I recently attended the Laserfiche Institute annual conference in Los Angeles, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that it blew my mind! Intellera is a relatively new Laserfiche partner, so it was my first experience attending this conference and I didn’t know what to expect.

My first surprise was that over 1,200 Laserfiche users, administrators, IT professionals, developers, resellers, engineers and staff were in attendance – a huge group indeed. Laserfiche Founder and President, Nien-Ling Wacker noted in her keynote address that user attendance was up 54% from last year, and when you consider how tough 2009 was economically, that is a real achievement and a vote of confidence from the Laserfiche community.

Another observation I had was how pumped up and positive the attendees were about Laserfiche. While I expected that from the staff and partners in attendance, the users were also very excited and enthusiastic about the value that Laserfiche brought to their organizations. Users from all types of organizations, from municipalities to healthcare to financial institutions, were very eager to share their success stories and experiences with other Laserfiche customers. The overall feeling of community was very powerful. And considering the theme of this year’s conference was “Empower 2010” that was very fitting.

Be that as it may, there are always some negative comments that arise when you get a diverse group of people together to discuss software products. We all have heard horror stories about year-long implementations that were supposed to take weeks, or how the product was supposed to solve problem X and it only made it worse, etc. The “mind blowing” part of my experience was seeing how open everybody at Laserfiche was towards any negativity. There were no sweeping things under the rug – any comments that came up during sessions were discussed openly, ideas were shared, and solutions were offered and followed up on. Laserfiche developers and engineers were available everywhere to address technical concerns and give answers, options and share best practices. That was very cool.

All in all, being a part of this conference reinforced the fact that our decision to partner with Laserfiche was a smart one. They clearly share our philosophy that getting and keeping customers takes hard work, dedication, honesty, and respect. I feel secure that our clients will not only get the best possible solution to their Enterprise Content and Document Management needs, but one that is supported by a company that shares the same values as we do.

The Laserfiche Institute conference was also written up in “Document Imaging Report” – to read more about the conference highlights, click here.

Jonathan Maldoff is Co-Founder and CEO of Intellera.

In a previous post I discussed how BPM was “ERP 2.0” – I was alluding to the fact that the biggest problem with ERP in my view, is that it has become a monolithic, one-size-fits-none, nearly hard-coded vertical application.  Harsh judgment maybe, but after over 20 years in the ERP business I’ll give myself at least some right to criticize.

Countless failed ERP implementations, cost overruns, and infamous inflexibility – these problems either point to a badly flawed project management approach to ERP or (more likely) to a flawed attempt at developing and selling re-useable menu-driven functions. These functions have little else to support them, such as an awareness of where a function fits in to the organization based on standard operating procedures and strategic goals. I mean, can software or the people using it expect the ERP to know this? Yes, and I think that we should expect no less.

ERP is a loose collection of functions based on processes. Its strength – and its downfall – is how it focuses on very specific functions in the process, for example the order entry screen and how a user enters units and products and how these are validated against uncommitted inventory. This program will not likely adapt well to exceptions and it will not tell you how to report to your manager with your daily order status – if you’re lucky, this procedure will be documented somewhere in a binder somewhere. The order entry function on that screen seems to be but a small feature of the overall process of order entry.

But in a similar way that Marshall McLuhan said so famously in 1964 how “the medium is the message”, from the ERP function’s standpoint could we not go further and state how in fact the process is the function? The function that seems to be a part of a process is really one and the same, as the two become intertwined in the delivery of ultimate strategic goals.

By turning our heads sideways and viewing software development from this perspective we can move away from the constant focus on “vertical” functional requirements (those functions that on the surface appear to make our business unique) as compared to others and group us together with other organizations. Functions are the actual buttons and routines that make up applications – they tell us that what you are using is an order entry screen, or an MP3 player, or a document scanning program.

But these functions, as important as they are, are holistically part of an environment that requires organizational awareness, task awareness, collaboration, security, accountability and compliance, accessibility, performance, workflow, technological openness and, most especially, a focus on driving strategic results through a system’s built-in knowledge of organizational processes and standard operating procedures. For me, all these parts are 80% of the game in the delivery of a modern software system. Nevertheless this is exactly the 80% that ERP (and many smaller pre-package applications) fail at due to their insistence on focusing their efforts strictly on process-disconnected, menu-driven vertical functions that, in the end, organizations will wind up customizing anyway to really fit their needs. And be left without the 80% still.

In the end, functions are where the rubber meets the road but the best rubber on the hottest wheels doesn’t do much when your steering wheel is pointing you over the cliff.

If the process is the function, the “process-izing” of functions becomes the foundation upon which we can build systems which are process-aware in process-centric organizations.

I have just discovered lifehacker.com, and it has changed my life. Chock full of tips that run the gamut from gadget and gear deals of the day, to creating filing cabinet workflows, to making freezer jam (really!), it has become my go-to source for valuable information and downloads. Everything is organized into neat categories like “Dealhacker” (featuring newsworthy deals), “Workspaces” (ways to unclutter and get more productive), “News” and “Weekend Project”. There are also great Reader Polls – a recent one asked what drink was best to get you going in the morning, or how do you end off your emails. The emphasis is all about improving your life and getting the most out of what you already have, or what you can get for very little! Perfect reading in these recessionary times, check it out: www.lifehacker.com


Forms Circa 1923

Forms Circa 1923

In my previous post I reviewed the Form Functionality Value Curve and hinted that certain functionality in BPM forms don’t provide enough benefit to justify their implementation – at least for short term ROI.

FORM TYPES

Let me take you through a real life example by looking at a core process found in most consumer goods companies: New Product Development (or the equivalent “Engineering Change” in a manufacturing firm). Here is a very important process at the heart of the business that is generally not well automated because of its complexity resulting from the multitude of participants and systems involved. This is a sweet spot for BPM and it involves the creation of a workflow and its associated form(s).

We all dread this more recent form

We all dread this more recent form

Jane wants to create a new form that will navigate through the workflow. This form could be an InfoPath form, a web form based on Microsoft .NET, a PDF form, a Word form – it doesn’t matter. Jane analyzes the needs of the business and begins to create the form by adding “objects” to the empty form, like text boxes, drop downs, buttons. She quickly sees that not all objects are created equal, and upon consideration she realizes that form content can be roughly classified into three groups: logic-free content; simple logic-based content; and complex logic-based content. In layman’s terms I name these “Type 1: Logic-free”, “Type 2: Power User”, and “Type 3: Programmers-on-speed-dial”.

Type 1, Logic-free form content requires minimal work in their design and includes:

  • Free-form text boxes
  • Hard-coded (keyed-in) drop downs and lists
  • Check boxes
  • Images, tables, lines
  • Basic formatting
  • Hard-coded links

Type 2, Power User logic-based content require some level of linking between objects  and include:

  • A drop down or check box which controls behavior of any other control (e.g. I check a box and another appears)
  • A button that triggers a simple pre-defined event like submitting a form
  • Style sheets (Language/resource files Control of read-only, required, or hiding and showing of objects and information on the screen based on conditions from within the form
  • Advanced formatting requiring simple scripts
  • A basic validation at input such as numeric formats, checksums, conditional verifications, etc.
  • Simple database connectivity built using wizards

If you see where I am heading with this, you will note that the Power User logic-based content above is already beyond the ability of most people to handle. Now check out Type 3 below.

Type 3, “Programmers-on-speed-dial”, complex logic-based content requires advanced scripting or programming and include:

  • Intermediate or advanced integration to a database to pull or push data
  • Connecting and consuming web services
  • Adding complex controls like multi-column grids with add/remove/edit, sorting and pagination logic
  • Significantly altering the behavior of the form content when an event occurs (e.g. I select an item and an entire section of the form expands to display various new fields in a new tab)  Complex data validations including database or form content lookups
  • Managing complex content on the form (e.g. XML parsing)
  • Parent-child data structures
  • AJAX or jScript functions (or similar) to provide a more streamlined look and feel and user interface – and if you don’t know what these acronyms stand for, you are already beyond your capacities…!

After reading the above, at what point did you stop understanding what Type 2 and Type 3 means? Do they sound the same to you? The fact is that the average business user can only manage to create Type 1 forms, and a few “power users” can do some of the Type 2 stuff with training and assistance.

In my example, Jane understands her area of work, but not entirely the technology that supports it to the degree required to create Type 2 or 3 forms. She knows functionally what should occur. She can design the flow. She can talk through all the “use cases” (all the eventualities of the logic). But getting that logic to function optimally in the appropriate form and workflow engine environment with the best available methods can become a challenge fairly quickly.

In my next and concluding post I will discuss suggestions for getting past these hurdles and building a successful BPM project no matter what type of forms you encounter.


So I was sitting in the lobby at a client’s head office when two of their employees walked in and looked across the hall to a glass-enclosed conference room filling up with a large group. One of the employees asked the other “What’s the event?” and they responded, “Oh, it’s that Intellera meeting.”

“I don’t need to be there, do I?”, she asked, a bit panicked.

“No”, came the response.

“Thank goodness”, she sighed, “I really didn’t want to have to deal with that Intellera stuff!”

She obviously didn’t recognize me or realize that I was waiting to present the new collaboration solution, along with an executive VP and two key project managers. This was the official kick off of that “Intellera stuff”!

Needless to say I was a bit irked, but mostly I was intrigued as to the reasons for her disdain. Following a well received presentation with some positive end-user comments, I got my Sherlock Holmes hat on and investigated…

sherlock

I spoke to a couple of people up the chain of command and it turns out that “the usual suspects” have been complaining like this…but why?

Well, it happens that one of the new VPs had been trying to address the bubbling inquires that were rising up regarding the new collaboration solution in the best way he knew how. When some of his staff asked if they were going to be involved with the “new system” that was being talked about in the rumor mill – his answer was “No, it’s not a priority right now.” And so began the game of broken telephone – you know that childhood game where you sit in a circle and the first person whispers something to their neighbor (for example, “You hear the ringing bells”) and as the message passes from person to person it transforms, so that the last person reveals the message as “Your fat sister smells”.

This is a classic change management problem that I suspect arose from an imprecise message to the staff as the collaboration system was being implemented. The larger an organization grows, the more difficult it becomes to align everyone in the face of change, especially those change-challenged people (“the usual suspects”).

The collaboration solution is quite revolutionary in the way people communicate around how they deliver their customer orders. To manage risk, we therefore made great efforts to incrementally build it up and to involve only a handful of key people at first. Initially, it was a single beta user and this grew to a full corporate division over a six-month period. As expected, we hit some bumps and redesigned some components as we better understood the needs, so it made sense to limit the involvement at the client to just a few people.

The intention of the VP’s statement that “No, it’s not a priority right now,” was really meant as “Yes, it is important, we are testing it, and as soon as possible – probably within three to six months – you will be introduced to it and it will become a useful and integral part of your daily routine, and we’ll provide documention on it soon.” A mouthful indeed!

What was understood instead to someone who is not very interested in changing their routine, was “It has nothing to do with you, now or ever, so don’t worry about it.”

What this means to us at Intellera, is that we have a bit of an uphill battle to make those people understand the importance of the collaboration solution to the business and to their role within it. I am not too worried, as the message is being delivered clearly now by high-ranking management as the rollout begins, and the feedback from even change-resistant diehards shows they have started to enjoy and value the change.

A lesson learned again about the importance of change management: All parties involved in an implementation must strive to communicate clearly about new developments at the appropriate times. It is just a bit ironic that a solution put in place to dramatically improve collaboration and communication suffered from a case of broken telephone!

I recently spent a week in Long Beach, California, working with our newest solution partner Laserfiche, to catch up on their technologies and marketing efforts as we enhance our ability to provide best in class Enterprise Content Management (ECM) to our clients. On top of the lovely weather – even their “June Gloom” is somehow better than the wet Eastern spring we’ve had – it’s been an educational experience to get an inside look at a successful company and see how they make it happen.

I have written in a recent post about how it can be a struggle for best of breed application authors to resist migrating into BLOBs – big, heavy, overdone apps – over time. Many software authors have an insatiable appetite to add “features” or to merge and acquire other firms, creating monsters that end up controlling them…rather than leading the industry with ever more elegant and simple ways to improve productivity. It is a very different paradigm, and quite an art.

I didn’t believe Laserfiche to be caught in the BLOB, and after a few days working with their VPs, channel managers, and pre-sales engineers, they have proven that I was right. After 22 illustrious years of product development, they’ve managed to simplify and streamline over time, even while adding new functionality to create what they are proud to call a “simple and elegant” document management solution.

I would agree with that statement and believe strongly that it also applies to Intellera in our own way. As value added integrators, we strive to work with best of breed partners that understand who they are, where they fit, and how we can make their solutions part of an organization’s core business to solve business challenges.

Our clients are normally picky about who they choose to work with. This is natural – they want to buy the best possible solutions for an investment that they can justify. Their selection process can be grueling for all involved because it needs to incorporate what their business requires, the associated benefits, the investigation of all potential candidates, the available technology platforms…and then they need to sell it internally by corralling and cajoling influencers and decision makers, putting together business cases and capital requests…a major effort indeed.

If they seem picky, then we would appear downright persnickety! Much is riding on our partner relationship decisions – namely, the continued trust of our clients – but we’re proud of the fact that by knowing ourselves and our clients so well and by understanding their particular needs and the marketplace in general, we will make the best alliances. After spending a week at Laserfiche, I am confident that this partnership is going to be a great fit.

When I was younger I used to believe that I needed to work on my weaknesses in order to improve myself. Being a couple of years older now (LOL) I have flipped it around and instead now focus on enhancing my strengths. It’s a lot more fun and productive! The lesson is: To each his own strengths. And that’s what we’re doing at Intellera – creating unique solutions by integrating best in class software with coaching and consulting to solve business challenges. We’re pleased to welcome Laserfiche to the fold and look forward to a strong and successful relationship.

blob

At the start of the year this mad scientist embarked on a quest to replace the state of the art Web 2.0 “best of breedPSA system (Professional Services Automation) that we used (we had not created it, but purchased it) with something better than the “best”.

After much research (need PSA? Ask me!) we concluded with deep regret that there were no best of breed players that could satisfy our needs and decided to build it ourselves.

It is not something that our CEO Jonathan Maldoff and I often decide to do. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we did that, especially for a core internal system that tracks the heart of our business: project management and related time spent and billing.

Our experience has shown it is not often cost-effective to build it yourself. You need to become software authors, develop subject matter expertise, follow development and project management methodologies, maintain and support code, and keep up with standards. Not easy nor strategic for many corporations.

We are strong proponents of the best of breed (BOB) approach. Best of breed can ensure you have the finest software minds working for you at the cost of a license and with guaranteed support. Then you integrate this with your other BOBs to get a best of breed suite going.

The risk to integrating multiple solutions is that if you aren’t careful in your method, you can end up with a myriad of different systems to maintain and learn, an inconsistent user interface, multiple vendors to call for support, and multiple points of failure in integrations. However, we believe that by working with the right integration partner you can reduce or eliminate these risks - making this partner your turn-key single point of contact and achieving a true win-win.

This is why we normally favor integrating applications that are experts at what they do and putting them under a common framework, rather than building it or picking one single solution that does it all, because such all-encompassing solutions rarely do it all well. Inevitably you find out that those systems do certain things very well (typically their original components that made them famous, not surprisingly) and the rest is so-so or even just plain awful.

If you do prefer large systems that do it all due to the lure of simplicity of having less to deal with, just be careful. The reality is that many such systems are in fact amalgamations of many applications in their own right due to mergers and acquisitions. Oracle, Microsoft and IBM, all leading players in ERP “large systems”, have made so many acquisitions of  best of breeds that they cannot always claim easy integration, a unified interface, or in some cases even architecture. So now even best of breed isn’t good enough?

It dawned on me that when I talk about best of breed, in my mind I really mean “pure play best of breed”. There’s a difference, and a big one at that. In many markets “Pure Players” are the applications that have focused on their strengths and not wavered under the temptation to build it bigger to capture  incremental markets. Those that lack discipline suffer from “scope creep”: the applications become bloated and unfocused (look at Microsoft Office for example) and there exists a law of diminishing returns – for each added feature there is a disproportionately lower return on that investment (and therefore a lower benefit to you, the user, for your money).

But back to our internal PSA system that we chose to develop. Why did we do it when so many great PSA systems exist? Having done enough research to know they wouldn’t fit, (and that I wasn’t deluding myself), it came down to 3 key factors.

First the PSA’s simply had too much functionality. Too much, you ask? How is that a bad thing?

It’s a bad thing when you need user interfaces that are efficient time savers and you are instead faced with a beast to navigate with a slew of questionable bolt-on features. When this beast gives you nearly unlimited configuration options with five levels of menus when just one level should be enough – it’s just plain confusing. When the simple need to enter a time record requires (count’em) 24 clicks, it’s a show-stopper.

It’s very common for BOBs to mutate over time into BLOBs instead. The gooey BLOBs can destroy cities while the software BLOBS destroy corporate efficiency…

Second, the PSA’s didn’t integrate as well or as easily as they should. As integrators we thrive on great applications that can talk easily to the world at large, but we hit a wall here which was a show-stopper.

Third, we took the opportunity to invent a new development methodology based on leading edge Web 2.0 principles and our User Interface experience (ok, fanaticism), then we fused this with the latest .NET, jQuery, and Web Service architecture to achieve simplicity, functionality, and integration flexibility only dreamed of by most web apps.

For us, this last part was a bonus: we sent the kids to the candy store and let them run around until they passed out! We’re different though, in that we have software development expertise as a core value already. Our clients also expect us to stay ahead of the pack,  to be in the best position to consult with them, so that they can focus on what they do best as well. Experimenting is a constant reality around here. But what is a bonus to us isn’t a bonus to most companies, it’s often a difficult drag on everyone.

The lesson therefore is to use BOBs whenever possible but avoid BLOBs that claim to do it all (or use only the parts of their systems that clearly fit your needs), and try to stick with an architecture that generally fits with your corporate structure to make integration and maintenance that much easier.

Want to see a demo? Email-me – but it’s not for sale… yet ;)

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