited real-estate in terms of space on the screen. This makes using the applications far simpler and easier, which means we are ultimately more likely to want to access our ECM systems via our mobile device.

As we start 2010 it is obvious that ECM solutions need to provide many more ways for users to interact with them. This doesn’t mean a generic web environment / interface, rather a multitude of applications and interfaces that are dedicated to interact with your repository from a particular device.  The trick for providers is providing a single “architecture” for access, which serves all of the different applications that may interact with your ECM repository…