Can we help business users engage more with ECM

23 04 2010

I have posted a number of times about the benefits of ECM solutions and what a positive impact they can have on any business, be it small or global. However, ECM is still a hard sell, and for many, even once they have a good system in place, they don’t really get the end user engagement that is required to make ECM really work well for an organisation.

So why is this? Why is implementing an ECM solution so hard to ensure real user engagement? What are the problems?

The easy part

When we talk about ECM and even demonstrate it, the first thing or the easiest thing to show is the retrieval of content. This is always easy for business and end users to grasp. “So you’re looking for a particular file, well, do this, this and this and hey, there you are, there is the file you want to work with…” This is great, and in essence, is the heart of ECM. However, retrieval is always the easy part. The problem is ensuring that the content we are looking for is actually in the repository….

Habits

Content that should be in a repository is everywhere; it can be in the form of a business contract document you are drafting, or in the form of an email etc. Now for the actual user who is working with this content, ask yourself, what do they do with it? I think most of the time you will find that, if a file, it is more than likely to be sitting in old reliable “My Documents”, wait, maybe even a “My Documents” on a server in some cases. However, its name is more than likely to be something meaningful just to that user, oh, and that is the only distinguishing part of the content…..So what of our eMail content in this example. Well, if you are a small business and are using POP3 mail then it’s just on their machine now. If you have a mail server (such as exchange) then it’s sitting on or in that mail server.

So, when using my ECM solution, I can’t actually find that content I require, because it simply isn’t in the repository. This means no matter how good your ECM system is, it is pointless because it isn’t holding the content you require….

Increasing scope and engagement

The only way to get all content into your ECM repository is to make “capture” processes easy. I am not going to talk about scanning of physical paper here (see other posts I have made on this), but capture of content that is already in digital format. This has to be as simple as possible, and include easy access from a multitude of other applications.

By making this easy, and more important, almost part of their current working habits, then any ECM platform will perform and give back more to an organisation, simply because it will hold more of the relevant content within it. This is the key to a good ECM platform, and getting all those efficiency and productivity gains ECM promises to deliver.

Becoming adaptive

I have spoken a little about being flexible and adaptive; more so with regards to BPM, but the same arguments are valid here for ECM. Typically capture processes and the way in which users are expected to work with ECM is very rigid. This needs to become more fluid and adaptive to their needs and requirements. How many times do we see a user wanting to engage and add content to a repository, only to find that, well it is hard to assign properties and values to a piece of content because it doesn’t fit within the designed and rigid system parameters. Let’s become flexible and allow the user to update these parameters so that the content can be stored correctly and accurately. This is to the benefit of everyone involved.

In addition, as an organisation, you need to ensure you chose an ECM platform that can adapt to your requirements. A key part of ECM is application integration, and it is no good utilising a platform that you cannot integrate easily with other business applications, or more to the point, with business application you are yet to purchase….

 

Quick conclusion…

If ECM can fit into end users habits, almost seamlessly, then engagement of users is going to be far easier and greater. If we take this further, and provide ECM solutions that are more adaptive, more flexible and more readily and easily available to users, then ECM will become the cornerstone of any business, as it should be… It is thinking like this that has made me push for our own ECM platform and is why my company is working hard to get the new workFile ECM Vision platform ready. ECM has so much potential, the key is unlocking it for users – which ultimately benefits business…

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All businesses must invest in IT & IT Support

7 04 2010

I think this is something that so many businesses overlook, and I don’t mean just large corporations failing to invest enough in their IT and IT support, but also SMEs which seem to see this as a luxury rather than a necessity.

This week I have spoken to a number of SMEs who simply have cut or have never really invested in their IT systems with regards to support, maintenance and upgrades. Many of these conversations have started something like this:

“Why is our system running so slow? Performance is just not where it should be, or needs to be”

Or:

“Software these days is so in-efficient, why do I need such powerful machines”

Another classic:

“Nothing works properly here, why doesn’t it just work!”

This last one is one of my favourites as it is almost always made by people that just haven’t invested in their IT at all, typically they are using systems and solutions that are rather dated now.

So in this post I want to look at some of the questions and statements SMEs have asked and raised and give some quick responses. In addition any comments on other typical issues should be added to the bottom of this post, as it will help start-ups and SMEs alike I am sure….

Why do I need to invest in maintaining something if it works?

This is a great question that many SMEs ask. They see that their system is running fine, and then presume it always will do, without any changes in performance etc. However, they almost always forget that their use of the system changes over time, and different things are happening on their server, network and machines second by second. This means that something working fine today, has the potential to be not working so fine tomorrow.

In real and practicle terms, as soon as you start using a server, network or just a machine, you need to get a valid and good level of support in place. Things and use of IT move so fast, that one thing may be shiny and new right now, but in a couple of days it could be performing slower than a machine / network with half of the specification, simply because you have not maintained it…

Why do things get slow?

This isn’t an answer, nor a list, more of some guidance to an understanding of why things get slow…

This is almost always due to use of RAM or configuration of the machine / network. Basically there are some key things to remember, your machine configuration can change any time you install new software, this does include Windows updates or updates to any software. Updates can be triggered just by using a particular application – so you have to make sure you maintain things correctly to stay on top of the situation. In addition, more updates are installed on the server or machine over time, this could be for security reasons and should always be applied. If they aren’t, they are just wasting space on your system and can have a big negative effect on performance..

Finally, the most common thing is having processes running in the background. These processes take up available RAM and basically mean the machine is doing too much work (even though it may appear to be doing nothing). It is worth remembering that the more things that are installed on a machine, the more RAM is typically used up by either the application itself, or processes associated with it. (Some software companies are awful for this!)

We sometimes just get weird behaviour

Sometimes you get really weird behaviour, for example your system is rapid sometimes during the day, and other times nothing works and it all grinds to a horrible halt. Again this will be due to something being processed on the server. This kind of issue can be hard to resolve as it can be hard to pin-point the culprit for the issue. In some cases it can be something as simple as poor computer cabling and packets being lost across the network. Other times it can be highly confusing as it appears nothing is running at all and could be due to a Windows update, software update, actual hardware fault, IO issues etc etc..The list could go on and on….

The key thing is, if you start getting this type of behaviour, it is too late already! Good IT Support services and maintenance would have ensured this didn’t happen, however, if it is happening, get ready for some lengthy investigations into the cause and then the attempts to put this right….Whatever you do, don’t go back to software vendors and look for performance updates etc. As any updates will be negated by the real problem. You must must must address the issue immediately if you start getting weird behaviour like this…..

Pop-ups, website addresses are wrong …. We just ignore these things…

Don’t ignore this, this could indicate a machine or the network has some viruses or Trojan based software. If this is the case, your complete security and network is at risk…

What else can go wrong?

Failure to support and maintain your system can result in a catastrophic failure. Now think, you are an SME and your whole system and day to day operations run across your network. If your server goes down, it more than likely means you can’t actually run your business. In some cases, this fault (and if you haven’t been backing up your data) could spell months of lost revenue and one hell of a headache.

So the solution, invest in IT support services

Well, simply put yes! If you have a good IT Support company looking after your IT then most of your issues will be negated without them ever being realised. Users may report the odd issues, but these will be issues and small annoyances, nothing major, and nothing that will effect productivity or the running of the business. However, just because you invest in support and maintenance, doesn’t mean you don’t need to invest in your IT equipment in general.

Remember, that software, updates etc move so fast as too does IT equipment itself. If you bought something top of the range on Monday, no doubt in three months time it will be mid range at best…Because of this many organisations look to lease their hardware to ensure they can upgrade every 2 to 3 years. This kind of investment ensures not only that machines are kept up to date, but also that performance is maintained, if not improved. It also side steps many many issues with regards to hardware / network failure.

So to all SMEs out there! I strongly urge you to invest in your support services and IT investment. A great way is to look at leasing options for hardware and support services bundled in. In this way your costs are monthly and constant for the term, in addition, it ensures that your server, network, machines and ultimately software performs just as expected – helping your business do business smoothly….





Does BPM need a W3C type Standard? No way!

6 04 2010

I have read a lot about the need for BPM to become more standardised, similar to the way in which HTML has a “standard” that is followed. Now, I have already posted about some of the limitations HTML has, and the problems we have with HTML running in different browsers, however, if we tried to do something similar with BPM, the problems will be far far greater than any of those a web developer faces with HTML and CSS…

Standards stifle innovation and hamper evolution

This is a simple statement and it is very true. There are many benefits of working to standards, and I embrace standards in general, however, having standards set in stone for how something works, or is defined, is very different to say, having standards on naming conventions when coding…

The problem with working as a standard is that when someone thinks out of the box, and they want to implement their great idea, they instantly have to break the “standard” to do it. Let’s take HTML as an example. The HTML standard simply doesn’t include everything we come to expect from the web today, this is why Flash was developed in the first place. I know HTML 5 is to be the new standard in years to come, but this looks to be yet another number of years away (and that is a different post). In the mean time, what do we do…Oh that’s right, we abandon the standard and use something proprietary, Flash or Silverlight to get the job done. Once HTML 5 catches up, oh I will more than likely still use Flash or Silverlight as they have moved on yet a further 10 years too…..You also have to remember that Flash has been around for years and years now, so we have worked with RIA for sometime without the HTML standard as such….

The HTML standard needs to work to some extent (even with Flash and Silverlight) because the architecture of the web. We use third party browsers to render and display our web pages, and HTML is the mark-up that describes to the browser what to do. So in this case, sure we need a standard of sorts so that the browsers know what to do with the HTML, and vice versa, designers and developers know what HTML to write that works how they want in a browser….

However, in the world of BPM this really isn’t a good option. BPM is very generic, and can encompass so many things. By stifling organisations to adhere to a particular standard will only stop BPM evolving quickly enough to keep up with business requirements. Take social BPM, if we had to adhere to standards, would Social BPM be where it is today, or would we have a “break away” number of platforms that deliver Social BPM functions and not adhering to the BPM standards….As I said, standards stifle innovation and evolution….

The designer has become the standard

Unfortunately the process designer has become the “norm” or “standard” for how we define processes in a BPM platform. Again, this is far too restrictive and something I have spoken about in a number of posts now. I won’t go over this ground again here, but if you are interested read

https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/intelligent-bpm-maps/

https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/adaptive-bpm-no-mapping-tools/

BPM needs to step back and away from the designer as it currently works. Please don’t miss understand, I am happy to see processes shown graphically, however, I don’t believe this graphical representation (made up front) should be how the system runs. For one thing, this presumes our BA has everything correct, it also presumes that the process will not change based on user requirements and finally, it presumes limited integration (at best). Unfortunately the designer is a great tool for demonstrations and showing processes running quickly, however it is not a great tool once a business buys into BPM and finds out just how restrictive this way of thinking and working is…

Is there a place for standards at all in BPM?

YES! The only place where standards should be introduced is that of integration and API. It shouldn’t matter what technology your BPM platform is built on, be it .NET, Java etc, its API, should be technology and platform independent. This means the standard for an API should be XML Based Web Services. In addition, it should be a standard that the BPM platform itself is built on its own API, ensuring that integrators can gain access to everything they need from the BPM platform via its API (I hate to see platforms – not just BPM – that have a limited API). I wouldn’t take this standard further (though I am sure some would call for specific calls to be used to do x,y and z).

With this type of standard, BPM can be used within other LOB applications, it expands the potential use of BPM and provides businesses with a level of abstraction for business rules that makes their systems far more agile and, if your BPM platform allows it, adaptive….This must the goal for BPM moving forward…





Silverlight 4 or HTML 5?

6 04 2010

I have been asked this question a number of times in the past 2 weeks, and it is something I have posted about a little in the past https://andrewonedegree.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/abandon-flash-silverlight-for-html-5-no-way/ however, I think I need to clarify my position on this a little further and make it clear just what is the choice here…

HTML 5 and Silverlight 4 are very different “technologies” if you can call HTML a technology. HTML 5 is designed to bring a richer “environment” to websites, basically allowing it to do many things we have taken for granted with Flash and Silverlight, such as animations and the playback of video. However, apart from this, all three are quite different and have their own positives and I guess negatives.

So to answer the question, Silverlight 4 or HTML 5 you have to understand just what you are trying to do, and more importantly (at the moment) when you want to be able to do it…

When?

No matter what your requirement, if you are looking to implement in the next 12 months, then HTML 5 is a no go. HTML 5 has been in development for over a decade now, and it is still a very long way off (well in terms of all its capabilities). Certain browsers have been shown to support HTML 5 in the next year, but this is just elements of HTML 5, not the full monty. All this means, if you want to enhance your website / business application with HTML 5, you are better off waiting for at least another year probably longer before you start evaluating its potential use. For many, this isn’t really an option, so it means a lot of the HTML 5 talk is nothing more than hype and fancy (alas this is true).  So if you cannot wait that long, then I suggest you look at Silverlight.

However, that all being said, if you are thinking longer term, then let’s look at what you want, and if you should be looking at Silverlight x (by then) or HTML 5….

What you want?

If you are looking for just some animation, smoother interactions around the screen and video playback, then HTML 5 may well be the best option for you. This is where HTML 5 will make its mark, providing web users with better experiences. However, this is where HTML 5 capabilities also stop. You see, like HTML 4 currently, developers need more if you want to do more than just show content – they need the capabilities to integrate with web services, interrogate databases, perform calculations, apply business / user rules etc. To do all of this, developers use ASP.NET / PHP for example, which in turn has web pages formatted using HTML. With HTML 5, you are buying into this same architecture, with all its positives and negatives. Dont think that you just do everything in HTML 5, because this won’t be the case..

So when would you think about Silverlight 4? Well, if you want to do more in terms if a rich user experience, and or in terms of functions and capabilities then you will need a more powerful environment, that means managed code. Let’s just compare video for the moment. With HTML 5 we will have the capabilities of showing and playing video in the web browser. However, with Silverlight, you not only have this capability, but also the ability to do much more, such as rotate this, show a video on-top of another video, merge other content on the video, provide video links, add special effects, show video in other controls – the options are limitless….Now let’s take things further, away from simple video playback…What about providing real functionality, processing capabilities etc all things that are typically used for business based applications? Then you need something that provides a “proper” development environment….So Silverlight will for sure be your platform of choice….

Silverlight presents a different architecture in which to use. Applications are accessed across the web, yes, however they execute and run on the client PC, very similar in fashion to having an application installed on your machine via DVD. (The browser does not execute their code, it is simply used to “host” the Silverlight application). This means the application uses your PC processing power directly, it doesn’t need a browser to interpret its format or what it wants to do / show. In addition, Silverlight doesn’t need to rely (or keep talking too) the web server for all requests, many are executed / calculated there on the client machine. In addition, this also means that we can choose to run our application outside of the web browser, ensuring we are not limited to the limitations a browser places on our application. From a developer’s point of view, Silverlight is managed code, and runs on the .NET platform (which provides designers and developers with all the freedom they need to deliver applications that meet all requirements).  From a business point of view, this means there are no restrictions on what you want to achieve with your application.

Quick conclusion…

Its down to time and requirements. If you need something within the next 12-18months, then HTML 5 wont be for you. If however, you are looking for a “richer” environment that doesn’t need complex capabilities, application integration options and is really only used for displaying content across the web, then HTML 5 will be your choice. Finally, if you need to do more, such as provide business type functions and capabilities, then Silverlight 4 will be for you, or at least a mix of classic ASP.NET and Silverlight…..