Imagine a Better Mobile BPM

Scott Francis
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No series of posts on the cloud would be complete without also mentioning what’s going on in mobile, as Perfect Storm Brewing, makes clear.

Ever since I first graduated from college, I’ve been working with firms who really wanted to “enable” remote employees and traveling employees.  At first it was laptops.  We wrote and deployed software that could function in sub-second time on x486 CPUs on laptops that had less than 8MB of memory.  Later, we saw a move to specialized hardware devices with primitive stencil or touch-based interfaces.  And then we saw such ruggedized hardware running commoditized operating systems (windows or unix), rather than a custom operating system.

We still see the vestiges of these efforts today in the field.  A hodgepodge of devices of varying capability and quality. But I can imagine a better world. I’m imagining a world where BPM mobile apps are native, rather than HTML5.  Where the user experience is as rich as the best iOS apps (less like Facebook, more like Paper).  Where the mobile apps actually understand the business process, and the business process understands how to leverage mobile apps – location and notifications in particular.

It turns out there are all kinds of people out there with purpose-built devices, and sub-par software experiences even today.  Think of the delivery man coming to your door with a portable device for you to sign for a package.  You can’t even read your own signature.  And the hardware is expensive. Now imagine that same deliveryman with an iPad.

There’s always been a motivation to better equip our field personnel.  As technology has improved, so have the tools – in fits and starts. But the last 5 years have seen the greatest opportunity for change in equipping field employees that I can remember since the advent of cheap cell phones. There’s a move under weigh to commodity hardware – iPads and tablets (but mostly iPads at this point) and purpose-built software (mobile apps).  A lot of custom enterprise applications are being built as mobile apps – but most of them are focused on the customers or consumers.  They may even connect at a key point to some internal system, but only at a point. Or two. But can’t we do better?

Can’t we provide mobile apps that really understand your field engineering processes?  That truly understand how insurance adjusting fits in with the overall claims process?  That truly understand the processes that sales people engage with?  Apps that provide the right context from the process, and leverage the context your mobile device provides, to improve your productivity? And do we really want our HR processes intermingled with our sales processes and our claims processes?

I’m not convinced that we do.  A fictional ACME corp doesn’t need a single BPM mobile app – ACME needs mobile apps that make sense for each of its critical processes – distributed to the users that make sense for those processes.   And the apps should be tailored for the processes they interact with.  Of course the processes should understand what can be done from mobile devices (potentially everything – but potentially not). The big software vendors will continue to ship general-purpose applications and mobile apps – as they should – after all it is reaching the broadest audience that is of most interest to them.

But for customers that really need a tailored experience, we can pair commodity hardware with fantastic user experiences – and achieve process improvement at the same stroke. It is the holy grail of enabling employees in the field to do their jobs better.

And it is all right there in front of us.  All we have to do is go for it. At IBM Impact, we’ll be presenting our approach to mobile BPM.  We’re looking forward to painting the vision of what can be accomplished with the right tools.  More to come soon…

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