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Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, Explains How Social Business + BPM + Mobile + Existing Apps = Worksocial

CEO of Appian, Matt Calkins
Written by Dan Woods | September 27, 2012 | 0 comments

CITO Research sat down with Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, to discuss the convergence of social business, BPM, mobile, and existing applications to create a new concept called worksocial. In discussing this concept with Matt, Dan Woods, CTO and Editor of CITO Research, was inspired to write a manifesto about “Completing the Social Business Transformation: A Manifesto” for Forbes.com.

Appian has a work automation and model-driven development platform that melds process management, model-driven development, social business, and mobile technology into an integrated offering. Appian’s platform lets enterprises collaborate on an integrated event stream, fill the gaps between disjointed applications, and write new applications that bridge those gaps, all without leaving the context of the work being done.

CIOs, CTOs, or anyone seeking to lead technology at an organization should be interested in Matt’s vision. In this interview, he offers a detailed critique of existing technology for social business and addresses the some of the following questions:

  • How can social business and existing work processes be merged in a new form of application?
  • What is wrong with having distinct systems for work and for collaboration?
  • How can existing applications be incorporated into a combined work/social system?
  • What business value can be expected from this new model?

Woods: What’s the best way to get work done, in general?

Calkins: In order to do work really well, you need a combination of structure and improvisation. You’ll never be able to take your automation down to the most granular level because it’ll crush people’s individual contributions, and it takes an enormous amount of work to diagram the way you behave down to that level, so it’s just not feasible or efficient to try to take your process layer to the very bottom. Instead, the process layer hovers a little bit above the bottom and improvisation complements that on the ground at the point of action.

Woods: So, in some ways, the virtuosity of an individual has to be respected so that processes don’t become overly mechanistic, but backstops and collaboration also need to be built into process.

Calkins: I think sometimes what we really need out of improvisation is collaboration. I think there’s room here for social.

Work is automated, but you need some social input, some opinion gathering, some exposure, awareness, participation and transparency, in order to get you through that last ingredient, which is the improvisational or virtuosic behavior. So I think that BPM is a component of what you need in order to do work really well, and the other part, heretofore neglected by process companies, is the facilitation of individual awareness, collaboration, and decision making.

Woods: So what’s the difference between enterprise social tools like Chatter, Jive and Yammer and “worksocial”?

Calkins: The difference between social and worksocial is the difference between “facilitating awareness” and “getting work done.” The tools you mention just facilitate awareness. That is of value, but probably in the long run it’s a feature, not a product. This is a great way to be aware, but the question remains: what are we communicating? What are we collaborating on?

Just collaborating about collaboration, or on variables that just changed, is not the heart of business. The things that truly matter in a business are processes, applications, deep data reports, and integration. It’s at least as important to know about the stuff that didn’t happen as it is to talk about the stuff that did happen: “Why hasn’t this invoice been paid?” “Why hasn’t the customer called back? It’s been two days since we fixed their bug.”

Sometimes it’s the absence of change that you need to know about. Sometimes it’s gears turning inside the business deep beneath the surface, and there isn’t a chattering individual to tell you that that gear has changed. You’ve just got to be integrated. You’ve got to be wired into that process and knowledgeable of how the business is integrating with itself.

Woods: So, what does the worksocial approach do differently so that people really are wired into process?

Calkins: So there’s two industries. There’s the work industry, and I call that the process industry, but if you can define it even more broadly than that. We are squarely from the work industry. We have 3.5 million users worldwide. We have the largest BPM customers in the world. We are probably the most used BPM product globally.

Two years ago, we started using a product that allows you to communicate socially, on top of our work product. That social layer was also native on every mobile platform: Blackberry, Android, and iOS. And it was social in its interface; it’s time sorted and every new event represents a conversation waiting to happen, and you can just talk to people. It looks a whole lot like a typical social tool.

The difference, of course, was that it is wired into the business, into all those processes that we have to integrate to everyday for all of our users, and as such it is an expression of business events. It doen’t wait for somebody to tweet or say something because all these conversations are instigated by the business itself. The business is telling you you have a task. An application is telling you that there is a problem. Rules are telling you that something didn’t happen and you should probably look into it.

All of these other social tools enable people talking to people, and at times change talks to people, but they don’t enable the business to talk to people, nor vice versa. Our product allows you to use quick-swipe gestures to handle approvals, fill out forms, or escalate problems.

You can create new tasks for people or launch new processes, and therefore it is not just a receiver of business alerts and requests, it is an instigator of business action. You can actually run your business on it. That’s very, very different from what you can do in your typical enterprise social business product right now.

Woods: You use the words “work” and “process” interchangeably?

Calkins: Yes. I call it “work” in order to be clear that we’re making work happen. The focus of Appian for 13 years has been to facilitate work. We depict the means by which work happens in our various client organizations, the distinctive idiosyncratic, personalized means, the patterns by which work happens.

Woods: Prior to incorporating social business capabilities, is it fair to say that Appian was an overlay on top of events and steps that take place in other applications?

Calkins: Yes, but the events and steps actually take place in our applications in most cases. As a process company, we draw logical flowcharts of how your work should happen, and then we run the flowchart.

So, if you’re logged into an Appian interface, we’re telling you what your tasks are and what your responsibilities are, as well as what data you need to get those tasks done. You’re actively doing your work that was written in our program in our interface.

Woods: It sounds like you have a model driven development environment with appropriate extensions to applications that can work unidirectionally or bidirectionally. How would you distinguish yourself from somebody like Pegasystems?

Calkins: Pegasystems is our number one rival. However, we’re much more innovative. We’re a new company. We’re aggressive. We’re native on every mobile platform. We’re mobile, we’re social. We’ve been in the cloud for more than three years, and our on-premise and cloud features are identical. We push the edge, and customers count on us for innovation.

And secondly, we’re very services oriented, and as a result, we have the world’s largest BPM customers, whether it’s the US Army, with over a million users or UPS with 100 applications running and integrated with each other today. We have a long list of companies that save more than $10 million a year with us.

Every Starbucks in the world is inspected using the Appian software on an iPad. We started out as a specialist in the world’s largest field and we worked our way down to the middle market. We just thought work and social were two worlds that needed to be together.

Woods: So the key seems to be that Appian is not only social, but that it’s tied into business applications so that systems can also trigger collaboration and action by people. How do you determine who gets which notifications?

Calkins: You subscribe to an event, which is part of an application, but not necessarily the totality of that application. Right now, in my own Appian environment, I have maybe 100 things that I can subscribe to, and I pick 25 so I get things of interest to me.

Also, when people send messages, they can direct them to my attention, of course, and I can follow people, like you do on Twitter. If there is someone I need to pay attention to, I specify them as someone I want to hear from.

Woods: And when you get a notification, what can you do with it?

Calkins: Many of the notifications are actionable items, so it’s not just reading the headline on a newspaper. Sometimes what I receive is an obligation for me to act, and when it is, I can take that action directly in the interface without switching context.

For example, if I’m running this company, and I want to be sure that nobody abuses expenses, I can say I want to be notified whenever an expense of more than $10,000 is submitted, and I want that to be routed to me.

Those events appear on my interface as actionable, and I can approve or reject them, send comments, escalate them, or whatever I like, right there on the interface, on my iPhone.

Woods: How else is the Appian interface social?

Calkins: In some ways, it’s the same way you would work in Chatter, Yammer, Jive or Facebook. You would just write your comment underneath the event, and then other people would write their comments and the conversation would ensue.

The difference is in Appian it also creates a good audit trail, and nobody talks about this. I love it the fact that it creates a record of why decisions are made and who added what to a decision, and how we handled a case like this in the past.

The social format has direct business applications but because it’s so poorly applied to business today, people don’t tend to talk about those virtuous alignments.

Woods: Where do you see the work or process industries heading in the next few years?

Calkins: Our primary thesis is that the work and social industries need each other, and therefore they’re naturally convergent. Companies like Jive and SalesForce Chatter are not going to be able to survive unless they dig deeper into the business.

At the same time, business automation companies like us wouldn’t survive unless we were developing that improvisation layer that happens in a social interface. This gives you transparency and participation and all the virtues of a collaborative environment, right? So process companies need a social layer and social companies need a work layer.

Woods: If you’ve capitalized on that thesis, what is the competition doing?

Calkins: I think you’ll see a lot of social tools approximating weak workflow in the next year or so, and that’s simply insufficient. It’s a lot easier to build social functionality than it is to build process functionality.

After all, we took five years to build process stuff, and we did social in two years, so I think that it’s going to be the easy answer, for the next few years, for people to say that they’re “succeeding” at this work-and-social convergence by being very good at social and pretty good at work. But I think that most serious companies aren’t going to accept that.

People are going to realize that social isn’t valuable enough until it’s complemented by a real work layer. So this is the next big step in the story. We’re making a real effort right now to try to get people to talk about this.

Woods: I have a thesis about the completing the social business transformation, and it seems that Appian has an ability to introduce that kind of function. But what I don’t understand is, how do you represent an improvisational set of events? Do you have some application paradigm to represent the beginning of an activity, the end, and an unpredictable set of steps in between?

Calkins: We deal with it by empowering the users. Of course you can collaborate, so if some event requires a non-standard response, and you can have people weighing in with comments in typical social fashion, and that is similar to what other social tools provide.

But we go beyond that.

We also give you the power to start applications or make cases or take actions or create tasks for people in real time in our interface, so if as a result of this improvisational behavior, I decide that somebody ought to have a task, and they would not have been assigned a task typically in the normal working order of this process, I can just give them one, right in my interface, and that becomes a trackable task event.

I can launch actions in any application in my enterprise, fill out forms, trigger actions right from my interface to get the gears moving. I can even go outside the bounds of the activities that can typically be started by essentially creating my own and instantly formalizing those requests.

Woods: I see. So you have a task architecture that can act as a way of capturing improvisational activity and monitoring it.

Calkins: Yes, and that task architecture can handle everything from the very complex, full blown process to a one-node micro process where a certain person has to do a certain thing and then you are notified.

So we can do anything in that spectrum, and I know that a lot of products that talk about launching actions are talking only about very small micro processes like I’ve described.

I don’t hear them yet, but when they do get here, they’re going to start saying, “Oh, we can launch processes,” and it’s going to mean that they can do one-node processes. It doesn’t mean that they can do leviathan processes that are filled with rules and business logic.

They’re not going to be able to reach the level that we’re able to reach with our process software, and furthermore, they’re not going to have the scalability. They’re not going to have the security calls that we do. I mean we’re used overseas on military bases.

We do corporate underwriting for major insurance carriers. People bet billions of dollars and human lives on our software, and no one would do that on Yammer. There’s a very large gulf between these social tools, which are not ready for prime time. They’re not ready for mission-critical usage. By comparison, what we’re doing is already trusted around the world by millions of people.