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Business Processes on the Road: Why you need Mobile Apps

Productivity on the move

The private use of apps on our smart phones is spilling over into our professional life: we expect more and more to stay in touch with our ‘home base’ and have quick and easy access to business information on our mobile devices, any time, any place.

We can already keep on communicating with the organization by using e-mail on our mobile devices. But the time has come to go further and create a competitive advantage by opening up back-end business data to our mobile devices while making use of the unique capabilities of these devices. The highest possible value can only be created when the capabilities of a mobile device can be used in combination with back-end data to participate in a business process while away from the desk.

 Competitive advantage

The applicability of all this in your organization and business processes may not be obvious at first sight, but it merits the effort of looking into it.

In this blog post we explore some of the possibilities of Mobile Apps in a business context.

Enterprise Business Apps: restricted definition

In this blog I use the term ‘Business App’ in a restricted way:

An Enterprise Business App is a Mobile Application on your Tablet or Smartphone that gives you access to your organization’s back-end data.

Below I give some examples of ‘Generic Business Apps’: E-mail, Calendar, etc.. A GPS app or Office app can also be used in a business context. Generic Apps are very useful, but they don’t allow you to make the difference. They hardly create any competitive advantage.

A true Enterprise Business App opens up your company data to employees and customers ‘away from the desk’. It is the integration with your business data that creates a unique offering.

Types of Mobile Devices

Business Apps are available on both Smartphones and Tablets. It is useful to make the distinction between these devices and your PC, because you interact with them in a different way.

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Mobile devices have restrictions when compared to PCs while at the same time they have capabilities that are not available on a PC. Good Apps acknowledge the restrictions of the Mobile Device and make use of its capabilities.

Each type of Mobile Device has its own features and intuitive interaction.

In most cases your PC has a larger screen and you interact with it with keyboard and mouse. Until recently PCs didn’t have touch screens and that is still the case for most laptops (and certainly for desktops). A PC takes a lot of time to get out of your bag, open it and get it started.

A Tablet has a smaller screen than a PC and has also la less precise mechanism for pointing an clicking. (Unless you use a pen, but even then the interaction is different from mouse input.) On the other hand, with a pen you can draw pictures or sign documents. The on-screen keyboard also reduces the amount of information you can view on your screen while typing. A tablet is out of your bag and up and running faster than a PC.

And your Smartphone has even more restricted pointing and typing possibilities. In terms of availability however, it is the device that is the quickest in your hand and ready to use.

Each device type has its own characteristics for interaction, its own ‘user experience’. On a PC e.g. you will prefer to scroll vertically. A tablet on the contrary invites you in a very intuitive way to swipe from right to left or from left to right, as you would do in a book. And on a Smartphone vertical scrolling is use more often because of the ‘portrait orientation’.

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One of the consequences of all this is also that not all Apps are suited for all mobile devices, and vice versa

Unprecedented capabilities

One of the biggest mistakes one can make when making business data available on a mobile device is to copy the content and behaviour of a corresponding back-end function. A true Business App should allow you to perform things you could not do before. By using the technical features that are available on Mobile Devices in an integrated way, new possibilities can be explored.

Typical Mobile Device features comprise:
– Taking pictures
– Knowing your geo-location
– Capturing handwriting and drawing
– Sensing movements
– Using other data on your device

Business Apps on Mobile Devices offer possibilities you never had before.

Mobile Apps that make use of these capabilities in an intelligent way, are the most powerful ones.

Example: with a mobile device you can take pictures and at the same time register the location at which you take the picture and the date and time; this is e.g. very useful in construction and maintenance environments when you want to initiate a work request or report some damage.

This may not come cheap…

We all expect mobile apps to be cheap. Most of the apps that we purchase in our private live are extremely cheap (from less than a Euro to a couple of Euros). These apps can be cheap because they have a large number of users. On the other hand, with generic Apps you cannot create high business value in your organization.

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In an enterprise context the business app needs to be developed to the specific requirements of the organization. It also needs to be integrated with the back-end data, meaning that some development is needed at the server side too. Therefore the budgets to be calculated with when developing a business case for an enterprise app are substantially higher than in the case of privately used apps.

Business Apps As-A-Service

An intermediate solution between privately used apps and bespoke developed enterprise apps are the business apps that come with an integrated server-side solution. The TrashOut App (www.trashout.me/) e.g. allows people to report trash by taking a picture of it. When taking the picture the geo location of the trash is also recorded. Any enterprise can get an account at Trashout to collect trash reports on its premises and take action on it. Another example is the TasksInaBox App (www.tasksinabox.com – still in beta) with which you can keep track of tasks assigned to you or your team. Again your organization can get an account to enable Task Management on mobile devices in your organization.

These Apps-as-a-Service allow you to create a higher business value without having to pay for the full development cost.

Generic Apps

As mentioned above, you can also make use of ‘Generic Business Apps’. In fact this type of Business Apps is the one that is most widely spread: they allow you to manage your e-mails, keep track of your calendar and access your contact database. They are available on Phone, Tablet and PC. And although they are very useful to stay in touch with your home base while you are on the road, they don’t allow you to executive specific activities in the Business Processes of your Organization.

Other generic Apps that can be used in a Business context are GPS, Microsoft Office (including the marvellous Office Remote app), convertors, and what have. But however useful, these Apps will not help you create a competitive advantage.

More Generic Communication Apps

It is worth mentioning other Generic Apps that help you to stay in touch with your Organization. If you have implemented Enterprise Social Collaboration platforms like  SharePoint, Lync or Yammer, you will certainly will want to use the corresponding Mobile Apps ‘SharePoint Newsfeed’, ‘Lync’ and ‘Yammer’.

imageThese apps will help u to stay informed about active conversations in your organization.

With Microsoft you can!

A short technical paragraph to end with.

Microsoft has a unique series of technologies to make all this possible in a secure, manageable and affordable way. Starting with devices and operating systems like Windows Phone and Windows 8.1 (on Surface or other hardware), using Azure and Azure Mobile Services to connect the mobile devices to the cloud on one hand, and to connect the cloud to your existing back-end application in your data center on the other hand; with management tools like System Center to allow the IT Department to stay in control.

image With the technology available and ready, it is probable just your imagination that is holding you back from creating additional competitive advantage by using Mobile Business Apps.

What most people forget about Task Assignment

What is Task Assignment?

Task Assignment (aka Role Resolvement) is the mechanism that decides ‘at run-time’ to which user a work flow task should be assigned. It is an essential part of every process engine. If the process defines that a request needs to be approved by the Head of Procurement, then the Task Assignment Mechanism will try to find at run-time a user with the role ‘Head of Procurement’ and assign the approval task to that person. And if that person is on holiday at that moment, then the Task Assignment function may even look up his replacement, and assign the task to that person.

In more technical terms therefore the Task Assignment mechanism is a set of rules, policies and trimmers executed by a rule engine to decide which user is the right person to execute a task at a given moment in time.

 

Why is Task Assignment important?

Take the example of an Expense Report Approval Flow. The flow will probably state that the expense note needs to be approved first by the Head of Department of the employee who submitted the expense note, and secondly by the Accounting Clerk. Without a Task Assignment function, the logic to determine which Head of Department needs to approve the expense note would have to be modeled in the process flow itself. In a simple organization with 3 Departments, that might look like this:

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It is obvious that in a more complex organization (and which organization isn’t?) this is not a workable solution.

When you are modeling for a workflow environment with Task Assignment, the same process would look like this:

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In a process modeling project, everyone focuses mainly on the process flow and les (or not at all) on the allocation of human resources to the steps in the workflow. That may be OK, until the moment you really want to execute the process in a workflow or process engine.

Conclusion: Task Assignment is important because it allows you to keep the logic

to assign a task to the right user outside your process flow by defining it in a separate set of business rules and policies.

 

You can do more with Task Assignment Rules

Another reason for adopting a process engine with a Task Assignment function is that you can do so much more with it.

Imagine a Task Assignment function that would balance the work load automatically over the available resources. Or that would include resources from other departments during peek hours. Or that follows a different logic in emergency cases (when availability of resources is much more important) than in normal cases (when delays are acceptable).

With a rule-based Task Assignment function, you can adopt different scenarios, depending on the context of the workflow. And none of it would influence the clarity of your process model.

 

Tools

Many commercial workflow or process engines ignore to a large extent the importance of resources and task allocation. And although that may be acceptable for simple workflows, it will become a major problem once you want to automate real business processes.

SharePoint’s workflow engine doesn’t have a Task Assignment function. That is why Spikes have developed such a mechanism as part of the SpikesTogether product, to operate on top of workflows in SharePoint. For more information: communication@spikes.be

Business Process Modeling: the Overview

 

Introduction

Automating workflows is becoming more and more popular (and I’m, of course, glad for that). Every workflow implementation project starts with documenting the underlying business process. (I am not going to elaborate on the definition of workflow and process here, that is a subject for a separate blog.) The big question is: how should I document my business process to provide the right input for the workflow project.

This blog entry is part of a series of blog entries on the basics of process modeling. In fact this post gives the overview of what was already published, or what is still to come. (Yes, I agree, this is nothing more than a list of subjects I could blog about, but maybe you can find some information in it too. In the mean time, subscribe to this blog … and wait for the rest to come.)

 

The Basics

Categories of processes: management, core, supporting

BPM (Business Process Management) traditionally makes the distinction between Management, Core and Supporting Processes. What are they, and is the distinction relevant to process modeling?

Levels of the Process Model

One of the most important rules for achieving readable, usable process diagrams is to model the right level of detail at the right place. This can be realized a.o. by defining different levels in your process model.

Two crucial definitions: what is an activity, what is a trigger?

Business processes are about information that is flowing between people (the process actors) and that is enriched in each process step. This blog post offers very clear definitions for the flows and for the process steps.

Process boundaries: where does it start, when does it end

You have probably also seen these wall covering process diagrams that try to describe everything in one diagram. Are they readable? Do they identify the business process correctly? Probably not. So how can you delimit process in a correct way?

Roles and functions

The actors in a process are people in a specific role. But people have also functions (by the look of their business cards). How do you deal with that in a process model?

Not just a picture: document it!

Many people only think of diagrams when they talk about a process model. And although a picture tells a 1000 words, they may be 200 words from 5 different people. One way to take away the ambiguity of the process diagram is to a text.

Yes you may bend the rules!

Every business process documentation project has its specific objectives. And although it is important to respect some rules when modeling processes, you must also see to it that the model serves the objectives. Bend it!

 

Extras

What are Management Processes??

Many people will argue that management cannot be captured in processes (mainly managers will say that). Maybe they are right. But that doesn’t mean that management processes don’t exist. Here are some examples of management processes that are useful to document.

2 Kinds of Supporting processes?

Although BPM only talks about Supporting Processes, I see at least 2 kinds: Core-supporting & Supporting-supporting (I couldn’t find a better name – every suggestion is welcome.) What are they?

Process modeling tools

My father-in-law used to say: the right tool is half the work done. Which tools are on the market to support the process modeler?

Process modeling with Visio and SharePoint

About a year ago I would have rejected Microsoft Office as an acceptable tool for processing modeling. But since the release of Visio 2010 and SharePoint 2010 I changed my mind: today they are my favorite tools for modeling processes.

What is a workflow, what is a process?

The words workflow and process are used as synonyms. But do they mean the same thing?

 

Advanced

Triggers: formalized communication versus informal

The glue of processes are the triggers: they make activities, and processes, stick together. They represent the information that flows between people. But which communication should be modeled and which not?

Triggers: time trigger!

When modeling processes, many people ignore the most common trigger to start a process: time!

Something on process flexibility

Process models give the impression that every process nicely follows the prescribed path that is described in the diagram. But in reality, processes need to be much more flexibility.

Process performance: measuring quantity and quality

Process modeling and process performance stich together like birds of a feather. How can implementing processes help to measure process performance?

From Process to Workflow

Business Process and Workflow: the same thing … or not?

 

The implementation of Digital Business Processes

Something on process engines

What is the role of a process engine when implementing Digital Business Processes?

Task Assignment

aka Role Resolvement: is the mechanism that assigns process steps (tasks) to the right user at run-time. If your process engine doesn’t support Role Resolvement, then you’re bound to include the assignment logic in you process model. And believe, you don’t want to do that. Read more about this topic here.

What does it mean for the user?

The whole picture: a process steps is a workflow step is a task on a task list

The relation between a digital archive and content management, not clear to everyone

Many organizations talk about digitalizing their (paper) archive. But how does that affect their content management?

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