Put to the Test: Appian Enterprise 5 Masters Process Change - InformationWeek

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Put to the Test: Appian Enterprise 5 Masters Process Change

Liberating users from rigid models, Appian's Enterprise 5 BPM suite lets you alter the process to ease exception handling.

Every organization needs to be as efficient as possible to survive. Yet all companies also must balance efficiency with the ability to adapt and evolve to meet competitive pressures, new regulations and so on. Appian Enterprise 5 can help. It differs from other business process management suites in how well it facilitates change.

Like many BPM vendors, Appian has adopted BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) for its modeling environment, and it delivers a scalable process engine, a business rules environment and analytics functionality. Released in March, the Enterprise 5 suite isn't unique in exploiting Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) to deliver a rich, dynamic and user-friendly process portal, but in contrast to rivals that keep the portal and modeling environments separate, Appian has fused the two, along with the rest of the suite's functionality, to provide a dynamic user interface that can be personalized for everyone involved in processes, including senior managers. Most important, Appian Enterprise 5 eases process change rather than constraining employee actions through rigid process definitions.

PROS
• Integrated and customizable Ajax-based portal, process monitoring and BPMN modeling environment .
• Eases process change (down to a case-by- case level).
• End-user accessible analytics capabilities .
• Built-in collaboration, document management and business rules management.
CONS
• Process variables could use a more effective shared data space.
• Too much to understand for uninitiated users.
• Difficult to bind processes together at run time in a case-handling scenario.

Modeling the 'Smart' Way

Appian takes advantage of Ajax to deliver the entire modeling and design experience though standard Web browsers. Although this limits offline development (because the modeler must be connected to the server), it enables a more seamless and efficient overall experience. Process models (diagrams), for instance, are used to give workers a status view of a process instance (highlighting current activities with a green halo).

The modeler incorporates BPMN-compliant activities, subprocesses, gateways and events (the nodes in the process). Gateways control how process flows interact as they converge and diverge, while events are triggers that require the business or process to respond in some way. Appian extends the BPMN activities with special Smart Nodes. Rather than requiring code to be written for functionality at each step in the process, these prebuilt Smart Nodes embed generic functionality, such as calling a Web service, accessing a line of business (LOB) application, checking out a document or launching a discussion space. They provide the ability for the IT department to create reusable functionality and also can be used to build a library of standard subprocesses (think of them as process components) that are available for reuse in other processes.

Appian's Expression Editor--the main interface to the Rules Engine--is extremely powerful. It incorporates a range of logical, mathematical and statistical functions, and it lets users manipulate objects, such as user roles and process variables. The tool helps designers manage process flow, control access to process models and govern the rules by which a process diverges down multiple paths.

Appian's process-variable creation could be improved. These variables are entered individually, in the properties of the entire process or at the node level. Although this works well enough for a single process, it gets tricky if you want multiple processes to share a common object model. A virtualization layer providing for a common object model would cut the time required to develop subsequent processes and reduce the chances of data inconsistency.

Appian Enterprise 5's BPMN features are good; it supports intermediate events with a range of capabilities built into the Expression Builder (something most BPMN-based products don't yet offer). Even better would be support for grouping of activities, compensating transactions (initiated when a transaction fails) and showing two communicating processes (to visualize process interactions), but support for these aspects of BPMN is still rare.

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