First Impression: Comindware Tracker
- Published: February 2, 2015
- Written by Nathaniel Palmer
Recently we had the opportunity to see a demo of Comindware Tracker, a cloud-based BPM platform developed and delivered by a relatively new firm whose promise and intrigued has attracted such notable talent as Dr. Anatoly Belaychuk, a long-time BPM.com contributor and well-known BPM thought leader. We had already heard of Comindware, being the first BPM platform architected natively on a Graph structured database. Yet when Dr. Belaychuk joined last year as Comindware’s BPM Evangelist, our interest was piqued and we asked for comprehensive demonstration. This review is based on that demo as well as our follow up research and independent validation.
Empowering Business Users: Fact or BPM Fiction?
The first notion Comindware presented is that the platform was designed from conception to enable business users to build cloud-based, data-driven applications, on their own, minimizing or eliminating any dependency on IT staff. This idea is in many ways the Holy Grail for BPM, specifically for the segment that has promoted its drag-and-drop, model-driven aspects distinct from its vertically-integrated, enterprise software orientation. Yet it is rare you find business users actually building and deploying applications independent from IT, and indeed this is an impossibility with app server dependent, “stack” based platforms.
Further, another hurdle to business adoption is the configuration of data structures. Business executives, and Business Analysts by role/function, typically find it easy to intuitively understand business process concepts. They think and can communicate in terms of how tasks are performed, and can understand the notion of workflow. What they don’t tend to do, is think in terms of relational data structures. For these reason, virtually every large BPM initiative requires a DBA or Data Architect to provide the domain expertise needed to develop the required data structures.
These folks, with all due respect to any DBAs or Data Architects who might be reading this now, speak their own language and live in their own world. You rarely see Data Architects spit-balling with business executives on how a given marketing campaign should look, or how customer on-boarding can be improved. Their world is data-centric, not centered on business processes or outcomes.
On the other end of the table, however, are Process Architects. These individuals rank among the only human beings capable of understanding BPMN. Although the trend in the last few years has been for Business Analysts to learn BPMN, few have mastered it in any meaningful way. Those who have are largely limited to BPMN 1.x or non-executable BPMN – they can diagram flows yet misunderstand execution syntax.
As a result they most often create models intended to communicate things work would inevitably be unintelligible to any BPM run-time environment. For this reason, Business Analysts, and nonetheless business executives, are not able to use BPMN to build application functionality without assistance from IT or developers. Thus the myth versus reality of “zero code” and “zero dependence on IT” remains exactly with these BPM environments – a well-intentioned myth.
True Business-Oriented BPM (for a Change)
Comindware Tracker does not require DBAs or relational data structures, nor does it require or rely on BPMN-trained Process Architects. The drag-and-drop design environment follows a node-link notation (see Figure 1 below) that is about as complicated as can be accommodated by the attention span of a non-IT executive.
The run-time platform leverages a unique state-change oriented workflow engine, which can be configured either entirely within the GUI-based design tool shown below, or it can be extended using a basic expression language. In either case, routing logic can be easily defined, in addition to more complex and precisely defined conditional logic, such as time-based escalations, data-driven transitions and transformations (e.g., an approval process requires additional steps if given thresholds are hit), as well as task-oriented checklists. Activities and routing can be defined to be performed either sequentially or in parallel, and steps can be dynamically reassigned at run-time.
Another aspect that subtly reinforces the orientation towards business users versus IT dependency is the leverage of a graph structured data management layer, Comindware’s award-winning Elastic Data technology. The user doesn’t know they are leveraging Semantic Web technology or otherwise anything different, which is indeed how it should be and arguably the ideal design measure for any advanced technology.
This is the same as how users do not necessarily know they are using a graph database when they use Twitter or any other modern Web application. It simply works the way that it should. In the same intuitive notion, the way that any non-programmer thinks about how objects relate to each other is most likely to be in terms of graphs, not relational tables.
This reflects the fact that when the relational database was developed in 1970, it was not done so to support how people related to things in the real world, but rather to overcome the computing limitations faced during the 1960s (issues no longer of concern today). That it is still in use today is largely a matter of legacy, and in fact one the largest areas of IT investment currently is migrating data to post-relational platforms.
For these reasons, if you were to design a new platform for business users, it is unlikely you would hinge it on SQL or the relational model. Rather you would want to support more natural language expressions that follow the subject-predicate-object patterns consistent with how we speak, such as "Nathaniel is a Customer" and "Nathaniel drinks Coffee". These have no meaning in the context of SQL or relational tables, but are easily understood by human beings.
This is how business applications increasingly are designed today, and certainly how they will be designed going forward. Whether you call it “Semantic Web” or “Big Data” or “graph database” – business users are post-relational. Ideally, however, they shouldn’t have to think about it. It should be simply be they way that the systems they use work.
Where Does Comindware Tracker Make the Most Sense?
During product evaluations and solution demos, one question we always ask is about the target customer profile and expected skill sets. If the answer is that target customer or user is “Any company seeking competitive advantage” or something similar, then we know they’re not taking us seriously or not being honest with themselves, or both.
Comindware passed the test. They were very clear that for Comindware Tracker the target is not large IT shops or large-scale application development initiatives, but rather the organizations which lack these. From a skill-set standpoint, the basic requirements and target space is the level of competency required for performing basic advanced functions in Excel.
This specific identification of Excel skills and experience (which is not just our metaphor but was specifically cited by Comindware) is indeed a logical demarcation between what are truly “business” versus “IT” roles. If you’re most comfortable sitting in front of a compiler, chances are very good that you do not a spend much time working in Excel. On the flipside, business users typically live within Microsoft Outlook and Office. Most likely they have developed complex spreadsheets with a number configured functions and macros. They use these for core business processes such managing marketing campaigns, onboarding new customers and/or employees, compiling expense reports.
No doubt they’re also using basic Outlook functions, from basic document routing via email to leaning heavily on Outlook as their primary command center for various tasks throughout the workday. Outlook more than any other applications is leveraged for tracking to-do items, collaborating with colleagues, as well the planning and execution of their primary workload. In reality, the majority of our work is performed within Outlook and Office, whether at desktop, laptop or mobile device. For the minority not using Outlook, most of these are using Gmail or Eudora or perhaps Apple Mail.
Yet the caveat with this mode of working is not only the lack of efficiency (i.e., it is easy with just one task and impossible manage dozens of them), but also the lack of visibility, transparency and security. Within this “Work Management by Outlook” mode, how do you track the status of who is working on what? How do you ensure that a routed document can only be accessed by the intended and authorized parties? How do you demonstrate compliance within a regulated environment that work was performed as required (e.g., show the audit trail)?
The answer to all of these questions is most often that you cannot. In virtually every business environment that either I have witnessed as a consultant or worked in as an employee, the majority of mission-critical processes are supported via spreadsheets and email, lacking any greater security or manageability than document-level passwords. This is a problem – again not just in terms of inefficiency but even more so as matter of liability. Ironically, this also most often occurs within environments where there are in fact much more secure systems of record in place and policies requiring their use. The problem is that they are just too rigid to support the way we work, outside of a small sliver of well-defined process areas.
In contrast, Comindware Tracker has been designed to support these processes that lay outside of those rigid transactional environments (e.g., the majority of our workday). It is also designed specifically to look like the current day-to-day work environments of business executives – and in fact integrates with both Outlook and SharePoint. The design concept behind Comindware Tracker is to maximize the adoption rate of any new application by allowing users to participate without having to leave their current environment, to work just as they would otherwise yet with the benefit of tracking, reporting, and automation.
As shown above, tasks and basic interaction within a process can be performed either inside of Outlook or SharePoint, or via the native iOS and Andriod apps (see Figure 3 below). Processes can also be launched via an email, with requiring access to the client app. Beyond a basic steps such as approval or other pre-defined response options, users can also participate via standard Web forms, which are dynamically generated based both form templates created with the drag-and-drop Form Builder, and which offer fine-grain security defined at the level of role, form or individual field.
Field level security allows visibility to be control based on either a defined role or process state. For example, sensitive information (e.g., financial data, patient details, Personally Identifiable information or “PII”) can be collected at one step of the process, used by activities in another step, but only visible to the authorized users. Forms can contain up to 150 fields, and be segmented via tabs or otherwise dynamic, data-driven attributes.
Security is setup using basic check-box configuration for defining field-level access and visibility, roles and group membership, as well as access control parameters. Another aspect of security is the audit trail, which provides both historic reporting and proactive notification. For example, a complete step-by-step history is maintained, including detailed activity log by user, process step / activity, and all data changed. The history is indexed and searchable, but also triggers and can be set to automatically send notifications based on specific changes or activities.
Collaboration and Tracked Conversations
A consistent theme visible across many aspects of Comindware Tracker is the notion of collaboration. The design behind the platform is to enable thoughtless workflow automation, but rather to manage and facilitate the entire lifecycle of collaborative processes. A key component of this is the ability to support threaded discussions around any object, activity, or process (see Figure 4 below depicting discussion threads).
The objective is to capture and maintain the context around all objects and activities, both in real-time (e.g., as part of a live process) and as part of the historic record or audit trail. This capability should not to be confused with other collaboration tools (such as Jive or Jabber for example) oriented foremost around a discussion. Although these allow documents to be attached within the thread, the thread is not part of process. Comindware specifically enables the discussion to be part of the process, for example when doing a dynamic re-assignment of a task within a workflow, the assigner may include explanation for the assignee, and Comindware captures the response and all context as part of the audit trail (as well as being visible within the live process thread).
Reporting and KPIs
In addition to tracking measures including progress bars, discussions and audit trails, Comindware Tracker provides a framework for creating KPIs and real-time data visualizations. These can be defined both defined fields and calculated values from processes and form data.
Founded in 2010, Comindware is an innovative firm headquartered in the US (Boston) with additional offices in Europe, and led by executives other software market leaders including Acronis, Parallels and Kaspersky Labs.
Comindware Tracker is deceivingly simple as a platform. While clearly designed for ease-of-use and process development non-technical roles, it provided a power data management layer, reporting capability, and sophisticated task management. Out-of-the-box it offers pre-built applications and processes for common BPM scenarios including IT Help Desk, Software Development, Human Resources, and Office Management.
Comindware also offers a web services-based API which allows Comindware Tracker to exchange data with other platforms and applications. For example, there are existing connectors with Microsoft Active Directory to support Single Sign-On (SSO) as well as Salesforce.com for synchronizing CRM data, plus a framework for creating custom integrations.
Lastly, as we have described Comindware Tracker is designed for empowering business users to track tasks and develop basic process-driven applications. It is not intended as a development platform for large-scale applications. In the coming months, however, Comindware is releasing a new fully-featured BPMS platform which extends the benefits of Comindware Tracker to large, vertically-integrated initiatives.
Comindware Tracker 30-day Trial
As part of our evaluation, Comindware is offering a full functionality 30-day trial of Comindware Tracker with all capabilities described in this review. The cloud-based trial also supports mobile platforms as wells Outlook integration. Any application built during the trial can continue to be used in a fully-licensed version after the initial 30 days. Comindware also provided a series of short, interactive product tutorials, guided trials and on demand demos to present both off-the-shelf product capability and custom scenarios. As part of the trial, users will also have an opportunity to download quick-start resources including sample data and learning tools as well as watch an online product tour.
To get started simply click here: http://comindware.com/tracker/try/