Taking the pain out of adding workflow to Domino

The corporate world, as much as it would cringe at the thought, is often akin to government. Decision making and approval often have to go through a long and tedious chain of command. Percussion’s PowerFlow 5.0 is out to ease that pain.

The software is designed to allow users to visually model and define any process that will be put into a Lotus Domino-based application. This includes such operations as workflow, database actions, any security that a company wants to automate, or decisions about who gets to do what to which document at what time.

According to Vernon Imrich, director of product strategy with Percussion, this is typically done by putting scripts directly into the applications.

“What our product lets you do is pull all of that stuff out into a separate engine, so your application then is defined as just what constitutes the document,” he said. This allows designers to automate Domino applications without affecting their original design and build PowerFlow applications without any obligatory template or design elements, according to the company.

The product is essentially a two-piece system. The developer’s kit is used for creating automated applications while the server piece is designed to deploy those applications. It is the event-based design that is unique to Percussion, according to Imrich.

“The engine part is what is important – it allows a wider flexibility for the application designer [which] translates to a wide array of end users because the designers can now build very simple Web users vs. Notes client users,” he said. He added that with other products, designers are forced to use certain design elements, forms and buttons, which tends to be limiting.

Visual Workbench

Though PowerFlow’s engine is unique to this release, most of the upgrades between versions 4.0 and 5.0 involve the designer interface, the Visual Workbench, and a new type of analysis that can be used by end users.

“We have completely reworked the front end for the Visual Workbench so that you have a lot more options as a designer in terms of what types of pictures you use to define the process,” Imrich said. There is also the ability to create more immediate analysis of the different elements of the process. The system could be set up to show everywhere a CEO or senior vice-president is needed for an approval.

Changes to the process can be made using the GUI without having to rewrite the application. The drag and drop interface allows the designer to add features such as Java agent triggering, parallel routing and customizable notification. Version 5.0’s interface also includes a browser where workflow elements are visually displayed.

Another key change with 5.0 is the analysis portion of the product. In earlier versions it was available only to designers. Now a user can launch directly from the application – if given the right – to find elements like cycle time charts and audit trail history.

Setting it all up is quite simple, according to Imrich.

“What you do is actually lay out the states and rules, and roles that are going to be used in the process,” Imrich said. This is done through a couple of different diagrams, including a process diagram to define the states and transitions, and a role hierarchy which lets the designer define how people are organized, who is involved in the process and the conditions of their assignment.

Data integration

According to one analyst, the product does a good job of dealing with aspects unique to the market.

“To me workflow and data integration are not separate things,” said David Marshak, senior vice-president at the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. “They are all part of the business process and putting these together, which Percussion is in a unique position to do, is extremely powerful,” he said.

Marshak noted that the choice to go with Percussion over another workflow solution is really a question of familiarity. “It really depends on the customers. If customers are more familiar with the Domino programming environment rather than using Lotus script, then they will be much happier with it,” he said.

But though the product is solid, according to Marshak there are difficulties in the overall market.

“The difficulty for Percussion is that workflow is becoming an underlying capability that people assume is there,” he said. “They have a little bit of a challenge to educate people that they can take their existing system, particularly their Domino applications, and workflow-enable them,” he added.

Luckily for Percussion, many educated customers are out there. Banks, not surprisingly, are a place where hundreds of documents must pass through a chain of command.

The Bank of Montreal’s system analyst, Charles Carr, explained. “We use it specifically within our financial systems to allow the controllers to put in adjustment entries and journal entries into our general ledger system,” he said.

“[PowerFlow] allows us to flow the documents from a preparer to an approver…through the flow of signatures that need to go on to a particular journal entry,” he added. PowerFlow also helps them make sure they have the appropriate audit trail on forms before they actually get processed into their general ledger.

Carr added that the product is genuinely easy to use and the support and reliability are excellent. Users interact with the application either using Notes client or a Web browser.

PowerFlow 5.0 will be available in May 2000 and costs US$3,995 for the developer’s kit and US$6,500 for the deployment engine.