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First Impression: FlowForma Process Automation

FlowForma Process Automation LogoRecently our analyst team received a comprehensive demonstration of FlowForma Process Automation. This award-winning Office 365 app sits on top of the Microsoft SharePoint platform, and extends its foundational capabilities as a content and document repository with a rich suite of functionality such as easily configurable workflows and electronic forms. Its GUI-based, wizard-driven design tools position it in the “low-code” or “no code” development space, and in fact it was cited as a “Strong Performer” in recent analyst report, The Forrester New Wave: Low-Code Platforms for Business Developers.

What immediately caught our attention about FlowForma Process Automation, however, is that it’s far more data-driven than alternative tools in this space. Where many SharePoint add-ons fall short is with enabling basic document routing and capturing metadata, requiring any more complex parameters outside of the low-code environment, such as within the database itself or via an expression language coded by IT developers. In these cases, “low-code” is misnomer, as a considerable amount of traditional coding is in fact required to realize anything other than basic capabilities.

In contrast, FlowForma Process Automation offers both a user-centric design environment for defining the User Interface (UI) and user-facing functionality, while allowing business users to define complex data types, conditional logic (business rules) and advanced routing (business processes) within the same “no code” environment. These are generated automatically within SharePoint as reusable business objects. This approach allows these objects to be reused elsewhere by FlowForma Process Automation, as well as accessible by external applications such as Microsoft Power BI.

 Object Design

FlowForma Process Automation’s “no code” business object design environment

Myths and Realities of Low-Code Development Platforms

The dirty secret about most low-code platforms is that they come with out of the box imposing “technical debt” – the overhead incurred by the inevitable rework which results from picking a short-term solution in lieu of a more robust design. This is the implicit trade-off presented with most low-code frameworks which analysts rarely talk about. Typically, “low-code” means having to forego best practices of software development, or the ability to tune application parameters as needed to ensure optimal performance. This is most common with business process design, where low-code environments limit parameters to basic routing and business rules tightly-couple to form designs.

FlowForma Process Automation delivers low-code simplicity without imposing technical debt. This is enabled by both the breadth of capabilities of its no code design environment, and the inherent governance capabilities it offers. Within the design environment, relatively complex entities such as flow definitions, business rules, and complex data types are designed from a logical (i.e., business-centric) perspective, which can be easily validated by business users. Then as described previously, automatically generated as physical entities, without requiring interpretation by IT developers. The physical entity can be further refined and configured using the same interface, without the continuity of the logical design. This abstracts the physical entities (stored in SharePoint) from business objectives which use them, such as forms and process flows.

This abstraction of physical and logical entities is for ensuring the adaptability of business processes. In other words, where technical debt most commonly manifests with “quick and dirty” development enabled by low-code development platforms is in the ability to change business process parameters that are otherwise tightly coupled to forms and workflows. The vast majority of business processes are dynamic, not standardized, and thus require the business systems that support them to adapt quickly to changes within the business environment. As a business technology, the greatest value of process automation software is delivered not through automation and integration alone, but by introducing a layer between users and existing IT infrastructure to allow business systems to adapt and keep pace with the constant found in most business environments.

Why Process Automation is Critical to How We Manage Content

Over the last decade most, small and medium, and certainly nearly all large enterprises have invested in some combination of Electronic Document Management (EDM), Web Content Management (WCM), and/or Enterprise Content Management (ECM). Today these environments have largely converged, with the most common platform for managing enterprise content and business documents being Microsoft SharePoint.

SharePoint offers a critical tool, by helping organizations keep pace with the explosive growth of unstructured information; an ever-expanding volume of content that shows no signs of letting up. SharePoint has become a popular source for introducing basic workflow capabilities to the organization. It typically involves document routing and approval workflows, capturing the steps involved in creating a document, or automating a basic process, such as a travel request or expense report. What SharePoint doesn’t provide is governance of work – managing how that content and data is used in the course of business.

What platforms such as FlowForma Process Automation provides is the means for connecting the content from within SharePoint and other System of Records (SORs) to an underlying process where that content is both used and created. In this way, FlowForma Process Automation provides a transactional thread for managing this information across processes that inevitably span different applications, and often organizational boundaries. It allows for control, not necessarily of content and information, but rather how it is used in business operations.

For example, in common business processes such as employee or customer on-boarding, there is a combination of (SORs) involved. Data and information (i.e., both structured and unstructured content) define the order in terms of financial and customer details, as well as other information likely stored within a SharePoint repository and other SORs. Yet none of these systems alone has the complete picture, end-to-end across the process lifecycle. In contrast, what FlowForma Process Automation provides is a consistent transactional “thread” enabling end-to-end management and visibility out of reach by any of the underlying systems.

Combining FlowForma Process Automation with SharePoint’s foundational capabilities allows the combination of organized process structures with backend interfaces, creating a system of record for both business data entities and the content involved. From an information management point of view, the resulting fully auditable log includes the complete context and history of the evolving data flow. It is this same consolidation of elements – content, policies/rules, and information access – that distinguishes it from other information software systems and allows the representation of the entire process lifecycle.

In this way, FlowForma Process Automation provides the core platform through which various information sources and repositories can be integrated. As communications have become increasingly digital (or digitized) and as interactions with customers are now more often taking place within an electronic media, ensuring consistency of communication across multiple application environments and back repositories is critical.

  

SharePoint Alone

FlowForma Process Automation

Scope

Single application, document or form; data and object model specific to application or document, not shared.

Common UI and transactional thread spanning multiple applications and process lifecycle; data structures based on process definition (process instance data) and separate from “payload” or applications where work is performed.

Security

Application-specific security, or authorization based on document-specific or form-specific processes.

Security bound to roles defined by process swim lanes and the activities they contain; role-based security applied to case folder, content, as well as fine-grain control of work items.

Analytics

Work item specific reporting, limited to a single document, repository, or application.

The queryability of all entities and business objects allows for advanced analytics such as Power BI to be applied, or otherwise data can be linked for viewing and manipulation within Excel Pivot Tables.    

Data
Integration

Typically data is based on form fields (specific fields within and electronic form) or otherwise application-specific data fields.   Data is typically entered or viewed via these forms and not accessible as a shared service or system-to-system resource.

User-configured connectors can be easily created to integrate external data into processes and forms; data can be manipulated (extracted and transformed or “CRUD” operations) if data structures are defined in the process or according configurable business rules.

 

Enabling Information Governance and Regulatory Compliance

In the majority of organizations today, it is likely that not only is SharePoint present already, but chances are there are multiple domain-specific repositories in place for auditable business areas like Finance and HR, as well as regulatory filings such as those involved ISO 9001 and 21 CFR Part 11. Across all of these, FormForma Process Automation offers a consistent transactional thread for teams to collaborate transparently and securely through the organization of structured and unstructured business data and content – following the process lifecycle rather than sticking within the confines of application silos. This also means having a consistent user experience, following the same transactional thread and end-to-end process with a common user interface.

FormForma Process Automation facilitates compliance with regulatory requirements, capturing additional data and providing audit histories via specific capabilities. Provided via a prepackaged “FlowForma Compliance Features” these capabilities include eSignatures, Form Audit Record (linking a specific audit trail to the lifecycle of a form), and a Flow Snapshot (generated visualization of the process flow completed).

Leveraging FlowForma Process Automation for Case Management and Collaborative Decision Making

For several years, BPM.com has studied knowledge worker productivity and collaborative decision making. Often with these types of processes it is possible to define and apply policies and specific business logic around how that work is performed (in other words, “business rules”). These processes are often defined by patterns of how the process is going to flow (“milestones”) yet it may be otherwise impossible to determine in advance the exact sequencing of all tasks and activities. In each case, the exact combination and sequence of activities is determined by the unique circumstances of a given case.

These types of processes, common to Case Management or what similarly maybe called a “Stage Gate Process,” focus on business events and outcomes, rather than solely on predictable, predefined workflows. An event occurs; a case file is opened, and only then is the end point known. The circumstances, which define how and when the case is completed is known, but the means to reach that is not predetermined.

 activities

Comparing traditional Workflow Automation and Case Management exposes the crucial difference between deterministic and non-deterministic processes. Deterministic processes are defined in advance. The actual pathways may be very complex, yet the decision points, the business logic, the business rules—all the attributes that determine how a process can flow are predefined. State is determined by whatever activity just occurred and how that relates to the process going forward. A common use case for this collaborative decision making, where content is assembled for a specific “go/no-go” decision, then consensus has to be reached by process stakeholders. FlowForma Process Automation supports a “voting” capability, when a majority of participants cast their votes based on the decision required. The votes are automatically tabulated and captured as an auditable part of the case record.

The voting capability is a differentiating feature of FlowForma Process Automation, yet illustrates a core requirement for support Stage Gate and Case Management type process patterns. It also illustrates the “adaptive” nature of Case Management, where systems must respond dynamically from basic predefined business entities, content, and business rules. In this way, Case Management and adaptability as a design concept must, by definition, support “low-code” methods, with the majority of capabilities enabled via drag-and-drop from a palette of components, prebuilt services, and wizard-based configuration.

As described earlier, FlowForma Process Automation presents a business oriented and case-centric approach to application development by combining process, rules, user data and interaction to support business objectives and outcomes. This also includes the ability to dynamically generate content specific to the context of the case at a given moment in time. For example, to generate a form letter based on not just a generic set of rules and transactional data, but specify the applicable rules and contextual data at that moment in the case. FlowForma Process Automation enables this with a configurable plug-in for Microsoft Word, which combines a configurable template with rules and data from the case.

generator

FlowForma Process Automation’s dynamic document generator

Leveraging FlowForma Process Automation for Case Management and Collaborative Decision Making

Traditional workflow add-ons to SharePoint focus on getting data into a form as well as routing documents and forms from user to user. In contrast, platforms such as FlowForma Process Automation focus on how the business uses data – enabling automation of existing processes while ensuring both scalability and compliance with regulatory requirements. An example of this was articulated by FlowForma customer Aon, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers. In describing their reasons for adopting FlowForma Process Automation, Aon explained:

“We didn’t have to go off and buy infrastructure; we could pretty much slot it into the systems we had but it gave us much greater control. SharePoint isn’t the best when trying to do workflows so having the customization option in FlowForma Process Automation is great.”

As with other FlowForma Process Automation customers, Aon had determined that it offered the best approach for addressing the combination of leveraging existing investments in SharePoint for delivery of low-code process automation at scale. Aon’s work involves adhering to very closely scrutinized standards, as well as meeting high expectations for the level of service. This requires business stakeholders to have hands-on control over how automation is applied, rather than having requirements interpreted by IT developers, where the final result may otherwise be opaque to the business owner.

Extending Processes to External Actors

It is often challenging to include external actors within corporate processes. Traditional workflow tools achieve this by associating external communications within tasks that are assigned to internal actors. The external resources never interact directly with the system and this leads to loss of performance metrics and inaccuracies when interpreting communications. FlowForma Process Automation offers an alternative that interacts directly with the external actor. Process steps can be designated as external and can be accessed directly via a browser interface. The external user is presented with the same rich form functionality. They can record data and upload files, which are then automatically included in the internal process. Using the FlowForma Engage add-on, you can include external resources in processes using ‘no-code’ configuration.

Summary

FlowForma Process Automation provides a scalable platform for “citizen developers” and business users to quickly deliver applications supporting small to large teams. Its pricing model begins at “free” for limited use, yet its architectural design allows reuse and scalability to expand pilots into enterprise class applications.

Get a free trial of FlowForma Process Automation. Register here to find out more.

About BPM.com

For over a decade, BPM.com has been the Internet’s leading destination for articles, news, research, white papers and community forums on Business Process Management, Process Modeling, Business Rules, Big Data, Analytics, and Case Management. Our registered user group of 100,000 practitioners and process professionals represents over $1 Billion of identified annual investment in BPM.

Nathaniel Palmer
Author: Nathaniel PalmerWebsite: http://bpm.com
VP and CTO
Rated as the #1 Most Influential Thought Leader in Business Process Management (BPM) by independent research, Nathaniel Palmer is recognized as one of the early originators of BPM, and has led the design for some of the industry’s largest-scale and most complex projects involving investments of $200 Million or more. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief of BPM.com, as well as the Executive Director of the Workflow Management Coalition, as well as VP and CTO of BPM, Inc. Previously he had been the BPM Practice Director of SRA International, and prior to that Director, Business Consulting for Perot Systems Corp, as well as spent over a decade with Delphi Group serving as VP and CTO. He frequently tops the lists of the most recognized names in his field, and was the first individual named as Laureate in Workflow. Nathaniel has authored or co-authored a dozen books on process innovation and business transformation, including “Intelligent BPM” (2013), “How Knowledge Workers Get Things Done” (2012), “Social BPM” (2011), “Mastering the Unpredictable” (2008) which reached #2 on the Amazon.com Best Seller’s List, “Excellence in Practice” (2007), “Encyclopedia of Database Systems” (2007) and “The X-Economy” (2001). He has been featured in numerous media ranging from Fortune to The New York Times to National Public Radio. Nathaniel holds a DISCO Secret Clearance as well as a Position of Trust with in the U.S. federal government.