Virtual conference best practices: 2020 in review

Wow, it’s been over two months since my last post. I took a long break over the end of the year since there wasn’t a lot going on that inspired me to write, and we were in conference hiatus. Now that (virtual) conferences are ramping up again for 2021, I wanted to share some of the best practices that I gathered from attending — and in one case, organizing — virtual conferences over 2020. Having sent this information by email to multiple people who were organizing their own conferences, I decided to just put it here where everyone could enjoy it. Obviously, these are all conferences about intelligent automation platforms, but the best practices are applicable to any technical conference, and likely to many non-technical conferences.

In summary, I saw three key things that make a virtual conference work well:

  1. Live presentations, not pre-recorded. This is essential for the amount of energy in the presentation, and makes the difference between a cohesive conference and a just a bunch of webinars. Screwups happen when you’re live, but they do at in-person conferences, too.
  2. Separate and persistent discussion platform, such as Slack (or Pega’s community in the case of their conference). Do NOT use the broadcast vendor’s chat/discussion platform, since a) it will disappear once your conference is over, and b) it probably sucks.
  3. Replays of the video posted as soon as possible, so that people who missed a live session can watch it and jump into the discussion later the same day while others are still talking about it. Extra points for also publishing the presentation slides at the same time.

A conference is not a one-way broadcast, it’s a big messy collaborative conversation

Let’s start with the list of the virtual conferences that I wrote about, with links to the posts:

What I saw by attending these helped me when I was asked to organize DecisionCAMP, which ran in late June: we did the sessions using Zoom with livestreaming to YouTube (participants could watch either way), used Slack as a discussion platform (which is still being used for ongoing discussions and to run monthly events), and YouTube for the on-demand videos. Fluxicon used a similar setup for their Process Mining Camp: Skype (I think) instead of Zoom to capture the speakers’ sessions with all participants watching through the YouTube livestream and discussions on Slack.

Some particular notes excerpted from my posts on the vendor conferences follow. If you want to see the full blog posts, use the tag links above or just search.


  • “Every conference organizer has had to deal with either cancelling their event or moving it to some type of online version as most of us work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these have been pretty lacklustre, using only pre-recorded sessions and no live chat/Q&A, but I had expectations for Camunda being able to do this in a more “live” manner that doesn’t completely replace an in-person event, but has a similar feel to it. They did not disappoint: although a few of the CamundaCon presentations were pre-recorded, most were done live, and speakers were available for live Q&A. They also hosted a Slack workspace for live chat, which is much better than the Q&A/chat features on the webinar broadcast platform: it’s fundamentally more feature-rich, and also allows the conversations to continue after a particular presentation completes.”
  • “As you probably gather from my posts today, I’m finding the CamundaCon online format to be very engaging. This is due to most of the presentations being performed live (not pre-recorded as is seen with most of the online conferences these days) and the use of Slack as a persistent chat platform, actively monitored by all Camunda participants from the CEO on down.”
  • “I mentioned on Twitter today that CamundaCon is now the gold standard for online conferences: all you other vendors who have conferences coming up, take note. I believe that the key contributors to this success are live (not pre-recorded) presentations, use of a discussion platform like Slack or Discord alongside the broadcast platform, full engagement of a large number of company participants in the discussion platform before/during/after presentations, and fast upload of the videos for on-demand watching. Keep in mind that a successful conference, whether in-person or online, allows people to have unscripted interactions: it’s not a one-way broadcast, it’s a big messy collaborative conversation.”
  • Note that things did go wrong occasionally — one presentation was cut off part way through when the presenter’s home internet died. However, the energy level of the presentations was really high, making me want to keep watching. Also hilarious when one speaker talked about improving their “shittiest process” which is probably only something that would come out spontaneously during a live presentation.


  • “Alfresco Modernize didn’t have much of a “live” feel to it: the sessions were all pre-recorded which, as I’ve mentioned in my coverage of other online conferences, just doesn’t have the same feel. Also, without a full attendee discussion capability, this was more like a broadcast of multiple webinars than an interactive event, with a short Q&A session at the end as the only point of interaction.”


  • “A few notes on the virtual conference format. Last week’s CamundaCon Live had sessions broadcast directly from each speaker’s home plus a multi-channel Slack workspace for discussion: casual and engaging. Celonis has made it more like an in-person conference by live-broadcasting the “main stage” from a studio with multiple camera angles; this actually worked quite well, and the moderator was able to inject live audience questions. Some of the sessions appeared to be pre-recorded, and there’s definitely not the same level of audience engagement without a proper discussion channel like Slack — at an in-person event, we would have informal discussions in the hallways between sessions that just can’t happen in this environment. Unfortunately, the only live chat is via their own conference app, which is mobile-only and has a single chat channel, plus a separate Q&A channel (via in-app Slido) for speakers that is separated by session and is really more of a webinar-style Q&A than a discussion. I abandoned the mobile app early and took to Twitter. I think the Celosphere model is probably what we’re going to see from larger companies in their online conferences, where they want to (attempt to) tightly control the discussion and demonstrate the sort of high-end production quality that you’d have at a large in-person conference. However, I think there’s an opportunity to combine that level of production quality with an open discussion platform like Slack to really improve the audience experience.”
  • “Camunda and Celonis have both done a great job, but for very different reasons: Camunda had much better audience engagement and more of a “live” feel, while Celonis showed how to incorporate higher production quality and studio interviews to good effect.”
  • “Good work by Celonis on a marathon event: this ran for several hours per day over three days, although the individual presentations were pre-recorded then followed by live Q&A. Lots of logistics and good production quality, but it could have had better audience engagement through a more interactive platform such as Slack.”


  • “As I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks of virtual conferences, I don’t like pre-recorded sessions: they just don’t have the same feel as live presentations. To IBM’s credit, they used the fact that they were all pre-recorded to add captions in five or six different languages, making the sessions (which were all presented in English) more accessible to those who speak other languages or who have hearing impairments. The platform is pretty glitchy on mobile: I was trying to watch the video on my tablet while using my computer for blogging and looking up references, but there were a number of problems with changing streams that forced me to move back to desktop video for periods of time. The single-threaded chat stream was completely unusable, with 4,500 people simultaneously typing “Hi from Tulsa” or “you are amazing”.”
  • “IBM had to pivot to a virtual format relatively quickly since they already had a huge in-person conference scheduled for this time, but they could have done better both for content and format given the resources that they have available to pour into this event. Everyone is learning from this experience of being forced to move events online, and the smaller companies are (not surprisingly) much more agile in adapting to this new normal.”


  • “This was originally planned as an in-person conference, and Appian had to pivot on relatively short notice. They did a great job with the keynotes, including a few of the Appian speakers appearing (appropriately distanced) in their own auditorium. The breakout sessions didn’t really grab me: too many, all pre-recorded, and you’re basically an audience of one when you’re in any of them, with little or no interactivity. Better as a set of on-demand training/content videos rather than true breakout sessions, and I’m sure there’s a lot of good content here for Appian customers or prospects to dig deeper into product capabilities but these could be packaged as a permanent library of content rather than a “conference”. The key for virtual conferences seems to be keeping it a bit simpler, with more timely and live sessions from one or two tracks only.”


  • “Signavio has a low-key format of live presentations that started at 11am Sydney time with a presentation by Property Exchange Australia: I tuned in from my timezone at 9pm last night, stayed for the Deloitte Australia presentation, then took a break until the last part of the Coca-Cola European Partners presentation that started at 8am my time. In the meantime, there were continuous presentations from APAC and Europe, with the speakers all presenting live in their own regular business hours.”
  • “The only thing missing is a proper discussion platform — I have mentioned this about several of the online conferences that I’ve attended, and liked what Camunda did with a Slack workspace that started before and continued after the conference — although you can ask questions via the GoToWebinar Question panel. To be fair, there is very little social media engagement (the Twitter hashtag for the conference is mostly me and Signavio people), so possibly the attendees wouldn’t get engaged in a full discussion platform either. Without audience engagement, a discussion platform can be a pretty lonely place. In summary, the GTW platform seems to behave well and is a streamlined experience if you don’t expect a lot of customer engagement, or you could use it with a separate discussion platform.”


  • “In general, I didn’t find the prerecorded sessions to be very compelling. Conference organizers may think that prerecording sessions reduces risk, but it also reduces spontaneity and energy from the presenters, which is a lot of what makes live presentations work so well. The live Q&A interspersed with the keynotes was okay, and the live demos in the middle breakout section as well as the live Tech Talk were really good. PegaWorld also benefited from Pega’s own online community, which provided a more comprehensive discussion platform than the broadcast platform chat or Q&A.”


  • “The format is interesting, there is only one presentation each day, presented live using YouTube Live (no registration required), with some Q&A at the end. The next day starts with Process Mining Café, which is an extended Q&A with the previous day’s presenter based on the conversations in the related Slack workspace (which you do need to register to join), then a break before moving on to that day’s presentation. The presentations are available on YouTube almost as soon as they are finished.”
  • “The really great part was engaging in the Slack discussion while the keynote was going on. A few people were asking questions (including me), and Mieke Jans posted a link to a post that she wrote on a procedure for cleansing event logs for multi-case processes – not the same as what van der Aalst was talking about, but a related topic. Anne Rozinat posted a link to more reading on these types of many-to-many situations in the context of their process mining product from their “Process Mining in Practice” online book. Not surprisingly, there was almost no discussion on the Twitter hashtag, since the attendees had a proper discussion platform; contrast this with some of the other conferences where attendees had to resort to Twitter to have a conversation about the content. After the keynote, van der Aalst even joined in the discussion and answered a few questions, plus added the link for the IEEE task force on process mining that promotes research, development, education and understanding of process mining: definitely of interest if you want to get plugged into more of the research in the field. As a special treat, Ferry Timp created visual notes for each day and posted them to the related Slack channel.”


  • “The broadcast platform fell over completely…I’m not sure if Bizagi should be happy that they had so many attendees that they broke the platform, or furious with the platform vendor for offering something that they couldn’t deliver. The “all-singing, all-dancing” platforms look nice when you see the demo, but they may not be scalable enough.”

Final thoughts

Just to wrap things up, it’s fair to say that things aren’t going to go back to the way that they were any time soon. Part of this is due to organizations understanding that things can be done remotely just as effectively (or nearly so) as they can in person, if done right. Also, a lot of people are still reluctant to even think about travelling and spending days in poorly-ventilated rooms with a bunch of strangers from all over the world.

The vendors who ran really good virtual conferences 2020 are almost certain to continue to run at least some of their events virtually in the future, or find a way to have both in-person and remote attendees simultaneously. If you run a virtual conference that doesn’t get the attendee engagement that you expected, the problem may not be that “virtual conferences don’t work”: it could be that you just aren’t doing it right.

Appian World 2020 – Day 2 keynotes: focus on low-code

The second day of the Appian World 2020 virtual conference started with CTO Michael Beckley, who immediately set me straight on something that I assumed yesterday: at least some of the keynotes were pre-recorded, not live. So their statement on their website, that keynotes are “live” from 10am-noon, and other references to “live” keynotes just means that they are being broadcast at that time, not being broadcast live. Since there’s no interaction with the audience during keynotes it’s difficult to tell, and the content of most keynotes has been well done in any case. This may have been a special case for Beckley, since he has health conditions that make him higher risk, although this was still recorded in the Appian auditorium where there would have been some number of support staff.

Beckley went into more detail on the COVID-19 apps that they have developed, with a highlight on their latest Workforce Safety and Readiness that helps to manage how workers return to a workplace. He walked through the employee view of the app, where they can record their own health check information, plus the HR manager view that allows them to set the questions, policies and information that will be seen by the employees. They’ve put this together pretty quickly using their own low-code platform, and are offering it at a reasonable price to their customers.

Next up was a customer presentation by Michael Woolley, Principal of IT Retail Systems at The Vanguard Group. They’re a huge wealth management firm spread over several countries, and they’re building Appian applications including ones that will be used by 6,000 employees. It appears that they are replacing their legacy workflow system of 20 years, which has hundreds of workflows. [I think the legacy system may be an IBM FileNet system, since I have a memory of doing some work for Vanguard over 20 years ago to develop requirements and technical design for just such a system – flashback!] They wanted to move to a modern low-code cloud platform, and although their standard workflow is pretty straightforward financial services transactional flows, they are incorporating business rules as well as BPM and case management, and RPA for interacting with legacy line of business systems. They are also planning to include AI/ML within the case management stages. He discussed their basic architecture as well as their development organization, and finished with some best practices for large projects such as this: it’s a multi-year program that covers many different workflows, so isn’t a greenfield application and has complex migration considerations.

Deputy CTO Malcolm Ross returned to follow on from his talk yesterday, when he talked about AI and RPA, to discuss how they’re improving low-code development. He showed some pretty cool AI-augmented development that they are releasing in June, which looks at the design of a process as you’re building it, and recommends the next node that you will want to add based on the current content and goals of the process. I’m definitely interested in seeing where they go with this. He had a number of detailed product updates, including cloud security, details on testing/deployment cycles for application packages, and administrative tools such as (system) Health Check. They continue to push new features into their SAIL user interface layer, making it easier for developers to create new experiences on any form factor — one of the strikes against most low-code platforms is that their UI development is not as flexible as customers require, and Appian is definitely raising the bar on what’s possible. He finished up with their multi-channel communication add-ons, which allow the use of tools such as Twilio directly within an Appian application.

The final presentation of the morning keynote was Kristie Grinnell, Global CIO and Chief Supply Chain Officer at General Dynamics Information Technology with a presentation on how they are using Appian to help manage their 30,000 employees spread over 400 customer locations. They are a government contractor, and have to manage all things around being an outsourced IT company, such as assigning people to customer projects, timesheet adjustments and invoicing, while maintaining compliance and auditability. She spoke about some of their specific Appian applications that they have developed, and the benefits: an employee pay adjustment request application (to adjust people’s pay for when they work more hours than they were paid for) reduced backlog from three weeks to three days, and reduced errors. They also developed an international travel approval app (likely not getting used much these days), since most of their employees have a high security clearance and specific risks need to be managed during travel, which reduced the approval time from days to hours. Most of their applications to date have been administrative, but they are keen to look at how applying AI/ML to their existing data can help them to make better decisions in the future.

CMO Kevin Spurway and Malcolm Ross closed the keynotes with announcements of their awards to partners, resellers, app market contributors, and hackathon winners. On an optimistic note, Spurway announced that next year’s Appian World will be in San Diego, April 11-14, 2021. Here’s hoping.

This is the end of my Appian World 2020 coverage — some good information in the keynotes. As noted yesterday, the breakout session format isn’t sufficiently compelling to have me spend time there, but if you’re an Appian customer, you’ll probably find things of interest.

Appian World 2020 – Day 1: good keynotes and too many breakout sessions

Another week, another virtual event! Appian World is happening two days this week, and will be available on-demand after. This has a huge number of sessions on several parallel tracks, which are pre-recorded, with keynotes in advance (not clear if the keynotes are actually live, or pre-recorded). From their site:

Keynote sessions are live from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM EDT on May 12th and 13th. All breakout sessions will become available on-demand at 12:00 PM EDT on their scheduled day, immediately following the live keynote. Speakers will be available from 12:00 PM – 3:00 PM EDT for live Q&A on their scheduled session day.

They’re using the INXPO platform, and apparently using every possible feature. Here’s a bit of navigation help:

  • There’s a Lobby tab with a video greeting from Appian CMO Kevin Spurway. It has links to the agenda, solutions showcase and lounge, which is a bit superfluous since those are all top-level tabs visible at all times.
  • The Agenda tab lists the sessions for today, including the keynote (for some reason it showed as Live from 8:30am although the keynotes didn’t start until 10am), then all of the breakout sessions for the day, which you can dip into in any order since they are all pre-recorded and are made available at the same time.
  • The Sessions tab is where you can drill down and watch any of the sessions when they are live, but you can also do this directly from the Agenda tab. Sessions has them organized into tracks, such as Full Stack Automation Theater and Low-Code Development Theater.
  • The Solutions Showcase tab is virtual exhibit hall, with booths for partners and a pavilion of Appian product booths. These can have a combination of pre-recorded video, documents to download, and links to chat with them. It’s a bit overwhelming, although I supposed people will go through some of the virtual booths after the sessions, since the sessions run only 10-3 each day. I suppose that many of these partners signed on for Appian World before it moved to a virtual event, so Appian needed to provide a way for them to show their offerings.
  • The Lounge tab is a single-threaded chat for all attendees. Not a great forum for discussion: as I’ve mentioned on all of the other virtual conference coverage in the past couple of weeks, a separate discussion platform like Slack that allows for multi-threaded discussions where audience members can both lead and participate in discussions with each other is much, much better for audience engagement.
  • The Games tab has results for some games that they’re running — this is common at conferences, such as how many people send out tweets with the conference hashtag, or getting your ID scanned by a certain number of booths, but not something that adds value for my conference experience.

The keynote speakers appeared on a stage in Appian’s own auditorium, empty (except supposedly for each other and production staff). CEO Matt Calkins was up first, and talked about how the world has changed in 2020, and how their low-code application development can help with the changes that are being forced on organizations by the pandemic. He talked about the applications that they have built in the past couple of months: a COVID-19 workforce tracking app, a loan coordination app that uses AI and RPA for automation, and a workforce safety & readiness app that manages how businesses reopen to their workforce coming back to work. They have made these free or low-cost for their customers for the near term.

His theme for the keynote is automation: using human and digital workers, including RPA and AI, to get the best results. He mentioned BPM as part of their toolbox, and focused on the idea that the goal is to automate, and the specific tool doesn’t matter. They bought an RPA company and have rebranded it as AppianRPA: it’s cloud-native and Java-based, which is different from many other RPA products, but is more appealing to the CIO-level buyer for organization-wide implementations. They are pushing an open agenda, where they can interact with other RPA products and cloud platforms: certainly as a BPM vendor, interaction with other automation tools is part of the fabric.

They have a few new things that I haven’t seen in briefings (to be fair, I think I’ve dropped off their analyst relations radar). Their “Automation Planner” can make recommendations for what type of automation to use for any particular task. Calkins also spoke about their intelligent document processing (IDP), which addresses what they believe is one of the biggest automation challenges that companies have today.

The Appian platform offers full-stack automation — workflow, case management, RPA, AI, business rules — with a “data anywhere” philosophy of integrating with systems to allow processing data in place, and their low-code development for which they have become known. If you’re a fan of the all-in-one proprietary platform, Appian is definitely one of main contenders. They have a number of vertical solutions now, and are starting to offer standardized all-inclusive subscription pricing for different sizes of installations that removes a lot of uncertainty about total cost of ownership. He also highlighted some of the vertical applications created by partners PWC, Accenture and KPMG.

I always like hearing Calkins talk (or chatting with him in person), because he’s smart and well-spoken, and ties together a lot of complex ideas well. He covered a lot of information about Appian products, direction, customers and partners in a 30-minute keynote, and it’s definitely worth watching the replay.

Darren Blake of Bexley Health Neighbourhood Care

Next up was a “stories from the front line of COVID-19” panel featuring Darin Cline, EVP of Operations of Bank of the West (part of BNP Paribas), and Darren Blake, COO of Bexley Health Neighbourhood Care in the UK National Health Service, moderated by Appian co-founder Mark Wilson. This was done remotely rather than in their studio, with each of the three having an Appian World backdrop: a great branding idea that was similar to what Celonis did with their remote speakers at Celosphere, although each person’s backdrop also had their own company’s logo — nice touch.

Blake talked about how they saw the wave of COVID-19 coming based on data that they were seeing from around the world, and put plans in place to leverage their existing Appian-based staff tracker to implement emergency measures around staff management and redeployment. They support home-based services as well as their patients’ visits to medical facilities, and had to manage staff and patient visits for non-COVID ailments as well as COVID responses and even dedicated COVID testing clinics without risking cross-contamination. Cline talked about how they needed to change their operations to allow people to continue accessing banking services even with lockdowns that happened in their home state of California. He said this disruption has pushed them to become a much more agile organization, both in business and IT departments: this is one of those things that likely is never going back to how it was pre-COVID. He credited their use of Appian for low-code development as part of this, and said that they are now taking advantage of it as never before. Blake echoed that they also have become much more agile, creating and deploying new capabilities in their systems in a matter of a few days: the vision of all low-code, but rarely the reality.

Interesting to hear these customers stories, where they stepped up and started doing agile development in the low-code platform that they were already using, listening to the voice of the customer in cooperation with their business people, executives and implementation partners such as Appian. So many things that companies said were just not possible actually are: fast low-code implementation, work from home, and other changes that are here to stay. These are organizations that are going to hit the ground running as the pandemic recedes — as Blake points out, this is going to be with us for at least two years until a vaccine is created, and will have multiple waves — since they have experienced a digital revolution that has fundamentally changed how they work.

Great customer panel: often these are a bit dry and unfocused, but this one was fascinating since they’ve had a bit of time to track how the pandemic has impacted their business and how they’ve been able to respond to it. In both cases, this is the new normal: Cline explicitly said that they are never going back to having so many people in their offices again, since both their distributed workforce and their customers have embraced online interactions.

Next up was deputy CTO Malcolm Ross (who I fondly remember as providing my first Appian demo in 2006) with a product update. He showed a demo that included integration of RPA, AI, IDP, Salesforce and SAP within the low-code BPM framework that ties it all together. It’s been a while since I’ve had an Appian briefing, and some nice new functionality for how integrations are created and configured with a minimum of coding. They have built-in integrations (i.e., “no code”) to many different other systems. Their AI is powered by Google’s AI services, and includes all of the capabilities that you would find there, bundled into Appian’s environment. This “Appian AI” is at the core of their IDP offering, which does classification and data extraction on unstructured documents, to map into structured data: they have a packaged use case that they provide with their product that includes manual correction when AI classification/extraction doesn’t have a sufficient level of confidence. Because there’s AI/ML behind IDP, it will become smarter as human operators correct the errors.

He went through a demo of their RPA, including how the bots can interact with other Appian automation components such as IDP. There is, as expected, another orchestration (process) model within RPA that shows the screen/task flow: it would be good if they could look at converging this modeling format with their BPM modeling, even though it would be a simple subset. Regardless, a lot of interesting capabilities here for management of robotic resources. If you’re an existing Appian customer, you’re probably already looking at their RPA. Even if you’re already using another RPA product, Appian’s Robotic Workforce Manager allows you to manage Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere and UiPath bots as well as AppianRPA bots.

The last part of the morning keynotes was a panel featuring Austan Goolsbee, Former Chairman of President Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Arthur Laffer, Economist and Member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, moderated by Matt Calkins. This was billed as a “left versus right” economists’ discussion on how to reopen the (US) economy, and quickly lost my interest: it’s not that I’m not interested in the topic, but prefer to find a much wider set of opinions than these two Americans who turned it into a political debate, flinging around phrases such as “Libertarian ideal”. Not really a good fit as part of a keynote at a tech vendor conference. I think this really highlights some of the differences between in-person and virtual conferences: the virtual tech conferences should stick to their products and customers, and drop the “thought leaders” from unrelated areas. The celebrity speakers have a slight appeal to some attendees in person, but not so much in the virtual forum even if they are live conversations. IBM Think had a couple of high profile speakers that I skipped, since I can just go and watch their TED Talk or YouTube channel, and they didn’t really fit into the flow of the conference.

The remaining three hours of day 1 were (pre-recorded) breakout sessions available simultaneously on demand, with live Q&A with the speakers for the entire period. This allows them to have a large number of sessions — an overwhelming 30+ of them — but I expect that engagement for each specific session will be relatively low. It’s not clear if the Q&A with the speaker is private or if you would share the same Q&A with other people who happened to be looking at that session at the same time; even if they were, the session starts when you pop in, so everyone would be at a different point in the presentation and probably asking different questions. It looks like a similar lineup of breakout sessions will be available tomorrow for the afternoon portion, following another keynote.

I poked into a couple of the breakout sessions, but they’re just a video that starts playing from the beginning when you enter, no way to engage with other audience members, and no motivation to watch at a particular time. I sent a question for one speaker off into the void, but never saw a response. Some of them are really short (I saw one that was 8 minutes) and others are longer (Neil Ward-Dutton‘s session was 36 minutes) but there’s no way to know how long each one is without starting it. This is a good way to push out a lot of content simultaneously, but there’s extremely low audience engagement. I was also invited to a “Canada Drop-In Centre” via Google Meet; I’m not that interested in any sort of Canadian-specific experience, a broader based engagement (like Slack) would have been a better choice, possibly with separate channels for regions but also session discussions and Q&A. They also don’t seem to be providing slide decks for any of the presentations, which I like to have to remind me of what was said (or to skip back if I missed something).

This was originally planned as an in-person conference, and Appian had to pivot on relatively short notice. They did a great job with the keynotes, including a few of the Appian speakers appearing (appropriately distanced) in their own auditorium. The breakout sessions didn’t really grab me: too many, all pre-recorded, and you’re basically an audience of one when you’re in any of them, with little or no interactivity. Better as a set of on-demand training/content videos rather than true breakout sessions, and I’m sure there’s a lot of good content here for Appian customers or prospects to dig deeper into product capabilities but these could be packaged as a permanent library of content rather than a “conference”. The key for virtual conferences seems to be keeping it a bit simpler, with more timely and live sessions from one or two tracks only.

I’ll be back for tomorrow’s keynotes, and will have a look through the breakout sessions to see if there’s anything that I want to watch right now as opposed to just looking it up later.

Forrester Keynote at Appian World: Realizing the Promise of BPM

It’s the last morning at Appian World, and Clay Richardson from Forrester is delivering the opening keynote on getting value out of your BPM initiative. He pointed out that the pace of change is accelerating, but the innovation of management practices has slowed. We have a mess of applications inside our business that have been put in place to address the change, but not very many good tools to manage how all those applications work together.

BPM provides language and tools for business transformation, allowing you to transform your business from traditional functional management to horizontal centers of excellence, moving from vertical/functional silos, to functional with process overlays, to processes with functional overlays, to a purely horizontal service and process-driven organization. Each stage of BPM evolution delivers great value: as you move from process modeling to execution, then monitoring and optimization. Not only does this increase value for the organization, but it moves the visibility of BPM up the food chain within the organization, so that the executives are using it as a measure of how well that your business is doing. To do this, it’s necessary to balance technology and methodology; as we all know, BPM projects aren’t purely technology, but they do need some technology to support the process discipline.

Forrester has developed a framework for looking at BPM’s economic impact, balancing the technology cost, the business value, the options that are created in terms of flexibility, all filtered by the uncertainty associated with any transformative initiative. They looked at five areas of benefits from the end solution, from cost savings to compliance, plus project factors such as increased business engagement in BPM projects to increase quality, speed and adoption of the new methods and solutions; increased developer efficiency; and reduced time to handle change requests. In their research, they found that process architects/analysts in particular had a huge impact on the success of BPM projects (which makes me, as a process architect, feel pretty good) because they can straddle business and IT concerns, and keep the focus of business on the KPIs of the process rather than irrelevant implementation details. They also considered several risk categories – implementation, impact, strategic and measurement – and how to mitigate some of the risks in a BPM project.

They’ve wrapped all of this up in a report on best practices framework for BPM suites (available for purchase from Forrester, of course), and Clay talked about some of the best practices around skills, including BPM-related certification programs that are available, and using the social enterprise to engage the right people in BPM discovery, development and runtime efforts. He also discussed the value of cloud computing to accelerating delivery and minimize risk.

These factors all come together to create highly evolved BPM programs, where a BPM center of excellence is responsible to the executive level, and helps to transfer some of the BPM project tasks such as analysis and modeling over to the business to accelerate BPM projects.

Appian World Cloud Case Studies: psHEALTH

We finished the cloud case studies with Abhishek Agrawal of psHEALTH. He used to work for Appian, so likely had a bias in that direction already, but they selected Appian since they wanted a complete cloud solution, plus for the strong process modeling capabilities, data security infrastructure, scalability and robustness. Lastly, they liked that they could create solutions without writing code: they wanted to be a case management solutions provider without being a software company, something that a lot of outsourcing companies struggle with.

That doesn’t mean that they haven’t built their own components, rather that they haven’t done that using the usual “lines of code”; Agrawal stated that their total lines of code = 0. They built a library of process application components within Appian, then can easily assemble those into custom case management solutions for their clients.

Looking at the before and after of one of their clients in deploying the Appian-based case management solution, they doubled the number of cases that a case worker could handle (from 40 to 80) by making it much easier to access, work with and transfer case files. They’re also working on some mobile applications, including support for their clients’ case workers and also for the end-customers (patients) with things such as a smartphone-based medication diary.

Data security was key for them, being in the healthcare industry, and they gained ISO27001 and SAS-70 Type II certifications for their Appian-based applications, which says a lot about the potential for high security in the cloud. They also were able to go to the market with a complete product solution that required only minor tweaks for each client, rather than a complete custom build each time, making it much faster to onboard a new client. For them, a cloud-based solution and the easy ability to build new applications from a library of components have been key to their success.

Appian World Cloud Case Studies: Clayton Holdings

Next up was John Cowles from Clayton Holdings, which does risk analysis for the mortgage industry.

Clayton has 240 users across 5 business units on Appian Cloud BPM, and they have only 5 primary resources for building and maintaining the 100+ processes that they have in production. They had limited IT resources and limited budget, and found that software-as-a-service fit their budget and resources well. Initially, they had no IT involvement at all: it was all operations, business analysts and process efficiency people. They found that Appian was easy enough to build applications without IT support, although now that they are undergoing some large back-end system changes, they do have a bit more technical input. They’ve seen an improvement in their BPM cultural maturity, and an increase in adoption rates as well as demand for new applications. Cowles now wants to do everything with Appian: he sees it as a general-purpose application assembly tool, not just a BPM tool. Interestingly, they did what I always recommend: limited or no system integration for the first implementations, then add that later on once they figure out what they really need, and start to see some process efficiencies. This lines up with their Agile philosophy of prototyping everything, and having frequent releases with incremental new functionality.

They have experienced huge efficiency gains due to their BPM implementation and other process efficiency efforts: 38% reduction in headcount in spite of a 6% increase in workload, time saved not doing manual gathering of user performance data, and process improvements in moving from email and Excel to BPM. The focus on change management and process management early on were important for their success. He also recommended collecting the reporting requirements up front to ensure that the necessary data are being collected by the process. Good points, and a nice success story for cloud BPM.

CME Case Study at Appian World

Who knew that the venerable Chicago Mercantile Exchange had rebranded themselves as the CME Group? Not me, so when I sat at the Appian dinner yesterday with John Verburgt, their Director of BPM, I probably sounded like a bit of a newb. Verburgt was joined on stage this afternoon by Brian Toba, their Director of Software Engineering, to talk about how they launched their BPM program. They were looking for BPM in the holistic sense – both methodology and execution – ranging from just wanting to get a better handle on how some of their processes work to supporting mobile workers.

They talked about their vendor selection process (without naming the other two vendors involved, although they did mention that they consider the leaders as specified by Gartner and Forrester), including a proof of concept installation and prototype. They did their pilot with Appian’s cloud BPM, and had the satisfying experience of going out for a couple of days training and coming back to a completely operational system – I really think that even for traditional on-premise vendors, cloud support for development and test is really critical for customer quick starts.

They had a really interesting chart showing their “collaboration meter”, indicating how much business and technology involvement was required for each of the project activities; the only thing that was purely on the technology side was architecture implementation (around shifting from cloud development to on-premise production), whereas all other activities were a blend. Process design, for example, was shown as 2/3 business and 1/3 technology.

They went live in January 2011 with more than 100 users, and are on track to deliver their third application in May. So far, they’ve implemented a new product launch process and an employee on-boarding process, and May’s release will be a co-location portal. They’re also using Tempo for mobile access.

Some good points on what – and who – it takes to get a BPM initiative up and running, and to sustain it as it moves from that first project into a multi-project program.

Malcolm Ross With Appian Product Update

Malcolm Ross was up next at Appian World to give an update on the entire product portfolio: not an easy task in 30 minutes. He had some updates on their on-premise solution, and some good information on their Appian BPM cloud platform; interestingly, they no longer seem to use the name Appian Anywhere for the cloud platform, but just position it as another deployment option for their BPM platform. To begin with, he shared a few statistics for their cloud BPM:

  • 99.99% up time in 2010 (can you say the same for your enterprise systems?)
  • > 30,000 unique logins per day
  • > 40% of Appian’s software revenue
  • integrated cloud/support team

They’ve beefed up the security in response to customer requirements, including encrypted HTTPS traffic, and even providing a secure VPN connection between their environment and your enterprise, if you need a highly secure environment.

Also interesting is some new packaging and pricing with their cloud starter edition, which combines cloud and on-premise deployments; I see this as a good fit for organizations that need to have their production system on premise due to security concerns, but want to use the cloud for development and testing in order to reduce costs and speed the time to get started. Appian Tempo iPad appIt uses a month-to-month subscription model, although I’m not sure if that includes the on-premise licenses as well, and the ability to quickly set up environments in the cloud with instant on and off control in order to control costs. For some time now, they’ve allowed a process application created in the cloud to be exported and moved over to an on-premise server (or vice versa), allowing developers and testers to use the cloud, then quickly deploy within the enterprise.

He spent some amount of time doing a live iPad demo of Tempo, showing how you can not only consume information, but spawn new activities and interact with events from a variety of systems, including Appian BPM, and Twitter. As we heard from Matt Calkins earlier today, the Appian app can now be branded by any partner or customer; Malcolm gave us a bit more detail such as how they handle all the admin around things such as submitting it to the Apple app store. He also demoed some of the features that take advantage of the platform, such as use of embedded cameras to take a photo as an attachment.

Matt Calkins Keynote at Appian World

Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, provided us with some vision around how BPM is changing, and how Appian is delivering on that. They’ve experienced significant growth in sales in the past year, and more than 40% of their business is on their cloud platform.

Their big news, of course, is Tempo: their process event streaming interface that integrates closely with their BPM platform as an alternative interface, and also allows inclusion of events from a variety of sources such as or pretty much anything with an RSS feed. There are two significant things going on here: one is the ease of use of the interface, and the other is the enablement of mobile. This fundamentally changes how work can get done; I spoke with an Appian customer last night (who will be presenting later today on a panel) about how they will be using Tempo to enable fuel tank inspection operators to update a Tempo-based compliance checklist on their mobile device instead of using paper clipboards, then having to spend additional time back at an office filling out a spreadsheet and emailing it to someone. As we know, in regulated industries, it’s not enough to be compliant, you have to be seen to be compliant; providing this sort of immediate update of compliance data helps with the latter at the same time as you’re doing the former.

In their latest release happening now, you can brand your own application based on Tempo, so that the iPhone app uses your logo and title bar rather than being branded as Appian.

Appian Tempo iPhone appHe poked a bit of fun at how some other vendors are presenting their social business offerings as more about social interaction than getting business done: social may be the delivery mechanism, but the payload is business. Their social platform is focused on integration so that you don’t have your interaction in one system, then login to the “real” system to record what happened; integrating with their own process management plus many other systems means that Tempo is the real system, just an alternative, cooler interface to it.

He moved on to talk about the nature of work, that is, the spectrum between structured and ad hoc work, especially within the same process. I’ve talked a lot about this requirement to have completely unstructured portions within a structured process, and see it in almost every business process that I work on with enterprise clients. He sees this as something that is handled by social business; I see a distinction between dynamic and social, although there’s a correlation.

He did a good overview of the type of people in enterprise today relative to their mobile usage: executives (approvals, reports), headquarters workers (keep in touch), road warriors (initiate tasks, remote collaboration) and mobile task workers (execute tasks, access data). Enterprise applications provide varying levels of support for current business functions, by providing modern interfaces, making business events visible, having native mobile processes and data, and integrating social functionality. For those applications that don’t provide some of the more advanced levels of support, Appian is providing ways to add Tempo as an interface to bring them up to scratch. He sees BPM in 2013 as being focused on the mobile process enterprise: it’s more than just having organizations become process enterprises (which is enough a challenge on its own), but that these processes can be accessed from anywhere. Ambitious, but not undoable.

Gartner Keynote at Appian World: From Operational Excellence To Operational Resilience

The analysts are on the move this week: earlier in the week, we were all in Las Vegas for IBM Impact, now we’re all in DC for Appian World. I presented a BPM 101 session yesterday in the workshop day, and this morning Janelle Hill of Gartner is giving the opening keynote. I’ll be at the Gartner BPM Summit in Baltimore in a few weeks, so I might be seeing this talk again soon.

She’s talking about an upcoming BPM revolution (although it seems more evolutionary than revolutionary, but the R word allowed her to invoke some nice Egypt images) where we move towards resilient processes. By 2020, we’ll see more and more of unstructured processes, dynamic BPM, social BPM, context-aware processes and intelligent operations.

BPM is raising the bar for operational excellence; their basic definition “BPM is a management discipline that treats processes as assets that directly contribute to enterprise performance by driving operational excellence and agility” points to the required attributes of visibility, accountability and adaptability. Gartner predicts that by 2014, business process defects will topple 10 Global 2000 companies; these seems a bit too much like end-of-time predictions, but if you cast the net wide enough, there will sure to be some business failures that can be attributed in part to defective processes. What I do whole-heartedly agree with is that the biggest opportunity for improvements and differentiation are in unstructured processes: these are the ones currently live in email and spreadsheets, and contribute to non-compliance.

There are a number of factors that contribute to operational resilience:

  • Visibility into the pipeline of work allows a front-line worker to dynamically reroute work in order to achieve service goals. I would argue that some of this could be done with automated load balancing, not just manual rerouting, although the concept of visibility would cover that as well.
  • Dynamic BPM allows workers to change or create the process required in order to achieve a goal in a manner that was not envisioned by the process designer. This allows us to consider eliminating requirements (I could so get on board with that) since the creation, prototyping and productionizing of processes can happen so quickly; if this approach scares you, consider that the requirements and design can be a much more collaborative process that allows for continuous change. In fact, she characterizes the requirements-less approach as “fantasy”, whereas I characterize it as “Agile”. I don’t think that Gartner goes far enough here: fully dynamic BPM is possible in some scenarios (excuse me while I dig out my “Process for the People” t-shirt); Phil Gilbert of IBM/Lombardi has stated that we should just put process design in everyone’s hands. Obviously, this is going to be dependent on the types of processes and your corporate culture.
  • Social BPM, including both design-time and runtime, which is something that I’ve been writing and presenting on for 5 years now, brings enterprise social software concepts to BPM – good to see Gartner finally recognizing these ideas front and center. I think that they formerly had a lot of social collaboration ideas tied up in dynamic BPM, which are adjacent but slightly different concepts, but now seem to have split this out.

Her focus is really on challenging the audience on how they define BPM, and how they use it within their own organizations. This means building in resiliency, embracing dynamic processes, figuring out cloud strategy, and harnessing the social interaction that is already going on between people. To quote her closing point, “acceptance of the collective will determine your future”.