Using software to keep enterprise employees in touch with each other can follow one of three major strategies: workflow apps, messaging apps that support social media, and web portals.
When an entity as large as an enterprise, or even one as modest as a project team, exceeds a certain number of participants or geographic locations, the importance of inter-employee communications starts reaching critical stages. While that critical number varies from organization to organization, a few of the factors that mandate maintaining good communications between team members include managerial oversight of project progress, the need to avoid duplication of effort, and awareness of interrelated deadlines.
Staff meetings, whether conducted in person or electronically, can only go so far in remedying communications needs, so organizations of all sizes are increasingly turning to three major types of software applications to help coordinate employee activity.
Workflow applications are the first and most formal. They include software that facilitates the tracking and coordination of group projects and information-routing within and across teams. Second are messaging and communications applications that help employees keep in touch with each other, both individually and in groups. Third are portal products, which help employees (and other authorized users) keep in touch with information published by the enterprise itself.
Considerations for Adopting Workflow Apps
Workflow applications are generally the most complex and feature-rich of the possibilities for formalizing communications between groups of employees. As such, they can also be trickiest to implement, at least according to two vendors in that market.
Paul McDonald, manager of professional services, and Bob Gleisner, director of professional services, both at LANSA, cite three common difficulties with implementing workflow application on the IBM i. First, many workflow apps are tightly coupled with line-of-business (LOB) apps and don't really offer the benefits of a generic app that can help manage business processes across an enterprise. Second, workflow apps don't let users easily create web-based GUI forms to extend or supplement existing tables with databases. Third, workflow apps lack an easily configurable way to interface with email engines or to enable integration with popular document-creation tools like Microsoft Office or Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF).
Wim Jongman, CTO and managing director of Remain Software, sees a somewhat different set of problems facing first-time workflow application users. "IBM i users' environments are often more complex and consist of multiple platforms. Therefore, an extensible 'platform-independent' workflow management system that can call into other IBM i applications and accept input from other platforms is vital."
A second problem can be the approach an enterprise takes to workflow implementation, states Jongman. "When companies start with a workflow system, they can get too detailed and draw out a huge workflow that should cover all the aspects and [special] cases that they can ever run into. It also includes all possible items, such as document types, tasks, requests, and many others. This is a pitfall, which can quickly result in too much time spent on implementation and lead to irritation of the team responsible for the project. Large workflows are mostly caused by enthusiasm, but we also see that there are sometimes too many people involved in the initial implementation."
At third problem cited by Jongman relates to user interfaces. "In our experience, a good home for a workflow system is the browser. The challenges we face here [are whether] users want to run the workflow app on the IBM i or [instead] on an isolated system (such as Linux or Windows) and only store the data on the IBM i. Data access can be confined to only the server running the workflow system. It can also be a tough job to install application servers on the IBM i, so the challenge is to reduce the complexity and time needed for installation," he adds.
Workflow Apps as a Supplementary Venue
When asked if it was common for their customers to use both workflow and messaging software to keep their employees in touch, all three vendor representatives agreed.
"Yes, the payback for workflow implementation is to improve business process flows," noted LANSA's McDonald and Gleisner. "All workflow solutions focus on improving throughput by identifying bottlenecks or inefficiencies within the process flow. The use of dynamic messaging…allows for real-time improvements in the business process flow. Therefore, notifications via different message protocols (such as SMTP and SMS) to actors within the workflow orchestration are critical to the success of any workflow solution."
"Sharing all project-related comments, documents, and tasks within one central system significantly increases effectiveness," Jongman observes. "Nevertheless, a small percentage of exchanged information goes…through employees only. Email and other types of messaging can be much more informal, and people need informal ways of communicating to be optimally effective. I can send an opinioned email to you, but I would not do it in a reply in a workflow system."
Looking to the Future of Employee Communications
As much as any area of application software, employee intercommunication is a moving target. For example, with social media increasingly being used by enterprises to gauge their standing with customers, and employees often tending to include work peers in their social networks, social media could easily play a significant but currently unpredictable role in workplace communications of the future.
"The influence of social media on work nowadays is worth mentioning," Jongman highlights. "Everything becomes 'social,' including work and cooperation between employees."
"Mobility is essential," he adds. "Users want their applications to work on any device they use. Modern workflow management applications need to keep up with those changes and be accessible anytime, from anywhere, so that users can be constantly up to date with anything that happens in the system [and also] the platforms these workflow systems work on. Users also expect their workflow management apps to easily integrate with software of any kind."
"Workflow applications need to deliver solutions that support the changing UI landscape, messaging protocols, and delivery platforms such as mobile devices," McDonald and Gleisner agree. "For example, with increasing numbers of enterprise systems in the cloud, access to these systems to share critical information and accomplish tight integration sometimes seems elusive. Regarding UI, messaging protocols, and delivery platforms, consider REST, SOAP, WSDL, HTML5, and whatever comes next. Enough said?"
Compiling Communications Applications for the IBM i
Below are product listings for the three major types of internal communications aids for enterprise employees, listed separately. Workflow applications are first, messaging and communications applications are second, and third are portal products. (Not included here because they're outside the scope of this article are collaboration tools expressly for software developers, change-management or other types of applications that may contain collaborative features, and middleware products that support collaborative applications.)
Employee Internal Communication Aids for IBM i
Workflow Applications for IBM i
Content Central is a document- and content-management application that provides workflow capabilities for team collaboration on documents and similar projects. Features include browser access, security protections, document-routing tools, and a large repository for preset and custom-designed business rules for managing workflows.
Confluence is a team environment that runs on IBM i servers using Linux, Windows, or Apache Tomcat. The product is an application for working on documents, software development, and other projects. It features a shared knowledge base, a repository for group project documents, and an interface to a separate project-tracking application.
Content Manager OnDemand for i runs on IBM i and other servers running AIX, Linux, and Windows. It includes IBM Content Navigator, which organizes collaborative and mobile content, facilitates collaboration on content-related projects, and integrates with other IBM filing and archiving solutions.
Lotus Workflow runs on IBM i servers to extend Domino capabilities to automate repetitive tasks. The product lets users build and deploy customized workflow procedures to manage business processes, track work as it proceeds through the organization, set business rules for such tasks as routing and manual processes, plan projects, and schedule document-based work and procedures.
Integrify is a Web-based workflow-management system that provides process definition and workflow automation for a wide variety of enterprise activities (e.g., IT, HR, finance, sales, marketing, services). Based on AJAX, the product offers a service-oriented architecture that features tools for process design, forms creation, and workflow routing, as well as a browser interface.
IntelliChief is a paperless process-management application for IBM i and other platforms that includes a workflow engine that is governed by user-specified business rules, tracks current approval-process status for active documents, sends alerts in the event of problems, and interfaces to enterprise resource planning applications.
LANSA Workflow Framework is an application for monitoring and automating business processes. It lets users define all aspects of a workflow process or document, oversee each step, and integrate the process with other applications and activities. It includes configurable email reminder and notification, automates escalation processes, controls access to data based on user roles, and audits processes for later analysis.
OpenText Content Suite Platform is a web-based app for managing enterprise-wide content. It includes tools for building document-centric workflows that enable both structured and ad hoc routing of documents for approval, review, and feedback processes.
Rhythmyx is a content-management system for websites that provides workflow capabilities, open and custom APIs, versioning support, and security features.
Gravity runs on IBM i servers running V6R1 or later, or WebSphere, and other platforms running Linux or Windows. It provides business process–modeling tools that let users design workflows, define documents and business rules for their handling, track all tasks, and control and predict workloads.
RJS Software Systems
Originally designed for the IBM i, Enterprise Workflow is now web-based and automates communications between employees and team members in a wide variety of formerly paper-intensive business processes. Features include electronic routing of documents based on business rules, a design tool for creating custom workflows, and security controls.
Messaging and Communications Applications for IBM i
CommuniGate Pro is a client/server communications application for IBM i servers running Linux or Windows. It processes requests for communications services (e.g., email, groupware, instant messaging, and telephony) requested by applications on desktops, laptops, mobile devices, other servers, or other end-user systems.
IBM Connections Suite combines IBM Connections (a cloud-based social-media platform), IBM Connections Content Manager (an IBM Connections add-on that lets users collaborate on creating content), and IBM Sametime Complete (an integrated package that combines instant messaging, an online meeting environment, voice and video integration, and mobile-device access). The suite lets users with servers running AIX, i5/OS, and Linux work across an array of business applications, use social analytics and personalization features, and integrate with IBM Domino and Microsoft Exchange messaging services.
IBM Domino is a platform for hosting social business applications and offers features similar to IBM Notes. It provides an administration client and a web-browser interface, Domino Domain Monitoring (a communications problem-solving diagnostic), Domino Configuration Tuner, encryption and other security measures, and the ability to interface with third-party or custom-built applications.
IBM Domino Collaboration and Messaging Express is an environment that supports IBM Domino, offering email, collaborative, and other business applications. Designed for companies with less than 1,000 end users, the product offers security protection, interfaces for mobile devices, and automated policy enforcement.
IBM Employee Experience Suite runs on intranets on a variety of platforms and devices. Designed to foster online collaboration and social networking via intranets, the product includes a personalized interactive interface, content-management tools, security protections, and Web development tools for generating new apps for intranet environments.
IBM Enterprise Integrator for IBM i provides data-transfer and manipulation services between IBM Domino and non-Domino applications, either interactively or in batch.
Although now part of the IBM Platform for Social Business, IBM still offers Quickr as a separate product. It provides employees access to features such as content libraries, discussion forums, wikis, and team spaces.
IBM Mobile Connect offers users a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that enables secure connectivity between mobile devices, server-based applications, and databases over wired and wireless networks.
IBM iNotes is a web-based edition of the IBM Notes client, which offers browser access to email, calendar, contacts, and social collaboration tools. It supports activity streams and embedded experiences for social media, tools for sorting and searching through email messages, extensive calendar support, and security protections.
IBM Notes is an email software client that integrates messaging, social collaboration, and business applications into a single interface that's available for server clients and mobile devices. The product provides encrypted data replication and a calendaring and contact-management interface, as well as facilitates communications between members of designated project teams.
IBM Notes Traveler is a no-charge offering that lets IBM Notes and Domino users remotely connect to email, calendars, and contacts from a variety of mobile devices.
IBM Sametime enhances social communications by providing facilities for instant messaging, community collaboration, online meetings, online presence indicators, voice and video integration, and mobile-device support for IBM i servers and servers running AIX or Linux.
IBM Sametime Gateway for IBM i, formerly Lotus Sametime Gateway, lets WebSphere Application Server (WAS) users connect with external instant messaging communities, including AOL Instant Messager, Google Talk, Jabber, Microsoft Office Communications server environments, Yahoo Messenger, and other Sametime environments outside the enterprise firewall.
SmartCloud Notes is a browser-based product offered via the cloud that provides standard Notes services such as email, calendaring, contact management, instant messaging, and secure communications.
IBM Verse is a soon-to-be-announced IBM product that re-imagines email services by basing them on end-user business roles. Details are unavailable at publication time, but you can sign up to be notified (at the link associated with the product name) when IBM releases more information.
OpenText Tempo Social helps enterprises build a more engaging social-media atmosphere for their businesses, both externally by use of social features (e.g., blogs, wikis, forums) and by augmenting social marketing, as well as internally by creating more socially oriented intranets, thereby creating two-way communications between employees, customers, and vendors.
SWING Integrator is a printing, reporting, and document automation solution for IBM Notes that helps users integrate Microsoft Office or OpenOffice with Notes and Domino applications. Examples of Integrator functions are creating PDF files, MS Office documents in Notes, and mail merge letters and labels with Notes data. It also enables development of both Domino Web and Notes client-based applications.
Web Portal Products for IBM i
Nexus Portal provides secure access to management-designated information for employees, vendors, and customers. Product features let users design new portals, secure information, manage document flows, and organize information access via menus.
WebSphere Portal Enable provides the features of WebSphere Portal Server and adds portal services that personalize access to content and applications, content-management tools that facilitate website generation, and document libraries to help with content organization.
WebSphere Portal Express is an SMB version of WebSphere Portal Server. It offers simplified installation and administration, social capabilities (e.g., blogs, wikis, tagging, ratings), support for document libraries, a unified page-presentation service, and a website builder with frameworks for features such as portlets, feeds, and HTML pages.
WebSphere Portal Extend combines features of WebSphere Portal Server and WebSphere Portal Enable with portal content management tools, prefabricated templates for portal content (e.g., article, blogs, wikis), individual and shared workspaces, instant messaging, social rendering services, and tools for generating electronic forms.
WebSphere Portal Server offers multichannel portal service capabilities to servers running WebSphere. The product provides role-based access to applications, personalization, security, browser-based information resources, and integration with social and media-rich Web sites.