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Off the shelf or DIY, smart process apps add agility

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Part one of this story introduced the emergence of so-called smart process applications: Touted as a new breed of commodity software, they are designed to streamline multistep, human-based activities by making the information accessible in one application. Here, experts discuss the potential benefits of these context-rich, lightweight applications, and Wellesley College CIO Ravi Ravishanker explains his DIY approach to building such apps.

Ravi RavishankerRavi Ravishanker

Wellesley College CIO Ganesan "Ravi" Ravishanker doesn't know the term smart process applications, but he can relate to the notion of process issues plaguing business innovation. Although a small institution, the Wellesley, Mass., school was looking to provide a "seamless" experience for students dealing with interdepartmental administrative tasks.

Ravishanker and his team have been on a two-year journey building applications that cut down on repeating information and make it easy for students and faculty to perform multistep administrative tasks all in one place. More than 40 have been developed in-house thus far, including apps to help manage two major on-campus conferences -- applications, approvals and scheduling for these events all happens online. Class scheduling, which used to be a resource-intensive manual process, is now fully automated.

"One of the largest apps is the 'student checklist,' which allows students to take care of all the 'administrivia' online," Ravishanker said. "For example, first-year students provide emergency contact information, their class preferences, take placement exams, etc., and the administrators track the process easily through reports we provide."

Buzzword or big deal

In business today, agility of any kind -- not just with a capital A -- can tip the scales toward a business' success or failure. Digitalization, cloud and mobile have groomed consumers to get what they want now, and CIOs had better deliver.

CIO Ravi Ravishanker explains how Wellesley College did DIY smart process applications

We chose the LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP] stack strategy. This choice was made after taking several things into consideration: cost of creating an application, redundancy in terms of application support, cost of hardware required to run it, etc. We began with some of the basic core functionality, such as authentication, consistent look and feel and consistent navigation. This has grown fairly large over time with modules supporting several additional functions. 

Many staff members who were skeptics now readily have adopted this after seeing some of the early successes. We just implemented Git version control and Zend encryption as additional features. This is also in line with our adoption of the "forever beta" strategy whereby we are able to continually add new features as plugin functions without disturbing the current application much. In addition, we are able to put together a new app from existing functionalities from other apps.

These are highly functional apps with decent graphical interfaces. We can do much more to make them look "nice," but this has been low on our priority [list] because most of what we have been doing are administrative tasks. If we can find the resources to develop slicker interfaces, our framework will easily accommodate its integration.

Not everyone necessarily agrees with this approach because, rightfully so, they raise long-term concerns. Our method relies on accessing data from multiple sources and we rely heavily on WebServices or APIs or views of data created for us by DBAs [database administrators] and other programmers.

This is indeed a serious concern, but we have developed guidelines and strategies to make sure that this does not come to bite us later. By making this the platform of choice, we are actually managing the portfolio creep. Also, by using LAMP stack and other open source tools such as Git, we are engaged in technologies for which the talent in marketplace is not that hard to find! -- Karen Goulart

Although using smart process applications may not provide a staggering competitive advantage, they can still make a big difference to the business, said Sandy Kemsley, a BPM architect and independent industry analyst. First and foremost commodity applications, they facilitate tasks for which CIOs don't want to spend time and money having custom software built.

"Smart process applications are almost like the next generation of the ERP-type systems, where we all bought the same systems because there wasn't a big competitive differentiator there," Kemsley said. "Where these apps will mostly work is for a lot of things like HR and billing that are horizontal across industries. These are not a competitive differentiator for a company."

That said, the more indirect advantages they provide should not be overlooked, Kemsley said. Time is money, and these applications can be major time savers, freeing up workers to do other things.

"That's the goal of smart process applications," Kemsley said. "You take them out of the box, configure them and they're ready to go in what should be a matter of weeks rather than months -- vendors will say days, but we know nothing happens in days."

Ravishanker agrees this breed of application is "absolutely important" for business agility. The indirect competitive advantage is there in the form of increased efficiency.

"Many of our customers readily agree that this allows them to shift some of their resources to other critical things that are waiting in the pipeline," he said.

And don't discount customer perception, said Jeremy Hubbard, director of business innovation at the Loma Linda, Calif.-based medical center and university. Customers want to complete transactions "now," and a lack of agility reflects poorly on the organization as a whole.

"You can have a great reputation, but if your business processes are very antiquated, customers are going to realize that and start looking elsewhere," Hubbard said.

Smart process applications on the CIO radar

With many vendors starting to release fairly robust smart process applications, Kemsley believes it's time for CIOs to pay attention.

"It's still very early in the game, but CIOs should definitely be looking at this, especially if it's time for them to replace some of these systems or if they're putting in a system," Kemsley said. "If they're at that point, they can probably get something from the SPA category up and running much more quickly than they could with a traditional sort of system that might need customization."

Ravishanker believes many CIOs are probably doing work along these lines right now -- and those who aren't likely wish they could.

"Some have the resources to be able to do this, and some just don't," he said. "That is what is stopping them from experimenting with these types of methodologies."

One caveat: As with any new technology process, including intuitive user-friendly apps, good change management is crucial to success, Ravishanker cautioned. "We have had strong partners who are willing to take this as an opportunity to make adjustments to business processes and retraining of their staff."

At Loma Linda, the smart process application journey has been led by the executive stakeholders on the business side with IT coordinating what needs to be done from a network or system standpoint. Hubbard's thoughts on where the CIO should fit in the mix: in the driver's seat.

"It's going to need to be driven by the CIO because no one else is going to have a global view of how it impacts all sides of the business," Hubbard said.  "IT is the gatekeeper for core systems so they need to be, if not at the head of the table, on either side of the head, to point out where this will help and where it fits into the organization's overall strategy."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.


This was first published in November 2013

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