Social Features Showing up on More BPM Wish Lists

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A few months ago I wrote about a trend that appeared to be gaining steam, the addition of collaborative features to business process management software. I noted that there's "a growing recognition that many enterprise software applications would be more effective if they made it easier for people to share ideas with their coworkers (or with partners and customers)."


This trend is broader than BPM. Sales On-Demand, a nascent software-as-a-service application announced by SAP at last week's Sapphire conference, incorporates collaborative features. SAP executive Nicholas Cumins told me some Sapphire attendees remarked the app "looked a lot like Facebook." It uses technology from StreamWork, a collaborative decision-making environment created by former BusinessObjects staffers who joined SAP after it acquired the business intelligence specialist in 2007. In looking at the Streamwork website, I was struck by how it seemed designed to put companies on a collaborative middle ground by facilitating workflows somewhere between highly structured traditional enterprise applications and unstructured Web 2.0 applications.


That middle ground seems to be what Adam Deane would like to see more of in BPM software, judging from a recent post on his Business Process and Workflow blog. He lists seven items on his wish list for BPM software, several of which relate to collaboration. The most obvious candidate is what he calls a Twitter-like functionality to enable users to ask each other questions and add remarks, coupled with the ability to save such communications and audit them as part of the process instance data.


Think any BPM vendors are listening to folks like Deane? I'd say it's a safe bet judging from recent product introductions like one by Pegasystems that Mike Vizard wrote about on our CTO Edge site.


Another of Deane's wish list items is better mobile support. While most BPM software can send notifications to BlackBerrys and other mobile devices, it doesn't accept user responses. Thus, he writes, "I'd like to see the ability to reply to tasks through the BlackBerry, including simple approve/decline and comments." It sounds like that ability is offered by Cordys with a Google Apps-compatible offering Vizard also wrote about on CTO Edge.


A few of Deane's other items would facilitate greater collaboration, though not necessarily by enabling direct user interactions.


For instance, he'd like a simple and seamless way to transfer diagrams and flowcharts that are drawn on whiteboards into BPM software, without requiring the purchase of a lot of additional hardware. In essence, this is a nod to the old-school way of designing workflows, sketching them out on whiteboards. (That's how we do it here at IT Business Edge, and I'd venture to say that's how it's done at lots of other companies.)


No matter how much Twitter-like functionality you add to BPM software, the whiteboard will probably remain the preferred starting point for many organizations. Making it easier to transfer diagrams and flowcharts into a BPM application might make it easier to extend and build upon the initial collaboration that occurs at the whiteboard.


I'm not sure whether another feature Deane would like to see, direct integration with Microsoft Outlook, would help collaboration or hinder it. He suggests fully embedding BPM software into Outlook to get greater user buy-in. Let's face it, Outlook remains the de facto "collaboration" tool at most organizations, so in that sense it makes sense to integrate with Outlook. But will users get comfortable enough with this "new and improved" BPM software to use the Twitter-like functionality or other collaborative features to weigh in on workflows, or will they remain dependent on e-mail?


They may -- check that, will -- need some incentives, but I do think users will be quicker to adopt social capabilities if they are added to familiar existing applications rather than introduced as standalone software. Writing on the Enterprise Irregulars blog, Sandy Kemsley says she thinks BPM could be a great proving ground since it's an app that is especially well suited to collaboration and other social features. She writes:


I'd love to see Enterprise 2.0 software vendors start to tackle core enterprise software, such as BPM, CRM and ERP, and stop building more enterprise wiki and blogging platforms. Think of it as 2.0 Reality Rehab for the whole Enterprise 2.0 industry.