Addressing Integration’s ‘Human Factor’ Through Workflow Automation

0315NintexArtWith rising business demand and an ever-increasing number of mobile services, content and data, enterprises today need a coordinated way to harness all of those elements and integrate them into their everyday business processes. But too often, integration is seen as a thing unto itself, a complex project rather than a constant process. For integration to work, it needs to be agile. It needs to be able to quickly pull content from all kinds of new places, and it needs to consider an important component that is classically missing from most approaches: the human factor.

Traditionally, integration using business process management (BPM) systems appears almost as a series of individual development products. It can be complex and expensive, requiring specialists, complicated software architecture, and the development of a large amount of custom code to handle all of the different connections to various content and data sources. With so many process automation projects running at once within organizations, IT managers end up wasting too much time figuring out integration at the expense of focusing on the process itself. Projects could take months if not years, and by the time they were completed, the business environment had often changed.

Integration On Demand

In today’s fast-paced businesses, organizations only have a finite amount of resources — people, time and money — and if those are being put heavily toward integration, then they are not being spent on addressing the business problem at hand. Process automation practitioners who are aware of that challenge might aim to divide their time between integration and process, but few have the bandwidth to consider the human factor — in other words, the solution’s ease and usability. This results in complex solutions that take a great deal of time to build but are not often used.

For integration to be effective, it needs to be quick and nimble. Especially as we come to treat the cloud as one giant, omnipresent entity of its own, businesses need to be able to refactor and integrate solutions into an increasing number of places — personal calendars and tasks lists, CRM systems like, transaction-processing monitors, you name it. In this environment, integration needs to be something that can be mixed and matched on demand. Something that you do not have to work hard to get right once.

To be truly successful, integration needs to be for everyone, from the IT professional to the business user. It needs to equally balance the trifecta of people, processes and content, and put the power to create solutions in the hands of those closest to the process. If it is carried out as a standalone backroom project, businesses are going to experience the same delays as they would with classic BPM engagements. Integration should instead be obvious and easy to use, so that nearly anyone with basic knowledge of business diagrams can be successful at it.

Empowering End Users

I recently heard a Gartner analyst refer to this as “citizen integration”: the concept of the people in the trenches taking the automation of business connections into their own hands. The idea is that integration does not need to be — and should not be — complex. A salesperson on the fly using a consumer service or app can easily pump CRM contacts into his or her personal Outlook address book. That counts as integration. Demand is so high for integration within organizations that treating it as individual development projects will only create bottlenecks nobody can get past.

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine a sales department that wants to devise a new, systematic way to assign opportunities to different salespeople based on unique requirements within their team. On top of that, the team needs to be able to integrate in a creative new way to run upcoming promotions and contests. The typical way to go about this challenge would involve the sales team gathering new information to bring to a data management specialist in the IT department — an approach that can quickly turn into a multi-month project and would likely result in the sales team missing its deadlines for planned promotions. If salespeople instead had easy access to and could snap it into a quick and not-so-dirty business process on their own, they could build the solution in a matter of hours or days.

The best way to approach integration is to look at every process, from the elaborate to the everyday, and assume that everyone has an interest in managing and integrating the processes they care about. Workflow automation, which draws on elements of low-code development, process automation and integration, tackles this challenge by making integration easy, by finding the perfect balance between processes, content and—the missing piece—people. It’s about empowering everyone to automate processes and leaving no process behind, about looking at total throughput of an organization as opposed to optimizing one process at a time.

Workflow Automation: BPM Without the Baggage

Workflow automation goes wherever the users are, bringing workflow to the environments they already use — email, social media, instant messaging, texting — rather than requiring one more website or system to check. It means putting the tools in the hands of people who actually understand what is going on to reduce the risk of communications breakdowns. It ensures that users can connect to what they need right when they need it, saving time and resources, and reduces the IT burden by freeing them up to focus on more important tasks.

This is not to say that IT should not be involved in overseeing integration. Integration needs to be informal without being chaotic, and IT can and should facilitate that. The best approach for IT is to present content services data applications as a catalog of components, or building blocks, which people with a lower skill level can comfortably mix and match to build solutions for themselves. IT should feed that catalog with integration components that are easy to understand and use, and provide examples to users to show best practices. Workflow automation is extensible by IT, by developers and by third parties to increase the catalog with building blocks that are relevant to individual customers.

Workflow automation also supports effective integration by reducing abstraction, in other words, not hiding things or introducing excessive layers. It makes elements as concrete as possible so people can just roll up their sleeves and get work done. For example, when integrating applications in the cloud, a solution needs to make it very obvious to which applications you are connecting. If you are a business user connecting to Microsoft Dynamics CRM, its unique facilities should be extremely apparent and right there in front of you, so you can simply snap building blocks together to create workflow solutions.

Abstraction takes time and is not nearly as conducive to citizen development or to the building-block approach. Creating yet another data extraction layer would require far more individuals to get it right — and if you try to change it, it requires more people doing more things in more places. One might think that abstraction would alleviate this, but doing so actually increases the skill level required to make that change. Few people know how to manage a data extraction layer, while the number of people needing to switch from one layer to another is near infinite. Integration — reconfiguring those building blocks — needs to be apparent and accessible to anyone.

An Evolving Process

Another key piece to successful integration within workflow is the ability to build and improve the solution in iterations, also known as iterative development. This goes back to the need for integration to be a constant, maturing process rather than an isolated project. The best approach to avoiding analysis paralysis is to make solution-building iterative: create a solution, find out what works and what does not and continually evolve and improve it, encouraging people to keep refining it until the desired result. The work does not stop at tackling one integration “project” and then moving on to the next. Be prepared to continue to evolve it as conditions change.

In today’s business environment, almost no modern business process of any size is confined to one content source, usually linking components together from all kinds of different places, systems and devices. More and more process automation projects are process automation slash integration projects, and that means that the built-in automation engine that might exist in a software package or online cloud service will not be enough. When it comes to integration, businesses need a solution that can span the gaps between apps, something that is easy to use and powerful — for everybody. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Workflow.

Mike Fitzmaurice is the vice president of workflow technology for Nintex.