Ultimus: V8 technical demo

FlobotI ended up wrapped up in a discussion at the break that had me arrive late to the last session of the day; Steve Jones of Ultimus is going through many of the technical underpinnings of V8 for designers and developers, particularly those that are relevant to the people in the audience who will be upgrading from those old V7 systems soon.

A nice way to integrate with web services, where the WSDL can be interrogated and a data structure matching the interface parameters created directly from that; most other systems that I’ve seen require that you define the process parameters explicitly then map from one to the other. Of course, there’s lots of cases when you don’t want a full representation of the web services interface, or you want to filter or combine parameters during interface, but this gives you the option for setting up a lot of web services really quickly.

The integrated rules editor allows you to drag and drop process variables — including recipients — onto a graphical decision tree; you don’t have the full power of a business rules system, but this may be enough for a lot of human-centric processes where most of the complex decisions in the process are made by people rather than the system.

For interfacing with any of the external components, such as the email connector or a form, it’s possible to drag and drop data fields from the process instance schema or org chart/ActiveDirectory directly to assign variables for that component, which is a pretty intuitive way to make the link between the data sources and the external calls. They’ve also eliminated some of the coding required for things like getting the current user’s supervisor’s email address, which used to require a bit of code in V7.

Ultimus provides a virtual machine with the software pre-installed as part of their training offerings, which is a great way to learn how to work with all of this; I don’t understand why more vendors don’t provide this to their customers.

I looked back to some old notes from early 2007 when I had a demo of Ultimus V7; my impression at that time is that it was very code-like, with very little functionality that was appropriate for business analysts; V8 looks like a significant improvement over this. They’re still behind the curve relative to many of their competitors, but that’s not completely surprising considering their management upheavals over the past year. If you’re a pure Microsoft shop, however, you’ll likely be willing to overlook some of those issues; Forrester placed Ultimus in the leaders sector (in an admittedly small field) in their report on human-centric BPM on Microsoft platforms. In the broader market of all BPM vendors, Gartner placed them in the visionaries quadrant: good completeness of vision, but not quite enough ability to execute to make it into the leaders quadrant, although this latter assessment seemed to be based on the performance of the previous management team.

Steve spent a bit of time showing the V8 end-user interface: reconfigurable columns in task lists, including queries and filters; shared views to allow a personal view to be shared with another user (and allow that other user to complete work on your behalf); and the ability to run reports directly out of the standard user environment, not a separate interface.

They’ve also done some performance improvements, such as moving completed process instances to a separate set of tables (or even archived out to another database) for historical reporting without impacting the performance of work in progress.

That’s it for me for the conference (and the week); tonight, we’ll be down by the Riverwalk drinking margaritas while listening to a Mariachi band. Tomorrow is an Ultimus partner day and I’ll be on an early morning flight home. Next week, I’ll be at the Business Rules Forum in Orlando, where I’m giving a presentation on mixing rules and process. The following week, I’m headed to Miami for the Software AG analyst/blogger roundtable and a day at their user conference, a late addition to my schedule.

Ultimus: Process optimization

Chris Adams is back to talk to us about process optimization, both as a concept and in the context of the Ultimus tools available to assist with this. I’m a bit surprised with the tone/content of this presentation, in which Chris is explaining why you need to optimize processes; I would have thought that anyone who has bought a BPMS probably gets the need for process optimization.

The strategies that they support:

  • Classic: updating your process and republishing it without changing work in progress
  • Iterative: focused and more specific changes updating live process instances
  • Situational/temporary: managers changing the runtime logic (really, the thresholds applied using rules) in live processes, such as changing an approval threshold during a month-end volume increase
  • Round-trip optimization: comparing live data against modeling result sets in simulation

There’s a number of tools for optimizing and updating processes:

  • Ultimus Director, allowing a business manager to change the rules in active processes
  • Studio Client, the main process design environment, which allows for versioning each artifact of a process; it also allows changes to be published back to update work in progress
  • iBAM, providing visibility into work in progress; it’s a generic dashboarding tool that can also be used for visualization of other data sets, not just Ultimus BPM instance data

He finished up with some best practices:

  • Make small optimizations to the process and update often, particularly because Ultimus allows for the easy upgrade of existing process instances
  • Use Ultimus Director to get notifications of
  • Use Ultimus iBAM interactive dials to allow executives to make temporary changes to rule thresholds that impact process flow

There was a great question from the audience about the use of engineering systems methodology in process optimization, such as theory of constraints; I don’t think that most of the vendors are addressing this explicitly, although the ideas are creeping into some of the more sophisticated simulation product.

Ultimus: Customer roundtable

I’m in a roundtable session with one brand new Ultimus customer, one who’s six months in and just getting their first processes rolled out, and one who’s done a lot of processes already. As was requested previously, and again not-so-subtly by Chris Heivly who is moderating this session, I won’t be documenting the names of the customers or the details.

Instead, I am forced to blog about my cat:

She’s not much into BPM, but you can see that she’s a bit of an efficiency expert.

Seriously, though, there were a few good nuggets in the session that won’t tell any tales out of school:

  • Product demos aren’t enough to bridge the gap to understanding what BPM can do for you: you need to prototype your processes in a product to really understand it.
  • Going paperless is a huge cultural challenge, but once the users get used to it, they wouldn’t give it up.
  • HR onboarding provides a good opportunity for automation, and can justify the cost of the BPM system alone in a larger organization.
  • Implementing one relatively straightforward process up front can be used to help bolster the business case for additional implementations. One example that we heard was implementing the approval process for the requirements for the processes that you’re there to build in the first place.
  • Sometimes it’s worthwhile to implement the current process without reengineering — pave the cowpaths, as it were — in order to start gathering statistics on the bottlenecks in the process and highlight the potential for improvements.
  • The center of excellence approach is critical for rolling out a large number of processes efficiently, using a small core of dedicated resources, then moving other people in and out of the team as their skills were required.
  • A rapid, agile-like approach with a minimum of structured requirements works well, especially for getting the initial happy path process up and running; you can go back and fill in the exception cases later in the design and implementation cycle.

Ultimus: Reports and Dashboards

Chris Adams is probably now thinking that I’m stalking him: not only do I attend his first two technical sessions, but when he switches to the business track for this presentation, I follow him. However, I wanted to hear about their reporting and analytics capabilities, and he covered off reporting, dashboards, BAM, alerts and using third-party analytics.

Ultimus test drive

He started out with the underlying premise that you need to have governance over your business data, or your processes won’t be effective and efficient; in order to do that, you need to identify the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the health of your processes. This means both real-time monitoring and historical analytics.

Ultimus iBAM provides a real-time dashboard that works with both V7 and V8. Only in V8, there’s also email alerts when specific KPI thresholds are reached.

For offline reporting, they have three types:

  • Process reports, automatically created for process instance analytics
  • User reports, also automatically created for workload and user productivity
  • Custom reports that allow for filtering of the historical data, filtered by other business data

Reports can be viewed as charts as well as tabular reports; there is a third-party report generation tool invisibly built in (Infologistics?); Chris noted that this is the only third-party OEM component in Ultimus.

If you’re using Crystal Reports or Cognos, Ultimus has now opened up and created connectors to allow for reporting on the Ultimus history data directly from those platforms; by the end of the year, they’ll add support for SQL Server Reporting Services as well.

There will be a more technical session on the reporting and analytics later today.

Ultimus: V8 Technical Deep Dive

Chris Adams is back for a somewhat longer session — I think that he zipped through the previous overview session in about 5 minutes to make up time on the schedule — to give us a lot more detail on the V8 product features. Some of this will only be of interest to Ultimus customers, but I find that it gives some good insight into how the product works and the directions that they’re taking.


First, he discussed what’s already in the released 8.x product:

  • Flobot connectors are now reusable. “Flobots” are the Ultimus connectors to other systems, with about 10 types available out of the box including web services calls (and I now have a very cool Flobot USB key); previously, you had to reconfigure each connector for every use. For example, for the email connector, you had to set up all parameters for the email connector (ports, authentication, etc.) each place it was used in the process, and change it whenever there was a change to, for example, the recipient. Now, they’ve allows for a reusable connector that has some or all of the parameters predefined to allow that to be more easily used in the process.
  • XML data storage replaces the V7 spreadsheet data structure that was previously used (which previously limited each data element to 255 characters, a limit that I sense from the audience was a sore point). My first reaction was “you used to keep your process instance data in a spreadsheet?”; sometimes you only find out about weirdnesses in a product when you hear about their upgrade out of that state.
  • A new Ultimus rules engine replaces event conditions, with a graphical representation of the rules. Rules actions can be related to steps in the process, or call .Net code or web services. Previously, the event conditions were kept in the spreadsheet data structure, and you had to reference the spreadsheet cell address rather than a schema variable name within rules. Now, you can add rules to processes directly in-line using the process parameters in the rule definitions.
  • Native ActiveDirectory support, so that you can (for example) assign a step to a group that exists in AD. You can still use their org chart functionality to create groups directly in Ultimus.
  • Attachments to process instances have been moved off the BPM server, and into SharePoint. You can use another content repository, but they do SharePoint out of the box and feel that it’s the best integrated solution.

Coming up in 8.2 in December:

  • BPMN support, although you can still convert back and forth to the Ultimus shapes if you’re more familiar with them. He showed a screenshot that looked pretty rudimentary, but it’s not released yet so I’ll reserve judgement until I see the final version.
  • Increased visibility into process incident history, to be able to step through exactly what happened in any particular process instance, including which rules that fired. You can actually playback
  • Enhanced development environment by adding Ultimus awareness to Microsoft Visual Studio for a single environment.
  • Fully exposed APIs, that is, access to the same APIs that the out of the box system is built on to allow you to build the same functionality into your own custom applications, with any function that you see in a pop-up menu also available through an API.

He showed us some architecture diagrams showing their new open architecture, including the client services for building custom client applications, BI services for custom reporting applications, and Flobots for external connectors.

Ultimus: V8 Introduction

Wow, I could have had a V8!

Okay, now that that’s out of my system, Chris Adams (VP Product Management) was up to give us an overview of the V8 release which will be an intro to the deep dive session that’s coming up next. V8 isn’t brand new — 8.0 was in October 2007, 8.1 in July 2008, 8.2 is coming in December — but most of their customers haven’t yet moved to it yet.

Key differences:

  • Moved from the Tidestone spreadsheet data model to XML
  • Providing reusable connectors in a repository for linking to other systems rather than having to retrain Flobots
  • ActiveX controls changed to .Net
  • Changed event conditions to their rules engine
  • Attachments do not need to be kept on the BPM server, but can be stored in SharePoint
  • Native use of ActiveDirectory rather than having to build an org chart first

As a Microsoft partner, they have a strong focus on MS-Office/MOSS 2007, including MS-Office Flobots included directly in the processes: that means that an Excel spreadsheet (for example) can be used as the UI at a step in the process instead of using a custom web form.

I’m going to stick around for the deep dive session next, so more detail to come.

Ultimus: Dave Ridley, Southwest Airlines on sustaining organizational excellence

I’ve been coached by Ultimus PR that I can’t mention all speakers by name since some of them are a bit skittish about seeing their names and case studies splashed across the internet, but Dave Ridley, SVP of marketing for Southwest Airlines, doesn’t have that problem. He was here today to discuss organizational excellence, and he started with a lot of jokes about how someone from an airline could even think about doing this, given the sad state of the industry over the past several years. However, Southwest has been a success story in the US domestic airline space since not only have they not gone bankrupt, they’ve actually been profitable and have never had a layoff. Furthermore, they have a reputation for great customer service, as well a providing a fun experience for their customers.

He started off talking about how you have to focus on process and metrics, what he calls “the smart stuff”, but that’s not enough to sustain organizational excellence; you also have to be “healthy”. He defines a healthy organization as one with minimal politics, a strong focus on the business that you’re in, low turnover and high morale. His mantra: relationships always precede sustained results. Not just external relationships with your customers, investors and partners, but internal relationships with your employees. I’m totally on board with this: when I ran a 40-person systems integration company in the late 90’s, my mantra was “the customer comes second”, and I always put my own team’s best interests ahead of everything else, which in turn motivated them to put the customers’ best interests first.

He told us some heart-warming stories of Southwest employees going above and beyond the call of duty, making the point that you can’t train people to provide this level of customer services: you have to hire them. Hire for attitude, train for aptitude. He points out that most of us spend much less time and effort hiring people than we do to spend the equivalent amount of money on software — what’s wrong with that? He challenged the audience to find the points of organization excellence that are deeply ingrained in their companies, and look for those when hiring people. Then, as he wrapped up the talk, he said it’s important to ignore the “customer comes first” mantra, and put your own people first. Weird to see the same words that I wrote 15 minutes ago (above) echoed, but it’s too true. He sees successful leadership, at least at Southwest, as being egoless: big titles don’t matter, prima donnas not permitted, everyone is equally important in contributing to organization excellence.

There’s so much that we do in BPM that works towards achieving organizational excellence, but sometimes we get caught down in the weeds and forget about the larger issues. Ridley’s talk was a good reminder of what’s really important in business.

Ultimus: Me on the Future of BPM

Here’s the presentation that I just delivered at the Ultimus user conference:

First time that I’ve given this in this format, but it’s a combination of so much that I’m already writing or talking about, it flowed pretty well. I’m writing a paper for publication right now on Enterprise 2.0 and BPM, which will expand on some of these ideas.

Ultimus: Product Road Map

Chris Adams from Ultimus product marketing management gave us a brief view of the road map and product vision for Ultimus Adaptive BPM Suite. Not surprisingly, their product manages the entire process lifecycle, and is focused on continuous process optimization. They’re a strong Microsoft shop — you’ll find them near the top of the Microsoft version of the Forrester wave report for human-centric BPM — with SharePoint integration as well as the underlying Microsoft infrastructure support. They have a very Microsoft 2007 look and feel, e.g., the use of ribbon bars.

Their last major version was 8, in October 2007, but they’re still supporting V7 (90% of customers are still on that platform) and some V6. They have a migration strategy that allows you to run two servers simultaneously, gradually migrating process instances from one to another, even directly from V6 to V8.

The improvements in 8.1 were around collaboration and efficiency features; they need to spend a bit more time on some of the BPM standards, where they’re far behind, but they’re planning to implement BPMN in V8.2 in December, and BPEL and XPDL in V8.3 in spring 2009. Also coming in 8.2 is an interactive process history and auditing, plus a Visual Studio plug-in for better integration into the Microsoft development environment.

V8.3 will also see the entire suite (except server components) moved to zero footprint applications: no desktop applications, even for process modeling. They’ll be open sourcing some of their components, as well as including some social software concepts such as presence awareness, collaboration on tasks, sharing tasks, and collecting feedback during transactional processes.

A nice segue to my talk, where I talk about social computing as one of the key components of the future of BPM.

Over and above the enhancements to the core suite, they’re evolving from one product to multiple products. They see the need for a lighter suite (currently labeled as “Workflow Suite”, which likely won’t be the final name) for global markets: a low-cost (about 20% of the BPM Suite price) BPM solution with the same core engine, but some features turned off, and exposed APIs for regional partners to build applications. They’re also keeping an eye on SaaS directions, but have no announcements in that area; however, with the move to a zero-footprint suite, they’re positioning themselves well for that eventuality.

They’ll be releasing a number of templates as a starting point for new processes, including verticals such as finance and healthcare/pharmaceuticals, plus horizontal processes like human resources and IT.

They’re pushing a lot of online training for their product, which makes sense considering that they’re a relatively small company covering a large geography.

With most of the people in the room still on V7, this is a bit of a sales job to get them to move over to V8: more than 500 new features, more out of the box functionality, reusable features and functions, and connectors to web services and many other data sources.

Chris will be doing a more in-depth view of this tomorrow, but this gave us a quick overview.

Ultimus: Janelle Hill Keynote

I’m giving my keynote here at the Ultimus user conference in about an hour, but it’s always a pleasure to listen to Janelle Hill of Gartner so I’ve decided that I’ve reviewed my notes enough already. She’s discussing the need for business process competency centers, and how you end up with a series of BPM departmental silos if you don’t consider a competency center. This is a perfect launching point for my “Future of BPM” talk coming up, since one of the challenges that I list at the beginning is siloed departmental BPM systems that exist, in part, because of the lack of a competency center.

So what does a competency center provide? Think of it as a sort of internal consulting group or shared service, a one-stop shop for everything BPM: services, tools and standards. It’s there to support the activities that help to enable and scale BPM adoption. The main goal is to create a repeatable approach for rolling out successful BPM projects, which will may include methodologies (such as Lean), tools (such as modeling tools) and even a repository of shared implementation artifacts.

She walked through the pros and cons of different possible models for how to organize a BPCC: reporting to business, reporting to IT, or a blended model sitting between the two areas; like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the one in the middle is just right. There’s also an issue of whether to have a centralized BPCC or multiple decentralized centers, and how to evolve the BPCC over time as the BPM maturity within the organization increases. She had a few case studies — one of whom happened to be in the room — for BPCC implementations.

An interesting idea that she put forward is establishing a career path in business process competency, with three tiers of participant types ranging from business analysts up to a director/VP of BPCC. Having this structure makes it easier both for external recruiting as well as bringing people into the BPCC from other areas of the organization. She sees the competency center as a training group that people rotate through, not an exclusive club that you never leave once you’re in, which makes it more of an integral part of the organization.

Lessons that Gartner has learned from their customers about implementing a BPCC:

  • Too much bureaucracy in the BPCC hinders BPM adoption
  • Plan for the end state, but roll out as needed — don’t wait until the entire BPCC is done before starting on projects, and don’t built a competency center just for the sake of doing so
  • Sponsorship is critical, particularly for funding
  • Education and training take time and money

She finished up with a set of recommendations for implementing the BPCC, the services and engagement model, and how it fits into the organization now and going forward.