"Automated workflows" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the enterprise software space and for good reason. Whether it's project management (PM) or a business collaboration tool, businesses of every size want to automate rote tasks to make it easier to get productive work done faster, without sacrificing security or experiencing a breakdown in the compliance and approval process. To that end, Box and IBM are the latest to take a stab at building this kind of native workflow automation tool, today announcing the release of Box Relay at the BoxWorks 2016 conference.
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Box Relay (available for an additional fee to Box (for Business) users) is a custom workflow creator and automation tool that's built into the document management and collaboration platform. Co-developed by Box and IBM as part of the companies' ongoing partnership, the simple user experience (UX) is designed to allow any business user to create and manage custom workflows, either by building one from scratch or choosing a prebuilt one from a workflow catalog.
Rand Wacker, Vice President of Enterprise Product at Box, said that Box Relay is about helping users collaborate in a more ad hoc way, making it easier to make changes, comment, and collaborate across departments and integrate with other products. Relay workflows can also be edited and saved with existing integrations, including Microsoft Office 365 and Salesforce.
"In the past, workflow and project management tools have been very difficult to use and more often the domain of IT," explained Wacker. "We're hoping to solve the problems that have people defaulting back to email and spreadsheets to keep track of tasks...Relay can now do all the automation and follow up on tasks so the end-user can set it up."
Box Relay includes a real-time workflow dashboard from which users can upload, edit, review, and approve documents and tasks. It's also an alert- and notification-based workflow system that fires off email notifications when a task is assigned or overdue, and compiles an audit trail for each workflow. Box Relay will be released in beta during Q4 2016 and be generally available in the first half of 2017.
Wacker also talked about the concept of the "extended enterprise," explaining that Box sees Relay as a secure, compliant way to collaborate with traditionally siloed departments and users outside your organization (rather than falling back on email). At the same time, he said this kind of process automation package is about eliminating traditional IT department busywork that slows down projects.
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"Just like with Box, Relay will allow you to easily invite anyone into a process or workflow," said Wacker. "The way we manage and collaborate on information isn't working. It's not just that there are all these different content silos between applications and systems, it's that they don't talk to each other.
"We see Box and Relay as a useful way to tie together something like a contract you're working on that will end up with Salesforce eventually but maybe there's a DocuSign process in between," added Wacker. "The more...IT teams and CIOs I talk to, the more they're trying to get out of doing this day-to-day stuff for users. In Relay itself, there is no IT interface. It's all self-service and user-driven."
Business Workflows Are Dead; Long Live Business Workflows
Box Relay in and of itself isn't anything revolutionary. Tools such as Asana and Slack approach workflows in a similarly intuitive fashion, with transparency, automated tasks, and a dead-simple UX.
On the more complex enterprise end of the spectrum, task-based tools such as Microsoft's Windows Workflow Foundation Rules Engine and tools such as workflow.com have long used these kinds of automated workflow packages. The more far-reaching implications of the tool and in Box and IBM's ongoing partnership lie in taking complex workflow automation that's traditionally been the purview of those IT management and data orchestration tools and turning it into a given. A process you don't even need to think about because it just works.
Box Relay is the first product co-built by Box and IBM since they announced their strategic partnership last year. IBM is one of the largest enterprise Box users internally, and also distributes and resells Box to its own customers, integrated with a host of its business process management (BPM) and analytics solutions such as IBM Case Manager and IBM Social Business Solutions.
Rich Howarth, Vice President of Product and Strategy for IBM Enterprise Content Management, is one of the original team members who pushed for the Box partnership. The first phase of the partnership was selling Box to IBM's large enterprise customers in tandem with its case management and BPM software. Box Relay is phase two of a 10-year partnership.
"We had almost viral adoption of Box inside IBM; we saw Box as more complementary than competitive to us," said Howarth. "Workflows and BPM have been around for decades, but with Relay, we worked to make it more accessible to business users. Box Relay fits on top of the Box platform, leveraging the content store, metadata inbox, and other aspects of the UI. But it was developed by IBM and is actually hosted in the IBM Cloud. Box worked with us on the design of the UI to keep the look and feel consistent."
Howarth talked a bit about where the partnership will go next: helping to enable Box Zones data storage outside the US in different IBM data centers. But he spoke more about how the companies aim to redefine workflow and process automation in businesses. He said, in some cases, IT may even take advantage of Box Relay to complete a quick task faster, but with the goal being to render those kinds of workflows largely obsolete.
"The business use cases go on and on," said Howarth. "Let's say you have a loan processing workflow. One of the things about mortgage integration is that business users can't create that kind of workflow, but there's a front-end part of the process where you're collaborating with a customer applying for the loan. Box Relay could implement that front-end process and feed a larger workflow solution running in your data center. It's about taking advantage of a tool like Box Relay running in the IBM Cloud, without setting anything up from an IT perspective."
Clay Richardson, an analyst at Forrester Research who covers BPM and enterprise architecture, got an advance look at Box Relay. He said what he likes about the platform is how it's trying to reimagine the UX for how people get work done.
"Coming from the BPM world, I'm used to vendors showing me a task list that's very basic in terms of how people engage with work," said Richardson. "Box Relay uses more of a Slack-style interface for getting work done in a workflow environment. It's a cool interface that makes it easier for the employee to see what needs to be done and act on it."
Richardson said Box Relay and tools such as Slack speak to a larger trend of what he calls "digital business automation," in which work is driven more by notifications. It's what he calls "an interrupt-driven work culture change happening in task management." It's a proactive, increasingly mobile alert-based way of working rather than passively playing catch-up.
"If you think about Slack and how you get notifications on your phone, it's really prompting you to move to the next step," said Richardson. "You're not just a cog in the machine. People are very busy so the best way to get them to move to the next task is to get them the package when they need it—not have them looking at 10 steps they have to go through like a maze. The trend is trying to deliver the work and engage people when they need to be engaged, as opposed to them logging in and trying to figure out where they are in the process."