e-forms

I blushed a few weeks ago while reading a friend’s blog entry about me. I appreciate his comment about how I “got” the whole electronic forms thing (in the context of integrating it with BPM), because I see e-forms as an essential part of many BPM applications. When I worked for FileNet a few years back as the Director of eBusiness Evangelism (yes, that was my real title, and yes, I asked for it), I gave presentations talking about how e-forms and BPM work together, and how they can — in some cases — make customization something that can be done by technical and business resources at the customer, rather than by an SI. This was considered heresy in some circles.

I understand that there are a lot of things that e-forms can’t do, but a bigger problem is that a lot of large systems integrators just don’t want to use e-forms, because it makes their job too easy. If it’s too easy, they can’t use their premium-priced Java developers. If it’s too easy, they can’t justify being late and over budget. If it’s too easy, the customer might get the radical idea that they could do some of the work themselves, including ongoing maintenance. In the large SI business model, e-forms are bad for business.

I saw this first-hand while working as a subcontractor to a large SI on a FileNet BPM project. I was responsible for the functional design, and for working with the development team to create the technical design. Because several of the user-facing steps needed to interface with a line-of-business database as well as the BPM system, the out-of-the-box user interface wasn’t going to cut it. However, FileNet has a very capable e-forms functionality, the result of the acquisition that my friend Chris mentioned in his blog posting, so naturally I suggested this to the technical lead on the project. You could have frozen Lake Ontario with the looks that I got in return. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that they were writing this from scratch in Java, and I should just shut up and keep out of it. Considering that I’ve probably written more code in my lifetime than the entire development team put together, I could have been insulted, but I was being paid much too well for that. I finished my piece of work and got out of Dodge. Now I hear that they’re a year late and still not in production, and I’m finding it very difficult to whip up any sympathy.

The funny thing is how long it has taken the first-tier BPM vendors to understand the value of e-forms as a part of their product, and either build or buy the capability. They’re so busy building bullet-proof plumbing that they forget about the fact that at some point, a process may have to interface with a person, and that a customer doesn’t want to spend a year having custom screens written in order to do so.

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