Document Automation Platforms, Operating Systems, Sources, and Media… throw out the old book because: It Doesn’t Matter Any More

Throw out the rules! Throw out the restrictions! Forget phrases like “You can’t”, “It won’t work”, “They’re incompatible”, and “It’s unavailable”!

The old world order of document automation is gone, replaced by an ad hoc, unrestricted, unfettered freedom. Depending on your worldview, this is either threatening or exhilarating.

Even the old word “document” seems dated and restrictive, drawing, as it does, on its heritage as paper. The new word is “content”, because all that matters is information. The medium that carries the information is just that: a carrier, a tool, and a conveyance.

The “traditional” world was tractable, controlled by technical factors like interoperability (or the lack thereof), I/O, bandwidth, clock speed and communications methods. But one could work with it. Jobs could be defined, limited, and accomplished. Applications did one thing well, and within their parameters, they were usually successful and cost-effective.

When document imaging arrived in the late 1980s, technology that was revolutionary for its time replaced the paper document with electronic images. Still, the images were only one generation away from the paper, and “document” still meant either “originally on paper” or computer-generated reports or word processing.

Platforms barely talked to each other. The AS/400 with its original CISC architecture was hung with the “proprietary” stigma, and, even though it was never true, it was seen as an island unto itself. Bandwidth restrictions made Wide Area Networks slow, expensive, or both. Sending optical disks by express mail was often the most practical way to distribute information.

A Sea Change

Today the world of documents approaches a constructive anarchy. The rules, the barriers, the limitations, and the alienation all seem to be gone. Platforms talk to each other like sorority sisters. Information comes from any geographical or logical location. The “document” source may or may not have been paper—the information comes as e-mail, Web-hosted accounting reports, faxes, audio-video clips or any source short of smoke signals.

While some IT workers pine for the control they had under limited technology, others thrill to the freedom. The genie is out of the bottle, and the “good” old days are not coming back.

A large part of the credit for the change belongs to the Internet and the World Wide Web. For example, whereas 10 years ago, AS/400s and PCs barely talked with each other, today each can send e-mail that is completely understandable. A buyer considering a server can choose between a microcomputer, a minicomputer, a workstation, or big iron, but the evaluation will have more to do with functionality than compatibility.

“Today, even some of the most loyal AS/400 shops have, at least, an NT server. It is a much more heterogeneous environment,” explains Theresa O’Neil, vice president of marketing for ShowCase Corp. (Rochester, MN). “The AS/400 still has a really important place in the transactional world, and your [data] warehouse should be there,” she continues, “but we are seeing information and applications on other systems that are not available for the 400. Another system is needed.” O’Neil points to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) as a relatively new solution that is not available to run natively on the 400 as of this writing. The good news is that, especially since the development of Java, getting a CRM system running under Windows NT or Unix to work with an AS/400 data warehouse is eminently achievable.

David Gerber, vice president of sales for Gauss Interprise (Irvine, CA) extends that theme. “The current thought on dealing with documents is that the server should be ubiquitous,” he states. “Documents, or should I say ‘content’, should be able to exist in the environment that best fits the application.”

That may be an AS/400 and it may not. Shortly before its merger with Gauss, Magellan multiplied its platform offerings to NT, Unix and Linux. This trend has the 400 taking its place in a palette of platforms. Barrier-crushing languages like Java and XML (eXtensible Markup Language) promote functionality over platform patriotism. “The great thing about the newest AS/400 is support for Java,” Gerber opines. Rather than diminish the value of the midrange, he continues, “We believe Java support will greatly extend the product life cycle for AS/400 technology well into the future.” The environment in which it functions will simply not be as homogeneous.

Anywhere, Anyhow

Like platforms, logistics is also less important now. For years, technical obstacles hobbled computer communication. Wires, bandwidth, throughput, complicated technology and archaic infrastructures limited the number of people who could send and receive certain kinds and volumes of information. Communication was slow and/or expensive, and it was limited to those with special equipment.

At the dawn of the millennium, however, flexibility rules—now almost any kind of information can be received anywhere. Some of the equipment is not yet widely used—Web-accessing cell phones, are one example. Nonetheless, the technology is widely available and, although costs are currently high, they are sure to come down with popular acceptance.

The waning of obstacles means a waxing of the number of choices. Today’s users get the information they need through an array of hardware: desktop, laptop, palmtop, or even cell phone. They can use a fat client or a thin client. They can use the operating system of their choice and be anywhere from a Manhattan skyscraper to the beach at Waikiki. “Media doesn’t matter anymore,” proclaims O’Neil. “We are talking content!”

Content Management

This year, IBM took its EDMSuite – the “D” stood for “document” – and re-packaged it as Content Manager. Surely there were improvements in the integration of the suite components, but the biggest change was in the conception of how field workers would actually use the software’s capabilities. That change is behind Big Blue’s focus on e-business.

“The evolution to content management is important,” asserts Carol Bean, Content Manager product-marketing manager for IBM. “Content is broader than ‘documents’ or ‘reports’ or ‘multi-media’ or ‘audio/video’. EDMSuite historically reflected document management. E-business reflects the need to connect business documents with e-business transactions.

“It’s all tied to e-business,” she adds. “Business leaders have very aggressively pursued e-business, but the concept of content wasn’t always part of those original endeavors as Internet transaction started up. IBM’s partners and customers realized that there were still content pieces that needed to be correlated, such as a purchase order or automatic response that needs to be sent to a customer/policy holder but still be associated with an archive.”

SolCom Inc. (Isle of Wight, United Kingdom) doesn’t call the process content management, but the effect is the same. Like going from two dimensions to three, SolCom has taken the old document-centric workflows and added the new possibilities of Internets, intranets and extranets. “This automates work processes beyond a department or a facility,” explains Harry Groenendyk, SolCom development manager. “Our insurance clients are integrating agents into their electronic workflow. Our manufacturing clients are able to send imaged documents, Lotus Domino on-line forms, and customized letters to selected vendors. Physicians are going on-line to use integrated imaging controls within hospital intranets.

“Full-text retrieval, transferring documents via XML to support B2B operations, providing secured customer access or, in the healthcare arena, physician access to document archives seem to the top-requested technologies from our customers this year,” he concludes.

Though Groenendyk may not use the two magic words, content management, that is the essence of SolCom’s solutions. The information may or may not be document-related. In the words of songwriter June Carter Cash, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

The Power of the Internet

Time and again, independent leaders and analysts proclaim the power of the Internet. They credit the Web with breaking the chains that bound information to fiefdoms of limited scope and range.

“The most notable new products are the real, Web content management products, not the products that were re-named ‘Content Manager’, jabs Gerber. “These products allow companies to truly take advantage of the power of the Internet without the requirement of a small army to manage it. We can now truly tie our content contributors to our entire process through a secure, Web-enabled environment. The desire to truly implement real, thin-client work processes is now fulfilled.”

Of course it is not the mere existence of the Internet that opens such wide possibilities. It is creative problem-solvers who engineer limit-busting solutions that exploit the Internet’s potential. For example, when asked about the most notable new products for managing content, Groenendyk responds, “For SolCom, it circles around the Web. We are providing imaging controls for client Intranet applications, a Web-based browser, XML imaged document migration and portal integration.” His engineers also employ the effect of full text retrieval.

The Power of the Portal

If going from documents to content multiplies the quantity of available information, adding the power of the Internet increases the amount of available information exponentially. The sum of information available over the Internet far exceeds the capability of any human to effectively use it. Users quickly become overwhelmed with gleaning the wheat from the chaff, the useful information from the spurious.

The crushing need to eschew useless information and deliver all vital information to users led to the rise of portals. At their best, portals recognize the informational needs of each individual within a system. Then they deliver all the appropriate information at the times when it is most useful. The user matches the retrieval medium with a location of access: a CEO on a desktop in an executive suite; a sales representative on a laptop in a hotel room; an engineer on the manufacturing floor with a palm device; a surfer on the beach with a cell phone. (Col. Mustard in the parlor with the candlestick…)

A portal’s function can be as simple as delivering stock market quotations on an individual’s portfolio at specified times of the day. It could automatically make additional reports when a stock has unusually high activity or price fluctuations.

Portals can also deliver much more complicated sets of information. A CEO may need to regularly analyze market forces, sales and distribution, cost factors, demographics, resource management and a plethora of other factors that lead to informed decisions. In the medical arena, a portal can help a physician by delivering, for example,

  • Patient records when and where they are needed.
  • Test results as soon as they become available
  • The availability of colleagues for consultation
  • The availability of facilities and testing equipment
  • Newly published articles on specialty subjects

The possibilities are endless but the goal is the same: to deliver all important information, and only important information, at the most opportune time to the most preferred access station.

“The use of personalized web portals is shaping the way companies look at deploying technology,” relates Gauss’ Gerber. “This is not specific to AS/400 users, but the key element is that the AS/400 can play the role it was meant to play—a scaleable, secure, stable computing platform. Portals will enable IT professionals to implement application- and process-specific information to the user’s desktop while maintaining control of the infrastructure that makes it all happen. This is especially great for the AS/400 environment since it has been proven that the AS/400 takes much less time to administer than any other computing environment. The result is a reduced total cost of ownership.”

IBM’s product is dubbed Enterprise Information Portal (EIP). The current version has been improved with access to a federated set of information sources, relational databases, and Lotus Notes. “The change is evolutionary,” suggests Bean. “WAF grew into EDMSuite which became Content Manager. But EIP is the emerging new market. It meets a superset of needs that includes content and so much more. We want to provide the leading middleware for portal solutions. The most important thing is the infrastructure for searching the Web and delivering it at the right place and time.

“All of our customers are Internet-enabling to provide browser access to their content,” she continues. “And they are taking it a step further with integrated solutions, doing normal business transactions on the Web. Usually it involves the delivery of business information, but there are many transactions as well.”

The browser has proven to be a particularly comfortable interface for end users, sources agree. Outside the IT community, browsers give technical and non-technical end-users access to powerful and profound solutions.

Shrink-wrapped or Toolkit?

As often happens with new technologies, products first emerge as toolkits for building solutions. They are not specific to a particular solution, but they are more or less easy to customize into specific applications for specific markets.

For example, Daltech International (Dallas) creates portal solutions, dubbed “Web enablement”, from all of its product sets. Vice president of technology Randy Watkins attests, “We still believe we have the best of breed with our DTI/400 API for the AS/400, coupled with Eastman Software engines on the back end. They run on Microsoft Windows NT platforms and integrate tightly with any AS/400 line-of-business application. Web connectors are available for most imaging offerings, but, to me, portals are just controlled pipelines to the Web.”

IBM, Gauss, SolCom and Vanguard Systems (Media, Penna.) also lean toward the toolbox approach.

An exception is ShowCase. Showcase partnered with IntraNet Solutions (Eden Prairie, Minn.) to deliver a turnkey portal product, ShowCase Xpedio EIP. “Other companies [serving AS/400 shops] provide an interface for building solutions,” notes O’Neil. “We are a packaged solution. You get the integration out of the box. Others require an administrator, we do not.” She adds that, while there are other portal packages on the market, ShowCase has the most AS/400 expertise. Xpedio EIP is structured to build, maintain, and automate web publishing as well as structured data. It creates a bridge to existing office information tools. “Our whole range of services really helps reinforce the strength of our EIP solutions: enablement dates, release dates, full text search, metadata searches, and others,” she concludes.

Bean demurs, however, saying, “EIP and portals -- and how they relate to Content Manager -- are evolving slowly because there is integration work to be done on the front end (the user interface) and there is a need to grow the infrastructure. Integration provides the highest way to success. In 12 months, the user interface will become more out-of-the-box, plug and play. We are working very closely on this with our business partners.

“Nonetheless, EIP version 7.1 emphasizes out-of-the-box ease and integration so that AS/400 users without great technical skills can still use it,” she continues. “Complicated applications, including transactions, may still need programming help.”

Clearly, the software developers are striving to release software that requires the same technical expertise as the platform on which it runs.

Implementation

While businesses with far flung operations, vast amounts of unstructured information, and complicated reporting functions will rush to embrace content management, many others will adopt it and portal technology slowly. As Vanguard President David Engberg says, “The majority of AS/400 shops are only now beginning to use document imaging. Most are not yet ready for portals.”

There is a conceptual challenge for many businesses that slows adoption of the technology. Executives who are just now letting go of the paper “security blanket” are stopped short by the thought of letting secure information go outside the local information system. And between experiences with e-mail spam and viruses, they are reticent to invite Web-based information from uncontrollable sources onto their desktops. Sometimes it is difficult to see the advantages of the new technology as easily as it is to see the potential pitfalls.

“Being able to manage all of a company’s content, while enabling knowledge workers to participate in the contribution of content (information), is a complete paradigm shift,” suggests Gerber. “However, real content management and real portal products will change the way businesses work with other businesses, customers, partners, and employees.

“The challenge for most companies will be finding vendors that can actually deliver the components that will provide the needed functionality while allowing necessary integration with other information applications on the AS/400.”

Whether one calls it a paradigm shift, a conceptual problem, or a sea change, it is clear there are sweeping changes in the air. Old restrictions and limitations no longer apply. Employing these new technologies may be daunting or exhilarating, but the IT world is changing, and the definition of “document” is changing with it. “Content” and “portals” are the words of challenge now.

Bio: Gordon E.J. Hoke is a principal with IMERGE Consulting. He can be reached at ghoke@imergeconsult.com.