Using SaaS and Web 2.0 for business automation

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at solutions for automated business processes that are based on the online, low-barrier, and highly collaborative worlds of SaaS and Web 2.0. Primarily, this is part of my exploration of using Web 2.0 in the enterprise, sometimes called Enterprise 2.0, but which we call Enterprise Web 2.0 here.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at solutions for automated business processes that are based on the online, low-barrier, and highly collaborative worlds of SaaS and Web 2.0.  Primarily, this is part of my exploration of using Web 2.0 in the enterprise, sometimes called Enterprise 2.0, but which we call Enterprise Web 2.0 here.

Read the overview of our exploration of Web 2.0 strategies in the Enterprise, or read the strategies explored so far, which have covered enterprise approaches for blogs and wikis.

This area is of importance because good, effective Business Process Management has been one of the holy grails of enterprise software for years now.  Traditional software development has repeatedly yielded BPM results that are too heavyweight, brittle, hard-to-change, and not responsive to the business.  And like with so many aspects of Web 2.0, looking at the successful models in the highly Darwinian Petri dish of the Web gives us many suggestions on how to do it better:  Dynamic languages that make mashing together functionality both inexpensive and easy, low-impedence and highly scalable integration models such as JSON and REST instead of SOAP or WS-*, peer production techniques that harness the users as the users operate the system, self-service IT and the list goes on.

Business Process Management Web 2.0-Style

Harnessing Web 2.0 techniques for business process integration, automation, and management, particularly around highly-repetitive, transactionalprocesses will allow more time for tacit interactions, the high value knowledge work that many workers can't spend time doing because of the overhead of tedious, low-value transactional work. Tacit interactions are perceived as one of the biggest remaining avenuesfor achieving higher worker productivity.

And if any of this is true, we should be seeing products that have started down this road.  And that folks, does seem to be the case.

Grand Business Process Visionaries:  Rearden Commerce 

One of the more compelling stores I've been watching is Rearden Commerce, a company that has been working diligently for years to build a true services marketplace (supporting an already stunning array of existing business Web services on the Web) and a set of associated applications with a BPM bent.

I spoke to Patrick Grady, Rearden's CEO, this week about their carefully planned, overarching vision for a global business services marketplace.  Their impressive results so far will be something we'll likely hear a lot more about in the near future.  Specifically, as the Web turns into a world-wide landscape of open, high-value services, wiring them together into useful processes requires key ingredients that are not automatically part of the Web today. These missing ingredients include identity, location, and context (personal, business, family, etc.) and other information as an integral part of the business process.  Rearden adds these ingredients to the business process in a consistent way, essentially providing the nurturing "connective tissue" for robust business processes based on integrated services.

Rearden clearly demonstrates the potential accessible today with an advanced Web services infrastructure and associated use cases implementation (many existing configurable business processes).  This lets them fully and deeply automate dozens of routine tasks around myriad daily business tasks including travel, business logistics, conference planning, and much more.  And because the Web has become the services "superplatform" and the resources of the enterprise are tipping into it as well, approaches such as Rearden can weave together all of these existing IT resources, including calendars, mobile devices, and business Web services, into seamless, low-effort, business processes that can be used from anywhere there is a Web browser. 

It all does sounds complex, but like all fundamentally good software, the actual result seems very straightforward in my examinations of Rearden's online experience.

Rearden is one of a number of companies that I've been tracking that have clearly been ahead of the market for years and are well positioned as the market catches up to them.  And while Rearden's current offerings tend to be more SaaS than Web 2.0, that also will change as user contributions and other genuine Web 2.0 capabilities are fully added to the mix, Grady indicated would be sooner rather than later.  In my opinion, solutions like what Rearden Commerce offers are true reference models of what is possible with the next generation of the Web.

SMB Business Process Visionaries:  Bridgewerx

Connecting together the IT systems located in smaller enterprises and over the Web to their Internet suppliers, and then creating useful business processes, is often well beyond the means of small to medium businesses.  Their IT infrastructures are often in their infancy, their ability to hire talented architects and business process designers is likewise limited.

Enter companies like Bridgwerx, who are building simple appliances that use simple, straightforward techniques to connect systems together and then provide visual tools that provide low-barrier ways for business process experts (sometimes no more than IT savvy users), to create detailed process automation flows.

Bridgewerx's CTO, David Linthicum, has been talking about using Web 2.0 to connect enterprises together for a while now, and while Bridgewerx generally focuses lower down in the Web 2.0 stack, at the services layer, rather than the social interaction or RIA level, it does provide a very compelling story around business process mashups, the ability to dynamically push together systems and create guided processes out of them.  And while Bridgewerx's vision isn't as comprehensive as Rearden's, their approach is much more aimed at true self-service IT that requires a few minutes a day to maintain, instead of a half-dozen software developers.  Bridgewerx is an excellent example of the promise of lightweight BPM.

Read my BPM mashups post on process-guided interactions.

Other companies I've been talking to are rapidly heading to similar and often overlapping spaces that Rearden, Bridgewerx, and others are pioneering.  And while Rearden is planning to go consumer facing at some point soon (they are B2B only today), you can bet that those that best take advantage of the most powerful aspects of Web 2.0 including leverage explicit network effects in the form of user contributions, social communities, etc., will be the most successful.

Finally, the business process management part of Web 2.0 in the enterprise is so important and high value that we'll do one more pass on it next.  Stay tuned.

Do you really care about lightweight BPM? Do you want Web 2.0 in the enterprise, any why?

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