Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Open Source BPM (aka Workflow)

I received an email from Ishmael the CEO of Intalio annoucing the release of their Zero Code Open Source BPMS solution. And though I don't know all that much about this particular product it is I think very illustrative of a couple of things.

Firstly, just how far workflow and business process solutions have come over the past 10 years. For when I joined Ovum my role was to cover Document Management & Workflow - the two things were seen as entwined then, yet even at that time workflow promised much and delivered short. The rename (for I still believe that is what it is) of workflow to BPM in some ways did a disservice to the technology.

(Workflow states very clearly that you follow a series of finite tasks to produce something. Business Process is much more nebulous and over arching as a term.)

Nevertheless the software has moved on and to look at what Intalio does in OpenSource is impressive viewing indeed. This kind of technology was available to those with only the deepest pockets just a few years ago.

The other thing that I thought about is how little has changed (seems to be a theme of this blog) - despite the BPMI's development of BPMN - business analysts still prefer to use Visio. I was personally an adherent of the Scheer toolset when I did business analysis, and wonder at times if the Aris Toolset was OS'd if it wouldn't dominate the business analysis world? But it isn' its and academic question.

The biggest problem with workflow and BPM is knowing how to understand and design an effective process. Its a skillset that is seldom taught properly, and the tools to help support the same are yet to be fully developed......

So BPM (or good old workflow) remains the bridesmaid and never the bride - I have never doubted that this is the area of technology that really needs a breakthrough, a (P word coming up) paradigm shift for it to really suceed.

I wish Intalio luck, I think its great that such Open Source products are available - (and put this in the same impressive category as Nuxeo and Alfresco).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Information Architecture and WCM

It is fascinating to look across multiple situations (different clients in different sectors) and see so may similarities. (As an ex analyst that is of course how one spots trends), and a major trend at the moment seems to be the complete overhauling of B2C Web Sites.

But what is different now to six or seven years ago when most of these were first designed and built? For the technology hasn't really changed that much since then. WCM tools of today are cheaper (much cheaper) than they were in the boom, but the basic functionality and capablities has not changed much at all.

What seems to have changed are user expectations, which are now not neccesarily more complex but certainly more savvy. Another thing that has changed is that a B2C site is now often part of the core business model framework of many firms, rather than the 'me too' exercise they were when first built.

Yet we see so many struggling with the same issues they did in 2000 - and particularly an over emphasis on the power of technology to solve business issues. I mention this as common lore would have us believe that we moved away from that and now recognize that IT is simply a toolset, its mystique has gone. But its not so - or rather the mystique has gone at the IT Department level, but the Board level still seems to have some pretty crazy expectations for technology at times!

In my mind the core to success in any B2C site is Information Architecture - if we do not effectively define the information environment at the start of the project, how can we ever hope to build an efficient solution? At one level IA is simply about organizing and displaying the information in context - in a form that is not only functional but also efficient. To do this we need to be cognizant of many things, including an overall or conceptual design goal, the needs of users, usability, practicality etc. And just to keep IA at that level would be a huge step forward for many organizations, for without that work being undertaken you can almost guarantee disspointment.

I really don't know why IA as a discipline has so far failed to take off - a shortage of practitioners, no major industry body to promote it, industry analyst uninterested as its not technology?

Whatever the reason/s, if it continues to take a backseat we will all feel the pain down the line - IA really needs to be promoted agressively as a vital element of the Web deployment consulting process.

Information Architecture is (or should be) real 'Architecture' it deals with the essentials of form and design. I think that there is an interesting parallel that in the US we see more and more houses built without the use of an Architect, the net result is the McMansion - a proportionaly idiotic building that somehow manages to provide 4000 square foot of living area, yet manages to be noisy, difficult to heat and cool and often with remarkably cramped rooms. A well Architected house of 1700 square feet, can feel open, comfortable and remain easy to heat and cool.

A good website Architected by a professional IA is a joy to behold, but most often we see electronic data versions of McMansions.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Staffing up & staffing down in IT

An interesting article on NPR last week about the difficulty the Oil and Gas sector (O&G) has in attracting recruits, both at blue and white collar levels. The fairly open analysis from the industry was that they had gained a very bad reputation for laying people off - particulary in the 90's nearly half of the global workforce was 'let go of' and few now see this as a long term secure career. I worked in the O&G sector throughout this time and it was my introduction to downsizing, rightsizing and BPR - and it was brutal. I will never forget seeing conservative, shirted and tied middle aged men crying at their desks as they found out they to 'had been let go of', this in many cases after 30 years plus service to the same company.

The IT industry has for some, much the same reputation - in the 90's everyone wanted to become a Java programmer and get into IT, only to see those skills quickly commoditize and become redundant.

The industry downturn in 2000 heralded massive job losses and now many younger people are uninterested in training for a career in the IT industry. But in fact the IT sector (believe it or not) handled the job loss issue with a great deal more sensitivity than the O&G sector did, and generally only let go of people when they really couldn't afford to keep them. The O&G firms fired the most when they themselves (O&G firms) were booming in terms of revenue. In addition many of the jobs lost in the bust, have returned and if anything we now see ourselves facing skill shortages.

But the very nature of IT means that we are all working ourselves out of work, as costs fall, hardware and software improve and become ever more efficient the first step is usually to outsource repetitive tasks abroad. But in time that will require less and less resource, wherever they may be located. To date this trend to outsource has clearly had a beneficial boost on the economies of India and China (for example) but I am left wondering how in 10 or 15 years time when we have automated so much and see the need again to reduce staff dramatically these economies will handle the layoff situation, will any lessons have been learned?

I have no doubt that the brutal cost slashing and job reductions will hit India and elsewhere at some point.

  • Will these periods of downsizing be handled with sensitivity?
  • Will India have a plan B and already have migrated staff to the 'next big thing'?
  • Will any lessons have been learned from the US & European experiences...

Somebody once old me that the sole purpose of workflow and document management systems was to automate processes and lay people off, with the goal of cutting costs. It's a statement that is loaded with a bit of overkill, but essentially it is correct. In fact that is the purpose of all IT, only the automating processes and laying people off elements seem to have been achieved without neccesarily cutting costs at times?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Opentext to acquire Hummingbird - first (and second) thoughts?

After Symphony moved to take on Hummingbird there was a great deal of speculation that this would only be a staging post for Hummingbird. Now OpenText has put in a higher offer and looks to be serious about taking Hummingbird over. (see update to original post at bottom of page)

OpenText is such an 'interesting' company :-) I have loved and loathed them, and as an analyst was certainly loathed at times - but if not loved, then certainly tolerated on occassion by them.

They have some excellent technology - as do Hummingbird, but the last few years have seen both companies do some pretty crazy things. Hummingbird just became insignificant in the bigger picture, and OpenText appeared to be self destructing.

Yet truthfully, OpenText was always a pretty strong firm, and they deserved to have a least a joint leadership status with Documentum and FileNet. Combined with Hummingbird, and taking their alliances with Oracle and Microsoft to the max, they could emerge the winners in an increasingly messy, but lucrative market.

I hope they succeed in their move - Hummingbird is a fellow Canadian firm, and the cultures will meld together well. But OpenText as well as pulling itself together firmly in some departments, will also need to be pretty tough with Hummingbird - recognizing their strengths, and jettisoning their weaknesses as fast as possible. For this acquistion to succeed OpenText needs it to succeed quickly.

Marketing at both firms has been pitiful at times, as has their alliance and partnering strategies. The bold moves by OpenText with Oracle and Microsoft suggest a change of course, and one that is to be welcomed.

Such an acquistion will also give OpenText the opportunity to continue to clear out and divest of some of their less successful past developments and acquisitions. For a mid sized software firm they have way too many products.

All in all though, I am pleased that the ECM industry still has some life in it - and despite all the dire predictions (my own included) it will not simply come down to a shoot out between the Infrastructure vendors. There is room for a handful of specialists to thrive also - my hope is that OpenText (with Hummingbird) can be one of those.

Who knows, Symphony may come back and ultimately win the battle, but I for one hope not.

Since first posting this on the blog I have been reading Paul Steep of Scotia Capitals views on the proposed acquisition. He is extremely negative on it - and in fairness he gives a fairly comprehensive financial arguement as to why it is a bad deal, and had downgraded his recommendations accordingly.

My take remains that this is a chance for OpenText to pull off something big and stay relevant. I think the two companies together make sense, but also agree with Paul that this cannot go wrong. The problems OpenText have had with iXOS certainly cast a shadow over their ability to handle larger acquisitions - and if successful I really do believe that OpenText has to get very serious indeed about closing and disposing of non core products and services quickly. A major pruning exercise is needed, even though there has already been some ongoing work in that area.
In fact I think they will need to be brutal, and that is not something that is generally part of the Canadian business psyche (generally a good thing) but a leaner and meaner OTX would be no bad thing. I also take slight issue with Paul's assertion that Microsoft will own the ECM space - I do believe that the space will (already is) morphing toward and infrastruture led sell, but the whole of ECM is morphing into something much bigger and more relevant also - there is room for FileNet, Documentum and OpenText to do well - but they all need to change (in fairness the exception there is probably Documentum) and adapt to the new reality. I think OTX is trying to do this, but needs to off load some baggage in the process quickly.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The reality of Outsourcing

Since originally posting this blog I have since come across the following piece by James McGovern on his excellent EA blog - Link Here and very much recommend it - the posting has certainly given me food for thought :-)

Outsourcing is at best a controversial subject, and working for one of the Worlds largest outsourcing firms, you might imagine that I am 100% in favour of it. In fact I, and many who work in the sector fully recognize its limitations, and try hard to separate out the rhetoric and emotional editorials one reads from reality.

There is an excellent video available now on Google, of Paul Strassman one of my analyst industry heroes, who methodically and dispationately goes through some of the economic considerations for outsourcing. It takes forever to download but I think its worth the effort.

The video is called "Is Outsourcing Profitable?" - Paul Strassman

Key points that will resonate with anyone close to the reality of outsourcing (particularly offshore outsourcing) are:

  • By undertaking major outsourcing activities of your business, you can reach further heights, or simply jettison cash at an alarming rate
  • When you outsource you will be definition add complexity to your organization and likely add overhead costs
  • It's not outsourcing that the issue its the management or otherwise of the processes
  • IT costs are falling dramatically anyway (Moore's Law simply adds to this) so if your costs are rising - you are doing something wrong that Outsourcing won't fix
  • When you start to outsource in a major way, you should start to forget about Enterprise Integration as such - as your Enterprise is now an extended chain of partners around the globe
  • Outsourcing, is nothing new - but the naievity of some firms in pushing work overseas gives it a bad name. As does the greed of some outsourcing vendors who will take on any work at cut rates, whether they are able to meet requirements or not.

Ultimately its all about managing the process, and sadly some companies are contemplating outsourcing to reduce costs in badly managed scenarios. If management processes are weak when activities are internal, they will be stretched further when outsourced, and benefits are unlikely to be realized.

There are clearly much wider and more emotional arguements over whether one should be outsourcing overseas at all - there are wonderful and well argued cases from both sides of the divide on how this can work to the benefit of the local economy and against. What's for sure is that outsourcing done badly is potentially destructive all round. Done well it can free a firm up to concentrate on its core business in a way that was not previously possible, outsourcing simply to reduce costs is seldom a postive end in itself.......