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Simple Process Management: Quick, Cheap and Easy

Nsite hosts process automation.

PROS
•Quicker and less expensive to implement than on-premises BPM solutions; scales to 1,000 users
•Speeds approval processes and reveals bottlenecks
•Creates audit trails for contract approvals, sales discounts, expense reports and so on
CONS
•No advanced workflow features
•Yet another sign on required to access service
•Automates existing e-mail practices, even if the processes are incoherent

Nsite is a hosted application that lets you automate workflows for operational activities such as quote-to-cash, sales discounts, expense reports, travel authorizations and invoice authorizations. As long as you don't expect the capabilities of a full-fledged business process management (BPM) solution, you'll find Nsite has a lot to offer. The service can dramatically cut completion times for processes that you currently handle by mail, fax or even e-mail, and it's well suited to processes that extend outside your business.

Nsite gives external participants an easy way to interact with your organization. A customer who requests a quote, for example, gets a workflow-generated e-mail when the quote is complete. But this won't be just any old send-and-pray communication. This e-mail contains a button that, when clicked, tunnels through the Nsite firewall using 128-bit encryption and invites the client to approve the proposal. This approach is much faster than the typical print, sign, copy and fax operation.

Another way Nsite speeds processes is by holding process participants accountable for their communications and commitments. Say a certain type of approval request goes to a vice president who usually takes several days to respond, as one of Nsite's clients revealed to me. Nsite's workflow report will locate where the bottleneck is occurring. This client reported substantial savings in time and effort as a result of making the bottlenecks visible (and getting this particular vice president out of the loop). Such productivity gains often result when manual processes are automated for the first time.

Nsite is essentially a process automation engine with easily configurable forms, user assignments and activity monitoring and reporting (the screenshot below, for example, shows the sales manager's interface with an example of a request for a nonstandard discount along with details on open deals). An administrator must define (and possibly customize) the forms to be used and register the e-mail users who will route work through the system. The administrator doesn't really need to build an application so much as select appropriate templates, possibly spending a few days adding a key data element here and there.

screen capture
The Nsite Hosted Application automates workflows and acts as a process automation engine. This sales manager interface shows an example of a request for a nonstandard discount along with details on open deals.

In contrast, something like Salesforce.com or Siebel CRM On Demand (COD) would be considered a full-blown application. In fact, Nsite often coexists with Siebel COD or Salesforce.com because it has capabilities, such as quote-to-cash management, that are not currently a part of those products. Nsite is implemented with Web services, and you can integrate into Siebel or Salesforce.com for a one-time $3,000 fee.

One of Nsite's more powerful features is its predictive routing capabilities. Using basic matching technology, including algorithms similar to fuzzy comparisons, the BPM engine is able to infer a step-by-step workflow based on who communicates with whom. The matching technology comes into play here, tracking which participants are related to a given process. Because Nsite's predictive routing taps implicit behavior and knowledge, it essentially paves the cow paths, which isn't always desirable. Clients have requested a method of explicitly determining routing, but Nsite so far has only promised to include this capability in a later release.

Nsite provides basic operational reporting and entry-level decision support with such metrics as average, longest and shortest approval times, routings sent and completed routings. All these metrics give management an idea of sales-force productivity. Unfortunately, viewing these reports does require signing on to Nsite (as does using the service itself), a downside for those already tired of multiple logins (e.g., CRM and ERP).

Salespeople generally hate anything that stands between them and their commissions, so they typically resist any new IT initiatives that require them to take extra steps. However, Nsite presents a system that's much less arduous than the typical reality of running from fax machines and printers to the mail room. Also, it's much easier for customers to click on buttons as part of a guaranteed secure e-mail process than to sign documents and fax them. And, as you'd require, customers have limited views of the data; they can see only what you want to show them to approve the deal. (Nsite claims the strong authentication makes its online approval legally binding, but you should check with your legal counsel.)

For lightweight workflow demands, Nsite is a useful automation tool. Nsite is not designed, however, for heavyweight workflow functions such as routing documents based on predetermined criteria (transaction type, date or cycle time) or decomposing documents into parts to route each part separately prior to reconnecting downstream. Other than registering the e-mail identifiers of various individuals, there's no way to represent the business hierarchy or data model of reporting relationships in Nsite as you would expect in full-blown CRM or workflow software.

But if you're looking to get up and running quickly, then a readily configurable, Web-based application has much to offer. And that's what Nsite delivers.

• Nsite is $20 per month per registered user. There's no charge for "outside contacts," such as customers, who are directed through e-mail to approve quotes through Nsite. Entry-level commitments start at 10 registered users. Nsite is available at www.nsite.com.

Lou Agosta is an independent industry analyst specializing in data warehousing, data mining and data quality. Write to him at [email protected].

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