For me, the social computing and self-service trends go together. Social computing helps me accomplish things I might previously have been unable to do without assistance from some kind of corporate authority, such as troubleshoot software. I'm certainly not the only one who realizes this. Microsoft and other companies have helped create online communities of users who help each other with product issues, a smart move for both sides since it improves overall support efforts.
I think that's part of the idea behind adding collaborative elements to enterprise software: Help business users help each other so they don't need to seek assistance from IT as often. When I interviewed business process management expert Sandy Kemsley earlier this year, she described collaborative process modeling this way:
You can create better processes because more people are able to contribute.
I'm not sure how much collaboration Oracle has built into its BPM Suite 11g Release, but Forrester Research's Clay Richardson writes on his blog that one of the improvements in this release is a Web-based process design environment targeting business users. He says:
Oracle BPM Suite 11g provides business analysts -- and stakeholders -- with a simpler and more intuitive environment for defining high-level business processes. And best of all, these high-level models are executable -- so savvy business analysts can do quick mock-ups and prototypes and quickly walk through process execution with stakeholders.
Giving business users more direct control over their process destinies sounds great. But it can create tensions between business users and IT, as Kemsley told me in our interview. She said:
... I think we begin to get involved in these debates over who should be involved and how far to carry it through. Should it be just an early discovery stage, or do you want to have people draw their processes and have those become immediately executable without anyone approving from a process or technology standpoint? Some IT departments insist on a certain technical tool, say business users couldn't possibly use it and say, "Why don't you draw something in Visio and send it over to us, and we'll ignore it and draw what we want anyway." Unfortunately, this is what's happening at a lot of companies.
Ruh-ro. Reading through Richardson's comments above, you'll notice he mentions high-level process models are executable. But maybe Oracle can also help reduce friction between business users and IT with its new support for what Richardson calls single-model refinement. As he explains, process model changes made by IT in the development model are reflected in the business-oriented model, but without exposing irrelevant technical details to business users.
Oracle isn't the only company that is blurring the lines between developers and business users. Earlier this year I interviewed Ariel Kelman, VP of product marketing for Salesforce's Force.com, who briefed me on a new product called the Visual Process Manager that will allow users to design a business process with a visual design tool and instantly run it in a cloud environment. When I asked Kelman if a business user could build his or her own application, he said:
What's a developer ? It's anyone that builds an app. Completely non-technical people are able to build fairly straightforward apps and professional developers can build any apps on our platform. [Visual Process Manager] raises the bar on what you can build as an app in our platform without writing a single line of code.
As the line between processes and applications becomes fuzzier, the gap between IT departments and business users will narrow, Kelman said:
With this new tool, the IT department becomes more closely intertwined with a company's business processes. It's no longer just some development factory that takes specs and produces apps.