IBM IOD Opening Session: ACM and Analytics

I’m at IBM’s Information On Demand (IOD) conference this week, attending the opening session. There are 10,000 attendees here (including, I assume, IBM employees) for a conference that covers information management of all sorts: databases, analytics and content management. As at other large vendor conferences, they feel obligated to assault our senses in the morning with loud performance art: today, it’s Japanese drummers (quite talented, and thankfully short). From a logistics standpoint, the wifi fell to its knees before the opening session even started (what, like you weren’t expecting this many people??); IBM could learn a few lessons about supporting social media attendees from SAP, which provided a social media section with tables, power and wired internet to ensure that our messages got out in a timely fashion.

Getting back to the session, it was hosted by Mark Jeffries, who provides some interesting and amusing commentary between sessions, told us the results of the daily poll, and moderated some of the Q&A sessions; I’ve seen him at other conferences and he does a great job. First up from IBM is Robert LeBlanc (I would Google his title, but did I mention that there’s no wifi in here as I type?), talking about how the volume of information is exploding, and yet people are starved for the right information at the right time: most business people say that it’s easier to get information on the internet than out of their own internal systems. Traditional information management – database and ECM – is becoming tightly tied with analytics, since you need analytics to make decisions based on all that information, and gain insights that help to optimize business.

They ran some customer testimonial videos, and the term “advanced case management” came up early and often: I sense that this is going to be a theme for this conference, along with the theme of being analytics-driven to anticipate and shape business outcomes.

LeBlanc was then joined on stage by two customers: Mike Dreyer of Visa and Steve Pratt of CenterPoint Energy. In both cases, these organizations are leveraging information in order to do business better, for example, Visa used analytics to determine that “swipe-and-go” for low-value neighborhood transactions such as Starbucks were so low risk that they didn’t need immediate verification, speeding each transaction and therefore getting your morning latte to you faster. CenterPoint, an energy distributor, uses advanced metering and analytics not only for end-customer metering, but to monitor the health of the delivery systems so as to avoid downtimes and optimize delivery costs. They provided insights into how to plan and implement an information management strategy, from collecting the right data to analyzing and acting on that information.

We then heard from Arvind Krishna, IBM’s GM of Information Management, discussing the cycle of information management and predictive analytics, including using analytics and event processing to optimize real-time decisions and improve enterprise visibility. He was then joined on a panel by Rob Ashe, Fred Balboni and Craig Hayman, moderated by Mark Jeffries; this started to become more of the same message about the importance of information management and analytics. I think that they put the bloggers in the VIP section right in front of the stage so that we don’t bail out when it starts to get repetitive. I’m looking forward to attending some of the more in-depth sessions to hear about the new product releases and what customers are doing with them.

Since the FileNet products are showcased at IOD, this is giving me a chance to catch up with a few of my ex-FileNet friends from when I worked there in 2000-1: last night’s reception was like old home week with lots of familiar faces, and I’m looking forward to meeting up with more of them over the next three days. Looking at the all-male group of IBM executives speaking at the keynote, however, reminded me why I’m not there any more.

Disclosure: In addition to providing me with a free pass to the conference, IBM paid my travel expenses to be here this week. I flew Air Canada coach and am staying at the somewhat tired Luxor, so that’s really not a big perq.

Impact Keynote: Agility in an Era of Change

Today’s keynote was focused on customers and how they improving their processes in order to become more agile, reduce costs and become more competitive in the marketplace. After a talk and intro by Carrie Lee, business news correspondent and WSJ columnist, Beth Smith and Shanker Ramamurthy of IBM hosted Richard Ward of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Rick Goldgar of the Texas Education Agency and Justin Snoxall of Visa Europe.

The message from yesterday continued: process is king, and is at the heart of any business improvement. This isn’t just traditional structured process management, but social and contextual capabilities, ad hoc and dynamic tasks, and interactions across the business network. As they pointed out, dynamic processes don’t lead to chaos: they deliver consistent outcomes in goal-oriented knowledge work. First of all, there are usually structured portions of any process, whether that forms the overarching framework from which collaborations are launched, or whether structured subprocesses are spawned from an unstructured dynamic process. Secondly, monitoring and controls still exist, like guardrails around your dynamic process to keep it from running off the road.

The Lombardi products are getting top billing again here today, with Blueprint (now IBM BPM Blueprint, which is a bit of a mouthful) positioned as a key collaborative process discovery and modeling tool. There’s not much new in Blueprint since the Lombardi days except for a bit of branding; in other words, it remains a solid and innovative way for geographically (and temporally) separated participants to collaborate on process discovery. Blueprint has far better capabilities than other online process discovery tools, but they are going to need to address the overlap – whether real or perceived – with the free process discovery tools including IBM BlueWorks, ARISalign, InterstageBPM and others.

Smith gave a brief demo of Blueprint, which is probably a first view for many of the people in the audience based on the tweets that I’m seeing. Ramamurthy stepped in to point out that processes are part of your larger business network: that’s the beauty of tools like Blueprint, which allow people in different companies to collaborate on a hosted web application. And since Lombardi has been touting their support of BPMN 2.0 since last September, it’s no surprise that they can exchange process models between Blueprint and process execution engines – not the full advantages of a completely model-driven environment with a shared repository, but a reasonable bridge between a hosted modeling tool and an on-premise execution tool.

As you get into demanding transaction processing applications, however, Smith discussed WebSphere Process Server as their industrial-strength offering for handling high volumes of transactions. What’s unclear is where the Lombardi Edition (formerly TeamWorks) will fit as WPS builds out its human-centric capabilities, creating more of an overlap between these process execution environments. A year ago, I would have said that TeamWorks and WPS fit together with a minimum of overlap; now, there is a more significant overlap, and based on the WPS direction, there will be more in the future. IBM is no longer applying the “departmental” label to Lombardi, but I’m not sure that they really understand how to make these two process execution engines either work together with a minimum of overlap, or merge into a single system. Or maybe they’re just not telling.

It’s not just about process, however: there’s also predictive analytics and using real-time information to monitor and adjust processes, leveraging business rules and process optimization to improve processes. They talked about infusing processes with points of agility through the use/integration of rules, collaboration, content and more. As great as this sounds, this isn’t just one product, or a seamlessly-integrated suite: we’re back to the issue that I discussed with Angel Diaz yesterday, where IBM’s checklist for customers to decide which BPM products that they need will inevitably end up with multiple selections.

The session ended up with the IBM execs and all three customers being interviewed by Carrie Lee; as a skilled interviewer who has obviously done her homework, this had a good flow with a reasonable degree of interaction between the panelists. The need for business-controlled rules was stressed as a way to provide more dynamic control of processes to the business; in general, a more agile approach was seen as a way to reduce implementation time and make the systems more flexible in the face of changing business needs. Ward (from BCBS) said that they had to focus on keeping BPM as a key process improvement methodology, rather than just using TeamWorks as another application development tool, and recommended not going live with a BPMS without metrics for you to understand the benefits. That sounds like good advice for any organization finding themselves going down the rabbit hole of BPMS application development when they really need to focus on their processes.

Using Business Space for Human Workflows

Back to the breakouts for the rest of the afternoon, I attended a presentation and demo by Michael Friess of IBM’s BBlingen R&D lab on using Business Space to build user interfaces for human-centric processes.

Business Space is what I would call a mashup environment, although I think that IBM is avoiding that term because it just isn’t taken seriously in business; in other words, a portal-like composition application development environment where pre-built widgets from disparate sources can quickly be assembled into an application, with a great deal more interaction between the widgets than you would find in a simple portal. Business Space is, in fact, built on the Lotus Mashup Center infrastructure; I think they just prettied it up and gave it a more corporate-sounding name, since it bears a resemblance to the Lotus Mashup Center version that I played with a while back with the FileNet ECM widgets. It’s browser-based and is fairly clean-looking, with easy placement, resizing and configuration of widgets.

Friess considered both “traditional” (predefined structured) and dynamic human BPM, where the dynamic side includes collaboration, allowing the user to organize their own environment, and adaptive case management. Structured BPM typically has fixed user interfaces that have a specific mode of task assignment (get next, personal task list, team task list, or team-based allocation). Business Space, on the other hand, provides a semi-structured framework for BPM user interfaces where the BPM widgets can be assembled under the toolbar-like links to other spaces and pages; the widgets use REST interfaces to back-end IBM services such as WPS, Business Compass, Business Monitor, Business Fabric and ESB, as well as any other services available internally or externally via REST. Templates can be used to create pages with standard functionality, such as a vanilla BPM interface, which can then be customized to suit the specific application.

Each widget can be configured for the content (which tasks and properties are visible and editable to the user), the actions available to the user, and the display modes such as list or table view. Even if a specific user isn’t allowed to choose the widgets that appear on the page, they typically will have the ability to customize the view somewhat through built-in (server-side) filtering and sorting.

Once widgets are placed on a page and configured, they are wired together in order to create interactions between the widgets: for example, a task list widget will be wired to a task details widget so that the item selected in the list will be displayed in the details view.

There are a number of BPM widgets available, including task list, task details, escalations list, human workflow diagram (from the process model, which will change to indicate any new collaboration tasks) and even free-form forms; these in turn allow any sort of BPM functionality such as spawning a collaboration task. Care must be taken in constructing the queries that underlay the list-type widgets, although that would be true in any user interface development that presents a list to a user; the only specific consideration here is that the mashup may not be constructed by an developer, but rather by a business analyst, which may require a developer to predefine some views or queries for use by the widgets.

If you’ve seen any mashup environment, this is all going to look pretty familiar, but I consider that a good thing: the ability to build composite applications like this is critical in many situations where full application development can’t be justified, especially for prototype and situational applications, but also to replace the end user computing applications that your business analysts have previously built in Excel or Access. Unfortunately, I think that some professional services types feel that mashup environments and widgets are toys rather than real application development tools; that’s an unfortunate misconception, since these can be every bit as functional and scalable as writing custom Java code, and a lot more agile. You’re probably not going to use mashups and widgets for every user interface in BPM, but it should be a part of your application development toolkit.

WebSphere BPM Analyst Briefing

The second of the analyst roundtables that I attended was with Angel Diaz, VP of BPM, and Rod Favaron, who used to head up Lombardi and is now part of the WebSphere team. My biggest question for them was what’s happening (if anything) with some consolidation of the BPM portfolio; after much gnashing of teeth and avoiding of the subject, my interpretation of their answer is that there will be no consolidation, but that customers will just buy it all.

IBM has a list of 10 questions that they use with their customers to determine which BPM product(s) that they need; my guess is that most customers will somehow end up requiring several products, even if the case could have been made in the past that a single one would do. Angel and Rod talked about the overlap between the products, highlighting that WPS and Lombardi have been targeted at very different applications; although that has been true in the past, the new functionality that we’re seeing in WPS for human-centric processes is creating a much greater overlap, although I would guess that Lombardi is far superior (and will remain so for some time) for that functionality, just as WPS provides greater scalability for pure orchestration processes. There’s also overlap in the modeling side between the free BlueWorks site and the on-demand Blueprint: both offer some discovery and mapping of processes, and as more functionality is added to BlueWorks, it may be difficult to justify the move to a paid service if the customer needs are minimal.

They were more comfortable talking about what was being done in order to move Lombardi fully into the WebSphere family: a single install for Lombardi and WAS; leveraging WebSphere infrastructure such as ESB; and the integration of other IBM rules, content and analytic products to provide an alternative to the previously existing third-party product interfaces used in Lombardi TeamWorks. They also discussed how the small Lombardi sales team has been integrated into the 800-strong WebSphere sales team, and used to train that team on how to position and sell the Lombardi products.

We had a very enjoyable session: I like both Rod and Angel, and they were pretty relaxed (except for the points when I asked if they considered FileNet to be their competitor, and mentioned that Blueprint should be Lotus rather than WebSphere), even having a competition where whichever of them said “TeamWorks” (instead of IBM WebSphere Lombardi Edition) had to throw a dollar into the pot, presumably for the beer fund. At the end of it, however, I was left with the thought – and hope – that this story will continue to evolve, and that we’ll see something a bit more consolidated, and a bit more cohesive, out of the WebSphere BPM team.

WebSphere Business Performance and Service Optimization

I sat in on a roundtable with Doug Hunt, VP of Business Performance and Service Optimization (which appears to be a fancy name for industry accelerators) and Alan Godfrey of Lombardi. Basically, BP&SO is a team within the software group (as opposed to services) that works with GBS (the services part of IBM) to build out industry vertical accelerators based on actual customer experience. In other words, these are licensed software packs that would typically be bundled with services. A BP&SO center of excellence within GBS has been launched in order to link the efforts between the two areas.

I heard a bit about the accelerators in the BPM portfolio update this morning; they’re focused on making implementation faster by providing a set of templates, adapters, event interfaces and content for a specific industry process, which can then be built out into a complete solutions by GBS or a partner. In particular, the accelerators look at how collaboration, monitoring, analytics, rules and content can be used specifically in the context of the vertical use case. They’re not really focused on the execution layer, since that tends to be where the ISVs play, but rather more prescriptive, such as the control layer for real-time monitoring across multiple business silos.

Interestingly, Hunt describe the recently-revealed advanced case management (ACM) as a use case around which an accelerator could be developed; I’m not sure that everyone would agree with this characterization, although it may be technically closer to the truth than trying to pass off the ACM “strategy” as a product.

This trend for vertical accelerators has been around in the BPM market for a while with many other vendors, and the large analysts typically look at this as a measure of the BPMS vendor’s maturity in BPM. The WebSphere accelerators are less than a packaged application, but more than a sales tool; maybe not much more, since they were described as being suitable for an “advanced conference room pilot”. In any case, they’re being driven in part by the customers’ need to be more agile than is permitted with a structured packaged application. There’s no doubt that some highly regulated processes, such as in healthcare, may still be more suited for a packaged application, but the more flexible accelerators widen the market beyond that of the packaged applications.

WebSphere BPM Analyst Update

There was a lunchtime update for the analysts on all the new WebSphere offerings; this was, in part, a higher-level (and more business oriented) view of what I saw in the technical update session earlier.

We also saw a demo of using Cast Iron (which was just acquired by IBM this morning) to integrate an on-premise SAP system with; this sort of integration across the firewall is essential if cloud platforms are going to be used effectively, since most large enterprises will have a blend of cloud and on-premise.

There’s a ton of great traffic going on at #ibmimpact on Twitter and the IBM Impact social site, and you can catch the keynotes and press conference on streaming video. Maybe a bit too much traffic, since the wifi is a bit of a disaster.

WebSphere BPM Product Portfolio Technical Update

The keynotes sessions this morning were typical “big conference”: too much loud music, comedians and irrelevant speakers for my taste, although the brief addresses by Steve Mills and Craig Hayman as well as this morning’s press release showed that process is definitely high on IBM’s mind. The breakout session that I attended following that, however, contained more of the specifics about what’s happening with IBM WebSphere BPM. This is a portfolio of products – in some cases, not yet really integrated – including Process Server and Lombardi.

Some of the new features:

  • A whole bunch of infrastructure stuff such as clustering for simple/POC environments
  • WS CloudBurst Appliance supports Process Server Hypervisor Edition for fast, repeatable deployments
  • Database configuration tools to help simplify creation and configuration of databases, rather than requiring back and forth with a DBA as was required with previous version
  • Business Space has some enhancements, and is being positioned as the “Web 2.0 interface into BPM” (a message that they should probably pass on to GBS)
  • A number of new and updated widgets for Business Space and Lotus Mashups
  • UI integration between Business Space and WS Portal
  • Webform Server removes the need for a client form viewer on each desktop in order to interact with Lotus Forms – this is huge in cases where forms are used as a UI for BPM participant tasks
  • Version migration tools
  • BPMN 2.0 support, using different levels/subclasses of the language in different tools
  • Enhancements to WS Business Modeler (including the BPMN 2.0 support), including team support, and new constructs including case and compensation
  • Parallel routing tasks in WPS (amazing that they existed this long without that, but an artifact of the BPEL base)
  • Improved monitoring support in WS Business Monitor for ad hoc human tasks.
  • Work baskets for human workflow in WPS, allowing for runtime reallocation of tasks – I’m definitely interested in more details on this
  • The ability to add business categories to tasks in WPS to allow for easier searching and sorting of human tasks; these can be assigned at design time or runtime
  • Instance migration to move long-running process instances to a new process schema
  • A lot of technical implementation enhancements, such as new WESB primitives and improvements to the developer environment, that likely meant a lot to the WebSphere experts in the room (which I’m not)
  • Allowing Business Monitor to better monitor BPEL processes
  • Industry accelerators (previously known as industry content packs) that include capability models, process flows, service interfaces, business vocabulary, data models, dashboards and solution templates – note that these are across seven different products, not some sort of all-in-one solution
  • WAS and BPM performance enhancements enabling scalability
  • WS Lombardi Edition: not sure what’s really new here except for the bluewashing

I’m still fighting with the attendee site to get a copy of the presentation, so I’m sure that I’ve missed things here, but I have some roundtable and one-on-one sessions later today and tomorrow that should clarify things further. Looking at the breakout sessions for the rest of the day, I’m definitely going to have to clone myself in order to attend everything that looks interesting.

In terms of the WPS enhancements, many of the things that we saw in this session seem to be starting to bring WebSphere BPM level with other full BPM suites: it’s definitely expanding beyond being just a BPEL-based orchestration tool to include full support for human tasks and long-running processes. The question lurking in my mind, of course, is what happens to FileNet P8 BPM and WS Lombardi (formerly TeamWorks) as mainstream BPM engines if WPS can do it all in the future? Given that my recommendation at the time of the FileNet acquisition was to rip out BPM and move it over to the WebSphere portfolio, and the spirited response that I had recently to a post about customers not wanting 3 BPMSs, I definitely believe that more BPM product consolidation is required in this portfolio.

Conference Season Begins

It’s been quiet for several months for conferences, but things are heating up again for the next four weeks. Here’s my upcoming schedule:

  • This week, I’m at PegaWorld in Philadelphia, including chairing a workshop on Wednesday morning on case management
  • The week of May 3rd, IBM Impact in Las Vegas
  • The week of May 10th, TIBCO’s TUCON in Las Vegas
  • The week of May 17th, SAP SAPPHIRE in Orlando

If you’re attending any of these events, be sure to look me up. I’ll be blogging from all of them. You can find these, and many other BPM-related events, at the BPM Events calendar. If you have an event to add to the calendar, just let me know.

Disclosure: each of the vendors pays my travel expenses for me to attend their user conference. They do not, however, have any editorial control over what I write while at the conference.