Keeping Up with Evolving Business Processes

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About a dozen years ago, many companies adopted rolling budgets as a way to update their financial outlook constantly instead of waiting for the end of the quarter or year. Essentially, they viewed each new month as the start of a new year, allowing them to adjust to the future based on trends of the recent past.

Ah, the good old days. Today things move much faster, not just with budget planning but with virtually every business process in almost every large company.

John Burton, CEO of Nintex, argues that this evolution in business processes stems largely from the explosion in unstructured data that allows teams of employees to react to new data, the needs of mobile workers, price changes, social media or other factors that come into play.

CMSWire asked him to share his point of view from the helm of a company that creates workflows for about 5,000 clients.

CMSWire: Are business processes going away or are they evolving into something new?


Burton: I think there is a significant evolution of business processes. In most companies they were transactional, and by that I mean they were repetitive, high-volume types of transactions that were under the control of IT. The other processes that needed to take place to support professional workers -- office processes and others -- were left for second or third priorities because they were very, very challenging to try to automate. 

The reason there's a big change now is because there is a massive increase in the amount of unstructured data that is included or required for a business process. That includes things like documents, records, forms, but now even video, social feeds, social notification and mobile input. All that stuff is unstructured. The difference between what is required today versus what had been automated in the past is you've got to find a way to get all that stuff to work in a coordinated, automated fashion, feeding all the people who collaborate in a particular process that in itself may be unstructured.

CMSWire: How is this manifesting itself in the workplace? Are we seeing different technologies, or different work routines?

Burton: I think the old thing about "always on" is prevalent. You're mobile right now. All of us who are traveling are dealing with processes and approvals for systems, provisioning, collaborating with a bunch of people, and you may be at any number of locations. Plus you may be doing it with a social tool like Yammer, you may be using Twitter, and at the same time, you may be interfacing with a SaaS application at your company. So there are different types of systems that feed and expect responses, different business approval and provisioning requirements and it can be global in nature. So, absolutely, it's new devices, new technologies and a lot of them require instant responses.

CMSWire: When we consider business processes that are essential to the smooth running of the business, how is this change affecting those? Are we revising business processes to include this new mobile era with new devices? Or are they actually supplanting the processes with new ways of doing business?

Burton: I think to a large extent, the corporate IT-controlled applications that are transactional and structured in nature continue to evolve. Think about Workday, Salesforce, ServiceNow. But at the same time, the demands to automate those processes that use unstructured content that are [used for] approval, provisioning, mobile data capture, mobile data dissemination, social feeds are the ones that are required to be automated because they need to be compliant, governed, accurate and immediately responsive. 

So think about data of an unstructured nature being contained in SharePoint or a file sync and share system with mobile or social feeds interacting with it. The only way to really automate it is to define a flow of work with content that gets assimilated in that workflow, and then define the people who interact with that workflow process. It's a different way of looking at things because it's not a data value. It's content as opposed to data. 

CMSWire: This reminds me of the discussions of rolling financial budgets. What I'm hearing is that the business process of yesterday is becoming a living organism in today's workflow. Is that a fair statement? And if so, how does that affect information governance?

Burton: That's a great way to put it. I may steal it!  Let's take an example. Let's say a company is public and needs to do a quarterly filing. Every company does a filing that is done quarterly as a document. It's a 10-K or a 10-Q that gets filed with the SEC. And it gets circulated internally to the CFO, the marketing staff, the CEO and the lawyers. And every time it goes through revision, it needs to be approved and sent to the next person in the sequence or concurrently. That is a living, breathing document -- everyone doesn't collaborate on it, but they need to approve and sign-off. Before it gets filed, that document needs to be approved by a certain number of people and then sent. That absolutely needs to be done in a compliant process that can be tracked, that can be recreated if necessary. All the data values and words need to be approved and they need to be done in a certain way. That's a simple example of something.

Here's another one where you're using information that comes in from a mobile data-capture standpoint from a health application. People walk around a hospital with a tablet, taking in data values, filling out a form and that form gets submitted. That data, while it's going to go into an unstructured process, has got to be able to be affirmed and compliant and it's got to fulfill certain regulatory requirements. Any process you think about in a business ought to be able to be automated and repetitive.

CMSWire: I'm wondering how the social workplace of today affects that because a lot of the communication and social media is going to be transitory in nature -- it's in a conversation between workers, it's exchanging texts quickly. Does all that become part of the corporate record? Does it need to be archived?

Burton: There are two parts to that. First, can you define the workflow that results in those communications and can you automate it. That's why workflow is essential to be able to be automated. Once it's automated, you can begin to track it. So there are lots of processes in a business.

We have a client that does data-capture for mining, and another that does data-capture for weather observations -- very transient types of data. But that data gets defined in a process. You fill out a form, it goes into a process and then it gets disseminated on the other end to people who need to know. If that process wasn't defined and automated, it could literally be done through a process that takes a week or so. But once it's defined, it can be monitored, and it can be recorded as needed. With social feeds, you can't capture everything. But if you make it part of your process, which you really want to do, it makes the process faster, but it also makes it repetitive and compliant.

CMSWire: How does your team support this transition in workflow?

Burton: Very simply put, we're probably the company that has done more of this stuff than any other. It's one of those stories that started out as practical and turned into strategic. The big change in my mind to allow automated workflow in the revolution we're going through right now, was when Microsoft became so successful with SharePoint. That's where every company's documents tend to go. And they get managed in one particular depository that is for unstructured content. The guy who started Nintex built a workflow on top of that depository, which -- as you know -- became the No. 1 content management platform in over 100,000 locations worldwide. 

The workflow we did on top of that went to forms, then mobile, then social feeds. Then it went to the cloud, and then it was opened up to more content management systems and more file sync and share systems instead of just SharePoint. So Nintex has been, I think, a catalyst in the ubiquity of being able to pull content from anywhere, put it into a defined workflow and then automate it. Right now, Nintex has over 5,000 customer worldwide, including about half of the Fortune 500. It has on the order of 5 to 8 million workflows running for our customers every day with 9 million users of those workflows. So Nintex has been unintentionally stealthy largely because of its Australian heritage, but certainly we're the leader in this by a long shot.

Title image by Beverly Goodwin (Flickr) via a CC BY-2.0 license.