It’s About Process (or the Ability to be Responsive) -- Part IV

Part III of this blog series introduced Webcom ResponsAbility, the on-demand workflow automation and business process management (BPM) solution. Anyone interested can take the product for a free trial test drive here.

Other Real Life ResponsAbility Use Examples

In addition to the examples described in Part III, another example of the ResponsAbility software in use can be found in Grayhill, Inc. an electronics manufacturer from Lagrange, Illinois (US), servicing industrial and government customers. While the company has been a long-term WebSource CPQ user for sales configuration purposes, the ResponsAbility sibling was later introduced for managing several processes, among them for product returns or return merchandize authorizations (RMAs).

Customer return requests are either imported from the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or directly entered by customers and/or Grayhill associates into ResponsAbility as a “request for material return." Based on the entered data via a customized form, the return is authorized or denied. Namely, a default assignee reviews a request and approves it, rejects it, or asks the customer for additional clarifications.

Upon authorization, when the goods are received a case gets assigned to the quality assurance (QA) team. This is another "gate review" step in the process where the quality team determines if the failure is due to a product defect or misuse (user-induced damage). If a case is determined to be a defect, then the part is repaired at no cost or a new part is sent to a customer.

The defective part is also sent to the engineering department for analysis to determine the root cause and future corrective actions. Namely, in order to ensure the highest quality for which Grayhill is known, the case cannot be closed until all the corrective and preventive action (CAPA) requirements are fulfilled. To that end, the following outputs must be generated: the detailed explanation of the root cause of the problem, the short-term fix, the long-term fix, sent a final report to the customer, etc.

If it is not a defective part case, the case is closed and the goods are returned to the customer, who may in turn elect to convert it to a special service request case type. Logically then, another workflow process is followed, consisting of steps such as creating a service estimate, approval, service fulfillment (repair), invoicing, etc.

In other words, in case of misuse, the customer is asked to authorize a repair for a fee. If and when an approval is received, the product is repaired and the case is closed. Similar to the new feature request vs. bug software example from Part III, a repair service for fee process follows its own workflow via the repair department and QA, and then is shipped to the customer.

Ken Hoving, Grayhill’s vice president (VP) of corporate quality said
“The Webcom solution allowed us to consolidate all of our customer corrective actions in one system and enable web access across the entire organization, including our customers, resulting in cycle time improvements and increased customer satisfaction."

Also, the company asserts that due to all the system’s nifty drag-and-drop Web 2.0 personalization capabilities for both users and administrators, the BPM tool is not something that users feel forced to use, but they truly want to use it because it helps them to do a better job. They do not have to worry about forgetting to do something or missing a step in a rush, since ResponsAbility ensures that the process is thorough and consistent each time.

Another important process that ResponsAbility enables at Grayhill is SDPR (Special Design Pricing Request).

Namely, when a prospective customer inquires about a product that Grayhill does not currently manufacture as a standard, then such a request gets routed via a number of departments, starting with sales that captures the detailed inquiry/request. Then, the engineering team will estimate the cost/time to complete the special request, while the marketing and accounting staff will analyze the economic viability of the special job (it is still expected to be some batch/series production rather than a one-off engineer-to-order [ETO] product), and create a catalog number and its price (quote).

Before that happens and the sales department can communicate back to the customer Grayhill’s interest and official price (quote), several collaborative iterations have to take place between the customer, Grayhill and its vendors (e.g., the special tooling and fixtures' cost and lead time discussion).

Product Information Management Example

Broan-NuTone, based in Hartford, Wisconsin (US), and North America's leading manufacturer and distributor of residential ventilation products is another combined WebSource CPQ and ResponsAbility user. Its products include range hoods, ventilation fans, heater/fan/light combination units, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Fresh Air Systems, built-in heaters, whole-house fans, attic ventilators, paddle fans and trash compactors.

The company has thousands of products, each with a slew of attributes such as length, width, material, standards to comply with (e.g., the UL Safety Standard, Canadian Standards Association [CSA], CE-Marking, etc.), voltage, power, air flow, and so on. The goal is to publish all that vast catalog data electronically via WebSource CPQ.

However, that cannot happen without consolidating all of the above data for all of the company's products. ResponsAbility comes into the picture here, whereby each product will go through a special product information management (PIM) workflow.

Namely, the engineering team will have to fill in over hundred data points for each product, the marketing staff will add in their pertinent data, and product management will then have to fill the various product prices (list price, distributor price, wholesale price, etc.). Once the PIM case is closed, a prepared Microsoft Excel document with all of the required data about all the products in a product family can be imported into WebSource CPQ.
"After months of review and the evaluation of numerous vendors to help implement a Product Information Management system, we chose ResponsAbility from Webcom", stated Mark Hughes, Internet Marketing Manager at Broan-NuTone. "Having several thousand products to manage from conception to obsolescence, we wanted to have stability out of the box. We feel that ResponsAbility is the perfect fit," added Hughes.

Underlying ResponsAbility Technology

With some research indicating customer acquisition costing multiple times more than customer retention, ResponsAbility complements Webcom's quote-to-order (Q2O) solution, WebSource CPQ, and continues the company's focus on simplifying complex business processes.
"Attaining your goals and objectives requires not only a focus on obtaining new business through a quote-to-order solution such as WebSource CPQ, but just as rigorous a focus on retaining your most treasured asset, your customers", commented Aleksandar Ivanovic, Webcom’s chief executive officer (CEO) and founder.

"ResponsAbility is just the type of solution needed to help drive customer satisfaction, innovation and repeat business", added Ivanovic. "Especially in today's uncertain economy, driving productivity through repeatable and reliable processes is crucial to success, and ResponsAbility could be a valuable tool helping companies improve customer service through nimbleness and implement process control."

However, in order not to create internal competition for research and development (R&D) resources, WebSource CPQ and ResponsAbility, although both being offered on-demand, have intentionally been developed on two different technologies, Microsoft .NET Framework and Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), respectively. For more information, see TEC's earlier article entitled Understand J2EE and .NET Environments Before You Choose.

Some best-practices sharing between the two teams could still be possible on the user interface (UI) side, since both products leverage Asynchronous Java and XML (AJAX) for rich client enablement and Web 2.0 gadgets. Although the two products are currently English-only, a common translation mechanism for other languages is being developed. Both products will be able to leverage these schemas for deployments in several languages. However, the decision on which languages to tackle first and deliver has yet to be made.

But, in contrast to WebSource CPQ, ResponsAbility is enabled for the Hibernate database-independent object/relational persistence and query service. The product features full audit trail and archiving capabilities, and the ability to export data in the CSV (comma separated values), Microsoft Excel, extensible markup language (XML), Adobe PDF (portable data file), and RTF (rich text file) file formats.

KISS IT or Leave IT

Webcom’s main challenge with the new workflow/BPM product will be to balance its “keep it straight and simple (KISS)” mantra with the complexity of full-fledged BPM applications’ deployments. On the one hand, the vendor positions ResponsAbility as a “lite BPM" product, given that it features much more capabilities than a mere workflow product, but on the other hand, it is far more limited than any other notable BPM suite’s functional footprint at this stage.

To be fair, some BPM functional requirements can be rendered moot in the on-demand model. In fact, product versioning, acceptance testing and/or whether workflow notification mechanisms can integrate with desktop products or interact via email are all capabilities that are a “big deal” for client/server on-premise BPM deployments, but are virtually irrelevant in software as a service (SaaS)  subscription-based deployments.

The same goes for integration with third-party integrated development environments (IDE’s) due to the web-based workflow modeling environment within ResponsAbility. Indeed, IDEs like Microsoft Visual Studio are relevant for on-premise programming development, i.e., for writing source code, compiling it and making it executable code. In contrast to that, workflow modeling within ResponsAbility does not require coding, compiling, server deployment, etc. Furthermore, the SaaS deployment model completely obviates the need to buy and install an IDE.

It might be interesting to note here that, when it started several years ago (and likely even still today) only had a fraction of customer relationship management (CRM) functionality that Oracle Siebel has had (and still has today). Still, this functional deficiency did not stop the on-demand CRM pioneer from succeeding.

The goal is not necessarily to out-feature other software packages, since most of them already have so much functionality that much thereof is never implemented or used (as can be seen in TEC's article entitled Application Erosion: Eating Away at Your Hard Earned Value).

Thus, Webcom’s main goal is to make ResponsAbility so easy to set up and so easy to use that there will never be a failed implementation or a disgruntled customer. The goal is to quickly and simply help people to get their respective jobs done in a way that they get almost addicted to the tool, so much so that they cannot even imagine doing it any other way.

For what is worth, getting back to the "eating own dog food" mantra from Part III, Webcom’s staff admits to being addicted to ResponsAbility. If they look at their own statistics, which are available in the application, each Webcom employee will have personally performed thousands of transactions therein.

In the next product release, due in the fall of 2008 (which is another advantage of the SaaS development, i.e., the frequency of new releases), Webcom will be adding several new features, such as visual workflow/process designer, rules and conditions, escalations, service level agreement (SLA) tiers, field dependencies, scheduled events, analytics (graphs, charts, trends), etc. Features like Web Services application programming interface (API), support for personal digital assistant (PDA) and other mobile devices, case and task interdependencies, etc. might come in future product releases.

While the vendor strongly believes that ease-of-use and ease-of-setup are far more important than a long list of out-of-the-box supported features, it is necessary to have some of those in the request for information (RFI)/request for proposal (RFP) phase of any selection project to avoid outright elimination.

Even though some of the capabilities which are often marked as a “must have” will likely never be implemented by prospective clients, the selection team wants to make a safe decision and get all of their bases covered. Without those capabilities on paper, ResponsAbility may get eliminated before users ever get a chance to fall in love with the application.

Webcom also strongly believes that if users need to be trained extensively on how to use the application, the product will have failed. We concur that no one can expect customers and partners (channel and supply) to take additional classes on how to collaborate with the company using its applications.

The software needs to be as intuitive as going to the web site and buying a book or a CD, or going to Google and doing a search. It is Webcom’s approach that until it figures out how to make each feature that intuitive, it will not introduce it in the application.

Current State of Affairs

ResponsAbility has been generally available (GA) since May 2008, with a free trial option. Deployed in a SaaS subscription model, pricing starts at US$ 19.95 per user per month for an internal user, and US$ 4.95 per user per month for an external user/trading partner (or alternatively 99 cents per each case generated by external users). Such aggressive pricing a la espresso coffee drinks or music downloads are hoped to generate the initial "critical mass" user base.

Webcom also recently announced the expected availability of ResponsAbility for's AppExchange directory of on-demand applications. Leveraging's platform, the next ResponsAbility release (expected in September or so) will be available for test drive and deployment at the AppExchange site. There is already GA for the Oracle CRM OnDemand ecosystem.

Every customer that installs the software over the Web in a self-service manner gets the following four default workflow process templates: Bug Resolution, New Feature Request (NFR), Engineering Change Notice (ECN) and RMA. Certainly, customers can define and create their own process templates to their heart’s content. The experience has shown that it typically requires a few hours for a major business process to be thought out and defined.

As additional food for thought, here is a (partial) list of potential groups of processes within various lines of businesses (LoB's)/departments that could hereby be automated:

  • Finance -- asset management tracking, budget approval, invoice approval, payment request, capital acquisition request, credit approval, merger and acquisition (M&A) tracking, etc.;

  • Product Development -- product specification approval, product change notice, engineering change request, issue management, enhancement/new features requests;

  • Back-office (Administration) -- expense claims, travel authorizations, help desk requests, purchase requests, document change control, etc.;

  • Customer Service -- call management, field service management, case handling, customer survey forms, information technology (IT) services request, etc.;

  • Human Resources -- new hire setup requests, training enrollment, certification alerts, etc.; and

  • Sales -- lead qualification, sales quote approval, commissions notifications, etc.

The final part of this blog series will complete the series with some of Webcom’s ResponsAbility specific and general workflow/BPM offerings’ value propositions and conclusions. In the meantime, your comments, thoughts, suggestions or individual experiences with workflow/BPM tools are more than welcome.
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