Liberating users from rigid models, Appian's Enterprise 5 BPM suite lets you alter the process to ease exception handling.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 22, 2006

7 Min Read

Every organization needs to be as efficient as possible to survive. Yet all companies also must balance efficiency with the ability to adapt and evolve to meet competitive pressures, new regulations and so on. Appian Enterprise 5 can help. It differs from other business process management suites in how well it facilitates change.

Like many BPM vendors, Appian has adopted BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) for its modeling environment, and it delivers a scalable process engine, a business rules environment and analytics functionality. Released in March, the Enterprise 5 suite isn't unique in exploiting Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) to deliver a rich, dynamic and user-friendly process portal, but in contrast to rivals that keep the portal and modeling environments separate, Appian has fused the two, along with the rest of the suite's functionality, to provide a dynamic user interface that can be personalized for everyone involved in processes, including senior managers. Most important, Appian Enterprise 5 eases process change rather than constraining employee actions through rigid process definitions.

PROS

• Integrated and customizable Ajax-based portal, process monitoring and BPMN modeling environment .

• Eases process change (down to a case-by- case level).

• End-user accessible analytics capabilities .

• Built-in collaboration, document management and business rules management.

CONS

• Process variables could use a more effective shared data space.

• Too much to understand for uninitiated users.

• Difficult to bind processes together at run time in a case-handling scenario.

Modeling the 'Smart' Way

Appian takes advantage of Ajax to deliver the entire modeling and design experience though standard Web browsers. Although this limits offline development (because the modeler must be connected to the server), it enables a more seamless and efficient overall experience. Process models (diagrams), for instance, are used to give workers a status view of a process instance (highlighting current activities with a green halo).

The modeler incorporates BPMN-compliant activities, subprocesses, gateways and events (the nodes in the process). Gateways control how process flows interact as they converge and diverge, while events are triggers that require the business or process to respond in some way. Appian extends the BPMN activities with special Smart Nodes. Rather than requiring code to be written for functionality at each step in the process, these prebuilt Smart Nodes embed generic functionality, such as calling a Web service, accessing a line of business (LOB) application, checking out a document or launching a discussion space. They provide the ability for the IT department to create reusable functionality and also can be used to build a library of standard subprocesses (think of them as process components) that are available for reuse in other processes.

Appian's Expression Editor--the main interface to the Rules Engine--is extremely powerful. It incorporates a range of logical, mathematical and statistical functions, and it lets users manipulate objects, such as user roles and process variables. The tool helps designers manage process flow, control access to process models and govern the rules by which a process diverges down multiple paths.

Appian's process-variable creation could be improved. These variables are entered individually, in the properties of the entire process or at the node level. Although this works well enough for a single process, it gets tricky if you want multiple processes to share a common object model. A virtualization layer providing for a common object model would cut the time required to develop subsequent processes and reduce the chances of data inconsistency.

Appian Enterprise 5's BPMN features are good; it supports intermediate events with a range of capabilities built into the Expression Builder (something most BPMN-based products don't yet offer). Even better would be support for grouping of activities, compensating transactions (initiated when a transaction fails) and showing two communicating processes (to visualize process interactions), but support for these aspects of BPMN is still rare.

Personalizing the Interface

The customizable Ajax desktop provides a single point of access to all enterprise applications, information and data sources, both inside and outside the organization. Appian Portal lets users create personalized pages with their choice of reports and discussions alongside an embedded Work Portal where they can manage their daily activities. Users can share, change, edit and add portlets or channels.

The Work Portal gives users access to their work in progress and to the processes they can start. Security facilities control what different classes of users can do and provide a powerful rule-based group membership capability. The portal also gives users links to reporting tools, micro-portals (for different departments and teams), management reports and other features. An Outlook client is also available to deliver work directly to user inboxes.

Out-of-the-box--and assuming appropriate authorization--users can change the permissions on the workspace to add new participants to a process or make other changes.

Collaborating and Analyzing

Appian Enterprise incorporates a built-in document-management engine and integrated BAM (Business Activity Monitoring) capability. The document-management engine coordinates content creation and publication while supporting Knowledge Centers for collaboration. These centers are provided at the personal, team and community level. Content categories help organize information while search features help locate users, portal pages, channels, collaboration departments, knowledge centers, folders, forums, groups and so on.

Collaboration can occur around individual process instances, through an integrated e-mail messaging infrastructure, via threaded discussion groups, instant messaging or over shared channels. Process developers also can use this functionality to collaborate on a project. Some vendors claim similar content-management and collaboration functionality in their products, but Appian's ease of access and seamless integration into the process and security models stand out.

BAM is an important part of any BPM suite, but Appian takes advantage of the suite's flexibility and personalization capabilities. A wide variety of out-of-the-box reports are available and, more important, they are accessible through the portal. Users also can personalize the reports and combine them with LOB data.

Supporting Change

Once you support a process with a BPM engine, the challenge becomes how to manage the exceptions and process-halting scenarios. Finding the right balance between control and empowering change has always been a problem with conventional workflow approaches. Appian gets around this by letting authorized users edit each process instance as required rather than assuming that the process model is set in stone.

This is a fundamentally different approach from that taken by most vendors when they talk about "in-flight" changes. Instead of pushing the exception back to the process developer to modify the process template for new cases of work to follow, Appian's approach enables real-time process change. Other vendors tend to assume that the exception item is canceled and then restarted in a new version of the process model--a ham-fisted workaround at best.

Of course, you can't change activities that are complete, but you can add new subprocesses or r> eroute and reassign work. Unfortunately, it's relatively difficult to bind (sub)processes dynamically at run time, something that's useful in case-handling scenarios. And users can't add new process variables to a process instance. These are a couple of oversights in an otherwise flexible approach.

Appian's ad hoc collaboration features also shine in supporting process change, giving users a way to discuss their response to the inevitable exceptions that occur.

Summing Up

The Appian environment makes processes and multiple process variants simple to deploy. The product offers built-in content management, collaboration and BAM functionality, which adds a bit of complexity, but nothing that can't be handled with care in developing and deploying applications. Assuming effective training and IT support around defining variables, business users can master these features.

The analytics functionality is excellent, both in terms of the ease of access to reports and charting capabilities as well as the ability to combine process data from the LOB domain. Add to that the ability to affect change at the process instance level, and it's a product that can master dynamic environments that other BPM suites struggle to support.

* Appian Enterprise 5 starts at $500 per user, $50,000 for quick-start projects and $100,000 for typical deployments.

Derek Miers is an independent business process management analyst and consultant. Write him at [email protected].

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