This blog entry has been co-authored by

Soeren Balko

Alexander Dreiling

Kathrin Fleischmann

Thomas Hettel

A few months ago we released a screencam of a Gravity – Collaborative Business Process Modelling within Google Wave that enabled users to collaboratively design business process models. We also described some of the technical underpinnings Enjoy NetWeaver BPM - Part 2: A Gravity Wave Comes to Galaxy. In the meantime we have had many conversations with customers and partners on the usefulness, potential application scenarios and on feedback after test trials. Three public responses include The specified item was not found., Maarten Engels' and Niels van der Zeyst's blog on their experiences using Gravity, and Daniel Graversen's workshop summary of using Google Wave and Gravity in a large organization. In addition we were overwhelmed by the very encouraging and constructive feedback we received from the SDN / BPX community specifically and the BPM community in general.

We've learned that amongst the most appealing features were collaboration, ease of use and the abilty to include non-BPM experts in discussions on business processes. We’ve also learned that it's nice to have a business process model, but that at the end of the day we very often need an application to support it. The feedback led us to extend Gravity in two directions. The first is a functional extension. We took a significant body of existing SAP Research prototypes and concepts in the area of lightweight composition and applied it to business process management. Secondly, we implemented a new adapter to run Gravity on SAP's new collaborative decision making platform www.12sprints.com.

As a result, Gravity now is a tool to collaboratively develop and execute processes-centric applications across different organizations. As such it offers simultaneous modeling of the underlying business process and the corresponding user interfaces using drag and drop operations and drawing lines. Both perspectives are interrelated and changes to one are propagated immediately to the other. By switching between the perspectives users can gain a more holistic understanding of the business process and its corresponding application. The prototype continues to demonstrate the benefits of real-time and asynronous collaboration, but in addition to designing a business process model collaboration now extends into building a full-blown process-centric application.

Executing Gravity within SAP’s new www.12Sprints.com platform enables end users to use it in the context of collaborative decision making. 12Sprints also enables users to combine Gravity's strengths with a range of methods available on this platform. In the screencam below we can see how a range of employees within a purchasing department collaborate on a decision to switch mobile phone providers. They use a range of 12Sprints methods to collect and aggregate the responses from the tender process and to facilitate the necessary decision. After this, they use Gravity to solve the problem at hand: how to switch 1,500 users to the new provider with minimal effort and disruption. The screencam shows how three users collaborate to achieve this goal. Here's a screenshot of Gravity in 12Sprints:

 

Gravity in www.12Sprints.com

 

In addition to 12Sprints, a second scenario shows a few different capabilities of Gravity on top of Google Wave. In this scenario a range of users try to solve the problem of how to quickly and easily change a travel request process to include an additional approval step and integrate a new travel agent. We tried to focus primarily on showing the tight integration between the two different perspectives of business process modelling and application development and how changes in one lead to changes in the other. Here's a glimpse of what Gravity looks like in Google Wave:

 

Gravity in Google Wave

 

Both screencams have a different focus and show different capabilities so we recommend watching both. Let's start with the 12Sprints demo (if you do not have access to Youtube inside a Corporate Network, please click here to watch the screencam:

 

 

As we can see, in particular for small processes around the edges of more standardized processes that are not usually supported through ERP or other means Gravity can be used as an alternative. Now over to the demo of Gravity on Google Wave (if you do not have access to Youtube inside a Corporate Network, please click here to watch the screencam:

 

 

Obviously, Gravity does not target the design of mission critical high-volume processes, but rather low-volume or one-off processes that typically occur in smaller organizations at the edges of more standarized processes. For such processes, a classical implementation through an IT department is usually prohibitively expensive. Still, people require some degree of automation so they can focus on their really important tasks.

While we addressed a few of the problems in the BPM space so far we are also aware of the fact that we have left many others unsolved. Please give us some more time to dig deeper...

This blog is co-authored by

Soeren Balko

Alexander Dreiling

Kathrin Fleischmann

Gravity is a prototype developed by SAP Research in Brisbane, Australia and SAP NetWeaver Development providing real-time, cloud-based collaborative business process modelling within Google Wave. Google Wave is Google's new real-time collaboration platform that combines features of e-mail, social networking, wikis and instant messaging in one integrated browser-based client. Google Wave offers rich developer APIs to extend the core functionality with custom components. We have embedded Gravity as a Google Wave "gadget" that can be added within the Google Wave client. Leveraging the collaborative features of Google Wave, all business process modelling activities get propagated in near real-time to all other participants of the Wave. In addition, participants of the Wave can use all other features provided by Google and its developer community to enrich the collaborative modelling experience.

In the demo we see how Gravity can be used to facilitate the development of high level process descriptions for two merging companies, BCD South Bank and FH Insurance. These two companies are merging in a tough economic climate and management need to quickly re-engineer their business processes in order to capitalise from cross-selling opportunities between banking and insurance products. In addition to the near real-time propagation of model content to all participants of a Wave, various features of true real-time collaboration are shown, such as different colour-coding for each individual modeller, history of a model, asynchronous and synchronous editing, and more. The demo also shows how robots (automated components that act as Wave participants) can be leveraged in order to syntactically correct the model on the fly. In the end, we will see how models are exported using BPMN 2.0 XML. They will then be imported into SAP Netweaver BPM for further refinement and execution.

The demo shows how new technology can be systematically leveraged in order to facilitate what Business Process Management is really about: business user collaboration within and across departments of one or more organisations.

Please check out the high resolution screencam by clicking on the Gravity screenshot above. If you experience problems with the Podcast, please click here for more versions including a low resolution of the screencam or view the embedded screencam below.

 

The Study

Process modelling has over the years become an essential skill in Information Systems and Business Process Management practice. Consequently, more and more training programs have evolved, teaching different process modelling languages. Two popular process modelling languages are being compared in our experimental study. Experiment participants received extensive training in one language but not the other, leading to the expectation that learning outcomes would be better in the case of the familiar language. Our study provides empirical evidence that this is not the case. In fact, it is shown that participants achieved similar learning outcomes when confronted with the unfamiliar language. Our results lead to a fundamental question, namely whether it is actually an important teaching decision what sort of process modelling language is being taught. Our findings suggest that education and research in process modelling should focus on aspects other than the style, nature or features of languages and tools.

Implications for Academia

Our research results have implications primarily with respect to educational aspects. We have shown that users of EPCs understand BPMN diagrams equally well even though they were never exposed to this modelling language before. With respect to the university curriculum it must be concluded that it is neither of much use to include several process modelling languages into a single course, nor is it of much use to impose an obligation on students to learn several process modelling languages in several courses.

Additionally, our research raises another very important and interesting question: Can we build families of process modelling languages with the following properties: Language users of one process modelling language can easily switch to another language of the same family and have difficulties to switch to a language from another family. It seems likely that the results of this study can be replicated for other process modelling languages in which activities and events play a central role. But is it possible to replicate these results, e.g., for Petri nets, or are Petri nets so fundamentally different from BPMN and EPCs that our obtained results would not hold again?

A third implication for academia is to face the question of how process modelling learning outcomes are actually achieved. The cognitive theory of multimedia learning used in this paper suggests three elements involved in the process: content, content presentation and user characteristics. We have focused the element content presentation in our study and controlled for content and user characteristics. The next step would then be to study different types of content and different types of user characteristics, respectively. Could it be that certain types of process modellers are more receptive to certain process modelling tasks? Some prior studies in IS, indeed suggest that user differences in cognitive abilities, application domain knowledge and method knowledge affect the way that conceptual modelling and information acquisition is conducted. An important research question would then be o investigate how these user characteristics impact the way process modelling is conducted.

Implications for Practice

The main implication for practice is the insight that a new process modelling language does not pose an economic threat to an organization if the majority of BPM actors within this organization are users of a different process modelling language. It would appear that there is no immediate need for organizations to embark on extensive training courses every time the process modelling language in use has to be changed. Instead our findings suggest that a set of analysts equipped with adequate skills in one process modelling language will be fit to understand other process models too.

On the provider side our results suggest that carefully managed changes to process modelling languages are not unlikely to be accepted by a customer base. Such changes may always be necessary in certain situations and should be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem. For instance, providers may find the need to enhance the expressive power of a process modelling language to be better equipped for future and advanced process modelling needs (e.g., advanced workflow execution, support for web service specification etc.). The resulting differences in expressiveness and complexity of the language appears to be well-absorbed by the existing language user communities.

About the Study

This study has been conducted by Jan Recker and Alexander Dreiling. We would like to thank all involved participants. The full paper can be downloaded here.

Alexander Dreiling

BPMN Survey Online

Posted by Alexander Dreiling May 21, 2007
BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) is gaining unprecedented momentum in academia and practice. But what exactly are the factors that drive the acceptance of BPMN? How satisfied are end users of BPMN with the notation? Do user experiences of BPMN models match those of models in common Business Process Analysis tools?  The Business Process Management Research Group at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, an outstanding academic partner of SAP, is undertaking a worldwide survey on the use of BPMN by process modelers to shed light into these questions. The responsible researcher is Jan Recker. You can help him by completing the survey available here.  If you have any further questions about this research project or are interested in the results, please contact Jan directly: j.recker at qut.edu.au.  Please take the time to complete the questionnaire, research needs input from practitioners!
It became a habit to write about our widgets (Enterprise Mashup Widgets and Enterprise Mashup Widgets (continued)), so here is yet another example that you can try for yourself (download link at the end of this blog entry). This one nicely informs people about SAP by mashing up information from several different sources. These include SAP press releases, news on SAP from google news and yahoo news. You see the headlines in the widget and if something's interesting you can click on the link and read the article. This keeps you up to date on what's going on in an SAP context.

It's plain and simple. Study the headlines with a mouse-over:

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Switch to another news channel, if you like:

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Search within a news channel:

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and get a modified result. Click on what you want to read:

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and read the news:

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Please note that the search on yahoo and google triggers a new keyword search on the respective sites. Due to the underlying technology of google and yahoo, you'll get a modified result that takes the body of a news article into account. However, in case of the SAP Press Release Channel, we are only searching the headlines. This difference explains, why there are often no results in the SAP press release search.

Try the widget yourself! Download it here.
In my Enterprise Mashup Widgets I argued that the real strength of widgets in an enterprise context lies in their ability to mashup information from various sources. Of course, it doesn't matter for the widget where a web service is located that is being called. Hence, a widget can mashup company-internal and company-external information very nicely. Our Enterprise Mashup Widgets does exactly do this as I have explained there.

 

Below, there is yet another example:

 

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It shows that a slight change in the contextualization of the different knowledge blocks within the widget leads to entirely different scenarios serving entirely different purposes. In this case it's the order of contextualizing different knowledge blocks that makes this widget distinct from the Enterprise Mashup Widgets.

 

The result is a Customer Relationship Management scenario. It provides a single view on all the knowledge that a company has of a certain customer from internal sources as well as news, stock prices, etc. from external sources. An account executive can thus stay up to date on internal and external developments with a single small desktop application.

 

This example highlights that mashing up information from two different sources is a strength of widgets, but it also highlights that mashuping up information slightly differently leads to different widgets and different scenarios.
We've seen a fair bit of discussion on Enterprise Widgets lately and there is certainly a consensual belief that widgets are helpful in the context of SAP. Excellent examples include Eric Wood's A case for Enterprise Widgets or Dennis Moore's Widgets for the Enterprise.

I addition to this, I think there is one point that must be emphasized, because it makes widgets extremely powerful: Their ability to mashup information on the client-side from several different sources without a complicated backend integration.

If we consider typical information retrieval processes that people in contemporary organizations go through, we'll see that they follow a similar schema: Someone discovers something, keeps it in mind, looks it up at a different source, discovers something else, looks that up again and so on.

Imagine such a simple information retrieval process as a mashup widget. We've developed a little widget that does exactly this for supporting sales that looks like this: image Our widget retrieves stock price changes from the web, in our case the Australian Stock Exchange (middle section). We get to know the winners, losers and highest volumes of trade on the previous trading day. Of course, we have no idea why these stocks developed unusually, but a good way of finding this out is looking up each single company at a news source. Presumably, a company must have produced news of some sort for the stock price to react. Our widget does this for us using google news and yahoo news.

So far, this gives us the information that something has happened out there and what that was. But we may have no idea who these companies are.

In order to to build up some more knowledge about the companies whose stock price developed unusually, we included a range of links (lower left corner of the widgets). Information from different financial providers can be considered for completing the picture.

In addition to the knowledge of what happened on the stock market and why it has happened, we now know who the companies are that our widget brings up. But we still have no idea what the impact for a sales person is. The only way to find this out, is to check internal systems. If single-sign on is required the Enterprise Widget Foundation alpha release could be very helpful. We have included a range of queries to an SAP Business Warehouse in order to lookup account data. In addition we query sales orders, opportunities or leads (upper right part of the widget) in the system so that we can understand if there was any previous business or potential business.

That gives us a comprehensive picture. We now know about unusual developments on the stock market and the reasons for this development. We have understood who the companies are and know the relationship to our company. Now, of course, we want to do something with this knowledge. Our widget provides a range of options in the lower right corner. These options include to give the customer a call, send e-mails, create tasks in Outlook or leads in an SAP CRM system. This nicely shows how action can be brought closer to analysis.

This scenario shows what I believe is the real strength of widgets in an enterprise system context:
- widgets are suitable for supporting real-world business scenarios,
- widgets are an excellent technology to mash up information from different sources,
- they are especially strong when company-internal and external sources are mashed up,
- given all this, widgets are still single-file mini applications in itself. They can be easily transfered to another person.

We have more scenarios of this kind and see the same thing over and over again: The strength of widgets arises from combining different sources in a meaningful way.

Has anyone made similar experiences? I'd be more than happy to discuss!

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