Worksocial, BPM and beyond: an interview with Appian CEO, Matthew Calkins


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I recently interviewed Matt on his thoughts on BPM, Enterprise Social and where it’s all heading for the future. Matt has been the President, CEO, and Chairman of the Board since founding the company in 1999. Mr. Calkins also serves on the MicroStrategy Board of Directors. He has a B.A. with honors in Economics from Dartmouth, and won that school’s prize for top graduate in that field.

A big thanks to Matt and his team for taking the time out to organise this.

Theo: I’m interested in your approach to worksocial so I’d like to get an appreciation of what you guys at Appian have been doing in BPM and more recently in the worksocial space. I know you’ve got some good ideas so I’d like to get some of your thoughts.

Matt: We’ve been in this market (BPM) for a decade or so, we’ve automated a lot of work, we’ve got 3.5m paid users around the World, we’ve got some of the biggest accounts and pushed the limits on BPM and work automation but we’ve always noticed that there’s a problem with it. From the beginning, we’ve had the same number one problem with BPM: participation was unnaturally limited. I’ve always felt that BPM was something of a ‘networked good’ which is to say it becomes valuable in proportion to how many people are using it. The complexity that forced people not to participate was very damaging to the total value delivered, so we’ve always been looking for a way to increase participation, and in the last 3 years we’ve found one and we’ve been playing with it as much as we can to bring universal participation into BPM. And that angle is Social, and by social I mean the term more broadly than people are talking about that looks something like Facebook. To me, social is anything that increases participation and transparency at once, it’s the aggregation of many sources of information into one simple interface. If you aggregate your information like that you’ve broadened your aperture of awareness. So we’ve decreased the time between when an event happens and when people become aware of it and increased the amount of people who can be made aware of an emergency in a small amount of time. To me that’s the core of what I mean by social.

BPM has long needed a means to broaden participation in order to deliver the value we all knew it was capable of delivering and at the same time, Enterprise Social needs Process Management far more desperately than Process Management needs Enterprise Social. Tools like Yammer or Chatter or Jive are in fact not valuable at all unless you can plug them into actual work. Unless it’s driving processes in an actual organization all that talking is not productive.

Theo: So do you think that a convergence needs to happen then, or needs to be forced to happen, or do you think these industries will remain at arms length?

Matt: It cannot remain for a couple of reasons. First of all, the Enterprise Social Emperor has no clothes and as soon as that is revealed, and in some ways that is already happening if you look at the return to Earth in the Jive stock price you see something of the fate of the hype in Enterprise Social. Something is going to have to happen quickly in order to substantiate all the promise in that industry and the thing that they’ll do it is connecting it to work.

Ballmer and Beniof, they’re understanding that social cannot be a separate phenomenon, that instead it has to be woven into business, they’re just not sure how to get there. Enterprise Social is about to hit a wall unless it can show real value, all this talk about Enterprise Social amounts to nothing until work gets done. And everyone is ready to hear that, they need a purpose and we’re got their purpose.

Theo: So what is Appian’s differentiator against new tools that are fast approaching the broadside that have social, workflow and task management built in? What’s going to keep Appian ahead of those with new ideas that don’t have the baked in legacy ideals that BPM players have.

Matt: Well, we’re unusually agile. We’ve moved everything to the new platform built on the social paradigm, we’re native on every mobile platform and not using HTML5 and we’re not replicating the way the desktop looks. And on the BPM side, we might have the most paid users in the World and we’re used in many of the most demanding circumstances in the World, in that industry we are the Blue Chip. When you’ve got hundreds of clients doing cutting edge stuff upon which billions of dollars and sometimes lives depend around the World it’s easy to write social features. It’s hard to get a reputation for scalable business process because companies aren’t willing to just trust you on that. So anyone with a new idea is going to take at least 5 years for sure to get into a legitimate reputation like this where they can bid on the next $10m process project the way we can bid on it with total credibility.

Theo: As vendors are moving from process-based application platforms to enterprise platform plays, do you see worksocial as the next step or do people need to think even beyond that? Where is Appian in this trend?

Matt: I think we’re definitely a platform for building enterprise applications with a social twist, or applications without a social twist if you prefer. There is a certain merging of capabilities here. I think that in the past we had lots of different silos and lots of different platforms and the IT industry wants to get away from that. They want to standardize something, something that they can believe in and is widely flexible, something that when you use it doesn’t isolate you from the information coming in from the sides. Speed is important and the critical mass of attention is important. So, we are a platform but we’re the kind of platform that can aggregate everybody, we’ve merged the application layer and at the same time we’ve merged the interface layer by being the aggregator of the content. Those two merges when done in parallel are even more important than either one would have been done alone.

Theo: Which has the power to be more disruptive; Mobile or Social?

Matt: In the way others define it, between the two Mobile is more disruptive and more transformative. I do love the way they worlk together, the suitability of the social interface for a mobile shape. Social is like a liquid interface, it pours into any shape and size and I like the way it draws in participants, but mobile’s impact is even greater. By broadening the participation in every application, by including more people and more processes, Mobile has transformed the applicability of processes in the enterprise in a way that Social won’t be able to do.

Theo: Do you think then it redefines what Gartner meant by intelligent business processes, that the intelligence is back towards the human participation rather than a suite of applications?

Matt: Well I’ve long wondered what it meant when Gartner added ‘intelligent’ to any market industry….the real intelligence here is people, everyone is a knowledge worker. We need to share more, we need to liberate the latent knowledge in people and if there’s anything getting intelligent right now in BPM it’s the fact that we’ve reduced the friction that used to prevent free exchange of information such that that exchange now occurs and we have therefore capitalized on the intelligence that existed all the time anyway.

Theo: Do you think worksocial will remove functional silos and how companies are traditionally structured and reshape them into a more fluid enterprise?

Matt: I think the answer is yes, but I don’t think you need any type of reorg to accomplish it. I think that the way organisations have been structured has led to a balkanization of people, data and logic unnecessarily. In other words your organizational decisions unwittingly became your IT decisions and this was a mistake and we’ve all paid the price of that. And now, this two-layered aggregation Appian has is the antidote to this balkanasation. Organisations and IT will be sharing data and sharing decisions and sharing logic far sooner than having some flexible org chart.

Theo: How do you make sure that the right information is presented to the right person at the right time?

Matt: Well that’s the first part of a two part question, How do you be sure that the right information is always presented to the right person. The first is; On initiation, how do you source the appropriate information and for that I’ve got filtering algorithms and I think we’ve almost got that one nailed. More difficult is; How do I be sure that the right information persists in the eyes of the right person so it doesn’t just drop off the page because 10 other things happen and the 11th is the really important one. And in a social context that’s where we have to be careful of Facebook style interfaces or a Yammer style interface when a conversation falls off the front page it’s like someone turned the lights off at a party. That’s a huge problem in business, we’re supposed to have persistence and keep focused. Some issues are worth a hundred times what other issues are worth so we can’t just treat them like equals and fixate on what the last piece of news is. What we need to do is find ways to make conversations persist amongst the people to whom they are most important and we’ve thought about this deeply. That’s where BPM doesn’t drop the ball, you want to merge that with a social enterprise paradigm in which balls are dropped constantly and you’ve got to find a way to bring these two concepts together and keep all the balls in the air. And so Appian has got a web of means whereby important things are bound to people, to topics, in order not to lose track of them, and we’re patenting this so that in the blur of social enterprise you don’t lose track of the core of your business.

Theo: So do you think that strengthens BPM’s place in the enterprise now as the glue that holds all these strands together?

Matt: The reason I got into BPM is because I felt it had such wonderful theoretical potential that eventually if we could just get away from the short term crowdedness and thought conformity that was bedeviling the industry we could make something of tremendous value, which is flexible fast ways to define idiosyncratic processes that conform to the strategic advantages of your firm. This is how work should happen. This is BPM’s turn to go on stage and I don’t think it’s going to take too long by the way, the case studies that we’ve got out there are just aces and are inspiring, we’re riding the wave of that right now, I feel like we’re going to change the industry right now.

Theo: If you could pick one particular success story for Appian over the last 12 months which would it be and what did they do to achieve it?

Matt: Every Starbucks in the World is inspected by running Appian as a mobile on inspectors’ iPads. They use geo-location in the Appian app to get store directions, they arrive, they take photographs in our product, they upload 243 pictures for every Starbucks, they’re commenting to each other through our social interface in real time, they’re filing forms and making reports back to Headquarters in real time and then the people at headquarters who are using the same worksocial product are sending out replacement shelves or cleaning teams or whatever is needed in the wake of that inspection also in real time. And Starbucks likes to say that they react to intended changes at their stores five times as fast as McDonalds. The worksocial concept is just perfect for them. They’re mobile, they work in the moment, they like high awareness, they like speed.

I’ve got another favourite, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Volunteers using iPads at 2 VA Job Fairs processing 16,000 job applications had never seen Appian before and they learned our product in 20 minutes. So we’ve made 16,000 job applications with a volunteer team that didn’t know our software which breaks the critical sound barrier in the BPM market. It used to be just too difficult to use this stuff.

Theo: Do you think the application of worksocial within BPM increases the rate of adoption ?

Matt: I think this elevates BPM from being a departmental decision to being an enterprise decision, so it accelerates and broadens and universalizes the BPM selection process which is going to be very good for us and for the industry which has always deserved to be bigger than it is.

Theo: Do you see an intrinsic link between Social and Big Data?

Matt: I think the link, the beautiful complimentary nature of social and data has yet to be comprehended by anyone. But it’s coming. Won’t it be spectacular when people on the road, on their Android, surf the information of their enterprise or link right to it from the latest event. Even though social is a wonderful way of aggregating information and awareness in your business it is rising up from outside the wall. Social has come to us creeping up from the floorboards a la Yammer, or storming the gates a la Chatter and it has not grown up with the interests and perspectives of IT itself. If it did then we would have long noticed the confluence of social and data. We would have seen social as way to browse your enterprise as it should be, a simple interface that works on any platform and on any location is the perfect conduit from which to explore the information in your enterprise. In social enterprise tools you have great reaction time, if some random person in the world comments about your company you can know it in five seconds, which is unbelievable. It leads to the question: what do I do about that ? Social allows you to make decisions on utterly insufficient information and the fact I’ve not heard more complaints about this I’m taking as evidence that no one is actually making a decision based on their social enterprise product because if they did they’d be screaming about this, ‘where’s the data ?!’. I need to know the picture and then I can make a decision. So pretty soon we’re going to see that social tools are either going to give up on making decisions or people are going to make decisions and demand more information and when they do, then it’ll be obvious that the social paradigm and data belong together.

Theo: I think perhaps one of the biggest statements about BPM today is giving the knowledge back to the knowledge workers in order for them to do their job and to do it in real time and with the right information.

Matt: It’s hard to argue with that. These ideas will be commonplace in a couple of years, they’re just going to be proven correct in the short run and we’ll be hearing about it from all sides before long. And it’s going to be a great thing for BPM generally, and you know in the confluence between social and work automation, work automation is going to win even though social is getting all the press right now because it’s relatively easy to write a social interface but it’s so difficult to build the credibility of building something like the corporate underwriting at a global top 10 insurance firm.

Theo: You must be incredibly proud of Appian in ten years and the team.

Matt: They’ve done a great job !

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Theo Priestley
Theo Priestley is Vice President and Chief Evangelist at Software AG, responsible for enabling the marketing and voice of the industry's leading Business Process, Big Data/ In-Memory/ Complex Event Processing, Integration and Transaction suite of platforms. Theo writes for several technology and business related sites including his own successful blog IT Redux. When he isn't evangelizing he's playing videogames, collecting comics and takes the odd photo now and then. Theo was previously an independent industry analyst and successful enterprise transformation consultant.


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