Connecting Appian, Rinde and Wardley with the intersection of process and social

I’ve been pushing the concept of using social technologies for collaboration and connections both inside and outside of business to make companies more effective since early 2006.  The naming has changed from web 2.0 to enterprise 2.0 to social business, but the concept is the same.  However, when some areas of technology like smart phones or tablets have made such an impact on business in such a short space of time, why is the potential of social media in business, apart from use in external marketing and customer support, still largely unrealized?  I believe it’s the C word (and that’s context).  To explain that, three things came together over the last few weeks – a briefing session with Appian CEO Matthew Calkins, a blog post from Sigurd Rinde about the fallacy of the Information Age and the need to move to a better framework, and one from Simon Wardley on flow structuresand what he explains as the move from Pioneer, to Settler, to Town Planner.First, let me set the scene by reminding you that we’ve been running businesses with incomplete ERP systems for decades – they usually cover a company’s core processes but leave plenty of gaps.  I was reminded of some of the long forgotten vendor names watching the Workday Rising keynote and tweets from Dennis Howlett and Vinnie Mirchandai last week – McCormack & Dodge, MSA, D & B, Pansophic, ASK, Baan (I’ll stop there, it’s a long list!).  From the advent of personal computers, even back at the start with the Apple II and Dan Bricklin’s VisiCalc, companies have been using spreadsheets on PCs to fill in the gaps.  After that Apple II came IBM PCs and Lotus 1-2-3, but then Microsoft Excel took over and became pervasive, and we all got used to building mini systems and processes using spreadsheets and email.  How did accountants and business people end up as programmers?  However, it was a real jump in personal productivity back then, but 30 years on and we’re still doing it – there has to be a better way!

With the advent of social tools I was convinced we could break the spreadsheet and email habit and make businesses more effective.  At very least the document or spreadsheet is shared, and we don’t have a copy for every email recipient’s inbox – who’s got the latest version?  Wikis meant we could collaborate on content in real time.  Blogs and forums meant we could capture meaningful conversations around any topic.  Twitter style functionality brought micro-blogging for team communication and all of these tools and their profile information made it much easier to search, discover and connect with the right expert, or watch for conversations that could help my particular project.  Implemented well, with the right company culture to facilitate employee engagement, these social tools can really make a difference in ways that knowledge management systems or intranets never quite managed.  Tools like Yammer or Jive or Telligent have made headway, presenting a horizontal solution laying across the departments and processes of the organisation, but like the spreadsheets before them, the connections between these productivity tools and the core business processes they are trying to supplement are almost always human.

When micro-blogging came to the fore less than 5 years ago, I expected most forward thinking business application vendors to do what Salesforce have subsequently done.  They built Chatter and integrated it in their product’s business processes.  This gives the collaboration mechanisms explained above but they are connected “in context” where they can help directly with the business process.  TIBCO came out with tibbr, and promised to make use of their encyclopaedic integration expertise to connect collaboration in context to a variety of different enterprise business apps.  Microsoft bought Yammer, but they haven’t really done anything with it yet, although as I write this I understand they are announcing integration with SharePoint 2013 and Office 365.

Two weeks ago I discussed these topics with Appian CEO Matthew Calkins.  They are aiming their solution at this same place, the interstices between process and social.  They are connecting enterprise social functionality with their business process management (BPM) tools or what they call work automation – together they call it Worksocial.  Mathew’s argument is that BPM tools do a job, but usually only for a small group, and they are often too complicated and difficult to learn.  Adding a social layer with emphasis on ease of use allows the approach to be picked up and used easily, and gives it the chance to become ubiquitous.  No one needs to be trained because the tool is intuitive.  He argues you can catch people on the road, include people and accelerate their responsiveness.  Work automation gets elevated to changing the way an organisation works, but he says:

“This doesn’t add up to anything unless work gets done, otherwise it’s just a distraction.”

He explains that the tools need to be wired in to the company’s databases to pass back decisions and delegations.  He talks about the relationship between everyone who contributes to making a decision and the need to to translate that state in to behaviour, to have awareness.  This is where social tools on their own can fall down, in not being able to turn good communication in to real action.

I asked Mathew specifically about Salesforce and TIBCO as potential competition for Appian.  He admitted these are two companies he watches.  He thought Chatter was closest in term of their core idea, but wasn’t so impressed with their workflow as it doesn’t have the rigour to handle more complex business rules.  He didn’t think TIBCO was as close to them in philosophy, and speculated on how they might put tibbr and webMethods together in the future.  He talked of Microsoft as a possible worthy contender at some future stage.

He explained how they have 3.5m paid users and started to talk about customers.  Every Starbucks is inspected using Appian on iPads.  They use GPS to pick up the store location, take photos, upload forms, add voice notes and collaborate in real time on tracking shipments, arranging repairs, making decisions from the communal observations.  Because of this they feel they are 5 times faster than McDonalds at rolling out new products or store changes.  He talked about the US Veterans Administration running job fairs.  Attendees are met by volunteers with an iPad who take them through a questionnaire which provides them with a schedule for their visit.  In 2 fairs they’ve made 16,000 job offers – a very effective outcome, and the software only takes 20 minutes for the volunteer to learn.

Mathew went on to talk about how processes can be invented on the spot or improvised, with a task being assigned and given accountability alongside formal tasks.  He said:

“The key to automating is to automate the way it really is.”

This connects me to Sig Rinde’s post where he worries that Information Technology has mostly produced faster ways to do the same thing.  There are only marginal gains from upgrading to the next version of your ERP.  He argues that:

“Now is the time for IT to refocus on the effectiveness of the whole value creation chain and “what” we do.”

Around the same time Simon Wardley was explaining an effective organisational structure that he refers to as Pioneer, Settler and Town Planner and goes on to worry that he’s tired of being told you can be innovative or customer focussed or efficient, but you can’t be all of them.   He believes you can, and I do too if you’ve got the right tools.

The common thread here is the flow of business tasks from innovation to commoditisation and back again.  Those traditional ERP solutions we created were too rigid and incomplete and were designed for the easily repeatable stuff, and we ended up needing something else to fill the gaps not covered or to handle the barely repeatable tasks – the exceptions that happen on a regular basis, to a lesser or greater extent, in every organisation.  Social tools can do a better job at these than email and spreadsheets, but actually we need joined up thinking and a properly connected solutions.  Appian, Salesforce and TIBCO are doing something different by integrating social in context with the associated business process to handle the exceptions as well as the standard flows.

As I publish this I’m just heading to SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW and TechEd in Madrid.  One of the sessions I’m most looking forward to is a briefing with Sameer Patel to find out more about SAP Jam – their new social platform aimed at solving discrete business problems – exactly what we are taking about here.  There’s no doubt in my mind that business process and social tools connected in context is the next wave for enterprise software.  Hopefully social media applied to business will achieve it’s potential this time.

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Founder & CXO of Agile Elephant, a digital transformation consultancy and solutions provider. Head of D2C, a consulting firm which provides business and social media consulting and Cloud based solutions for content, collaboration, web publishing, online accounting and ERP. Was director EuroCloud UK, chaired techUK's Software as a Service Group, now Chair of Cloud Industry Forum.