Rather Than a Platform, Maybe What you Need for Workflow Management is a Master Orchestrator
Everyone wants to be a platform these days. Ask any tech-company CEO, and they’ll likely tell you, “We’re not a product company; we’re a platform company.” Being a platform makes a product the center of the universe, which is where pretty much everybody wants to be. I mean, if someone said, “You’re just a minor planet roving around an middling-size star on an out-of-the-way spiral arm of a forgotten galaxy in an inconsequential group,” you might take offense. Better to be the center of whatever the action is.
But in the digital world we live in, there can only be so many platforms. Having multiple centers can be problematic. I’ve experienced this phenomenon in a single product, a PC. Not long ago, I had issues with no less than three companies vying for control of my graphics subsystem: AMD, the maker of the graphics chip, Intel (an AMD rival), which held sway over the on-board graphics and some of the drivers, and Microsoft, which handles graphics information higher up the stack. Needless to say, each company (perhaps inadvertently) broke aspects of the others’ software, making my UX decidedly poor.
And that’s just within one product. Most companies get their work done by interacting with multiple products, many of which are self-styled platforms. On any given day, just to get basic work taken care of, employees have to interact with a mix of platforms like Microsoft Office 365, Salesforce.com, SAP, NetSuite, Dropbox, and Slack. Each one proclaims links to some of the others, but these connections are rigid and narrow, like exporting a file that can be read by the other system. Rich multi-platform experiences are hard to come by.
Some of this platform soup is the result of IT managers’ motivational structure. After a honeymoon period with integrated software stacks from major suppliers like Microsoft during the late 1990s, they turned to buying best-of-breed products and stitching them together, often with custom code. Employees have to learn these one-off workarounds, which are often brittle and unforgiving. Everyone in the company becomes an application jockey, which, while it may confer a measure of job security, is far from the most efficient way to tend to the company’s business.
By the mid-2000s, application service providers like Salesforce.com had come into being, adding their complexity to the existing spaghetti mess. What’s an IT manager to do?
So, please, folks, all you suppliers — fewer platforms! You all need to get along for your customers’ sake.
One company taking this message to heart is Nintex, the workflow automation company. Rather than a platform, Nintex sees itself as a “master orchestrator,” a friendly go-between that helps software modules from other companies play nice with each other, and, perhaps more importantly, work well with the people who need to use them (see Improving How You Work). Whereas a platform is like a black hole — everything goes in and nothing comes out — a master orchestrator helps each piece of functionality do what it is supposed to do on behalf of users.
Nintex, particularly the most-recent cloud edition, embodies this role through connectors. These connectors allow departmental employees — not even IT people! — to choose best-of-breed products and stitch them together quickly and easily, not just the data and systems, but the people and the way they interact with the systems. In today’s software-as-a-service world, departments often buy their own access to cloud products with their own operating budgets (rather than IT department capital budgets), and these same groups are now in a position to manage and operate their own systems.
With workflow automation software, all system elements are integrated, allowing tasks, information, and content to move from one person to the next along the digital flow (see Connecting people, departments, and systems with Nintex Workflow Platform). Depending on decisions and outcomes at each stage, a task is either routed onward or returned for rework. People don’t have to ask themselves, “Did I do that task yet?” The tasks themselves inform the necessary humans about what job they need to undertake next. People see messages, emails, or receive phone calls, depending on how the task flow is set up, and get an immediate and clear understanding of what state a job flow is in and what they need to do to move things along.
Nintex is rapidly filling out its universe of connectors. Categories that need to be connected include assets, services, employees, partners, and managers overseeing these entities. Marketing assets like Marketo and MailChimp need to communicate with lead generation services like SAP and Dynamics CRM, engagement support services like Zendesk and Salesforce, financial services like Dynamics GP, SAP, and NetSuite, collaboration tools like Office 365, Slack, and Skype for Business, and content repositories like Box and Dropbox.
Without Nintex, when ordinary humans try to wrangle all these assets and services to work for them, a lot of trial and error and back-and-forth communication occurs, wasting precious time. In addition, not all tasks have a set timeline. Sometimes a project is done when the manager in charge of it says it’s done. The other systems and people have to wait an indeterminate amount of time. In many cases, the decisions made by people are more important than the tasks themselves. Nintex orchestrates the people around the tasks, telling them, in effect, what they need to know and what they need to do next.
It’s high time that a service, acting as an orchestrator, coordinated all these island-universe platforms on behalf of the people responsible for getting work done right and fast.