A new class of business process solutions based on rich Internet applications (RIAs) is fundamentally changing how business professionals collaborate and their customers engage with services. With RIAs, organizations can provide high-impact, easy-to-use online and offline services that integrate effortlessly with back-end systems, enabling users across manufacturing, financial services, government and other industries to easily access the services they need anywhere, anytime. Already, RIAs are replacing less dynamic online services built around traditional point-click-wait models with more engaging, interactive online experiences.

 

“With RIAs, we can break free from long-accepted Web constraints and be limited only by our imaginations,” says David Crowder, senior vice president of technology at MFG.com, the world’s largest manufacturing marketplace. MFG.com serves manufacturers procuring materials or selling goods ranging from glue guns to Mars landing modules. Its elegant RIA interface allows buyers and sellers to collaborate in complex transactions. Buyers set up custom request for quote (RFQ) templates to specify what they need, when they need it and where they need it delivered, and suppliers worldwide bid on those RFQs, matching their capabilities and capacity with the buyer’s requirements. The buyer accepts a quote and can then monitor the entire production of the order - including revisions, negotiations and even tracking shipment - until the goods arrive at the doorstep.

 

This is inherently a complex process, but MFG.com’s unique platform makes it easier for bothbuyers and sellers. RIAs slide contextually relevant content in and out of the dashboard-style user interface based on the decisions that users make while working in the application. A process-focused RIA such as the MFG.com application can manage massive amounts of data - including CAD files in platform - and application-independent PDFs cached and pushed to users on demand - providing all project team members with instant access to current, relevant information. To further improve performance and avoid confusion, MFG.com can enhance services by integrating rights management capabilities with its RIA to help safeguard the integrity and accuracy of content shared across teams. “Overall, the robust combination of front-end RIAs and back-end process systems is redefining what is possible for the manufacturers and suppliers that use our services,” says Crowder.

 

Migration to RIAs

 

MFG.com is just one example of a larger trend toward using RIAs to deliver better, more intuitive ways to improve collaboration across project teams and enabling customers to interact with organizations to place orders, request services or get information. Leaders in a variety of industries - from Internet innovators such as eBay to financial giants like NASDAQ - are using RIAs to meet customers’ changing expectations, increase customer loyalty and generate higher profits - all while making use of existing staff, back-end business processes and infrastructure.

 

Because RIAs can greatly improve user experiences, Forrester predicts that moving forward, RIA technologies will be used to augment or even replace traditional enterprise portals and Microsoft Office as information workplace front ends.1 RIAs are especially suited for complex, multistep processes, consolidating multiple tasks into a seamless, individualized and visual user experience.

 

For many businesses, RIAs are becoming synonymous with improved business processes, particularly as they relate to efforts around business process management (BPM). In fact, RIAs help BPM overcome one of its greatest challenges: the gap between an organization’s ability to automate processes and users’ readiness to participate in them. The powerful and complex business processes that underlie MFG.com, for example, could easily be daunting without the intuitive RIA front end. As business managers know all too well, failure to engage staff and customers fully in processes can result in high attrition, low conversion rates, overloaded customer service centers, lengthy cycle times and missed opportunities - all things that RIAs can help address.

 

New Views of Engagement Inside and Outside an Organization

 

Engagement is where RIAs shine: the overwhelming majority of those who use RIAs say that rich applications greatly enhance their Web experience.2 Users like RIAs more than traditional online Web sites or enterprise portals because RIAs can provide capabilities such as real-time data visualization and dashboards that instantly pull data from multiple locations into consolidated images that help users complete transactions or gain new insight into their businesses.

 

For instance, financial services employees don’t have to launch multiple applications and repeatedly rekey the same information just to open a new account for a customer. Instead, they can use RIAs integrated with back-end systems to enter customer details into a single interface and automatically generate all documents needed to complete the transactions. A common example of an RIA for online shoppers is a product configurator that lets consumers automatically build a car, a suit or any other item on screen, without lengthy page refreshes.More advanced versions of this application include integration with enterprise systems that simultaneously generate highly branded, custom product sheets tailored to each customer’s unique purchase.

 

RIAs further engage users because they provide information in the context of roles and, like the example above, can tie that information into key systems. “Adaptive applications” can present the same data differently, depending on the user and the process. For example, in an RIA for analyzing loan default rates, a manager who focuses on overall profitability of the bank’s portfolio would have a different experience from the sales manager who is trying to identify the characteristics of borrowers most likely to default. The first manager uses his data in creating profitability reports that are picked up and incorporated in various documents, some tailored for the board of directors, some for shareholders and some for the security exchange commision. The second manager turns this information into business rules built into the company’s loan approval process so that the bank does not make loans to high-risk applicants. Both use the same data, but the application adapts to their different needs, making tasks easier for them.

 

Solving Real Business Problems

 

Although RIAs are attractive to users, just putting a process online and adding simple interactivity doesn’t always enhance the business. Organizations need to focus on their real business goals and adopt an end-to-end engagement strategy - one that clearly outlines how existing back-end systems and RIAs will work together to make it easier and more intuitive for users to accomplish their tasks.

 

Many tasks that can be described simply - such as “open a new account” or “generate appropriate documents” - often involve complex, behind-the-scenes processes and access to multiple applications. Streamlined business processes encapsulated in a role-sensitive RIA transform processes as well as customer experiences and employee productivity by pulling together all required information into a view that matches the steps of each task. Each well-designed process integrates seamlessly with all systems involved and can include policies that specify who can participate and how information moves inside and outside an organization.

 

Organizations might choose to optimize processes in several stages. The Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) began simply by posting online versions of its forms, which delivered some savings. Next, it integrated those forms with its back-end systems using JavaScript programs that autopopulate forms based on case numbers and Social Security numbers. This simple step not only reduces the margin of error, it can save as much as 1.5 hours in administrative time per service request that case managers previously devoted to filling out forms by hand, duplicating them and routing them. The agency plans to take the next step, to directly capture data to and from its mainframe systems using more intelligent, digital front-end forms and electronic signature capabilities. As a next step, the agency could put RIAs on its Web site and enable fully automated, anytime, anywhere citizen interactions with the agency. Those RIAs could lower barriers still further. For example, once a citizen enters his or her Social Security number, the RIAs could pull up the information that user accesses most often, and present it in the applicant’s preferred language, or in large type, or even in synthesized speech.

 

From RIA to ROI

 

Organizations committed to being online leaders adopt new technologies early. But most organizations are more cautious, and need to quantify potential ROI before they integrate RIAs with their enterprise systems. For those organizations, Forrester Research published "The Business Case for Rich Internet Applications," a March 2007 report based on interviews with RIA technology providers and designers, as well as Forrester Research clients and customers. The report revealed the value of RIA projects, and specifically demonstrated that improved ease of use for customer-facing RIAs "drives higher conversion rates.

 

Cost savings can be an important motivator. Organizations can save a huge amount of money just from switching from paper forms to electronic documents as part of more engaging end-user processes. The Illinois DHS saved approximately $1.2 million annually in printing and distribution costs for handling more than 1,000 forms - and about $6 million more in administrative costs as the organization reduced staff time needed to process applications and accelerated the time to distribute forms from weeks to minutes. Plus, improving staff and client experiences can yield further savings by encouraging users to adopt more automated processes instead of rely on familiar manual processes.

 

In addition to improving service levels, using RIAs to interface with back-end systems can also boost an organization’s sales. For instance, insurance agents in the field have traditionally been unable to close a sale on the spot - instead, they often need to submit forms and get precise quotes. This increased the chance that customers would call other insurance companies, too. Using an integrated RIA, this model changes dramatically. When insurance agents now go out in the field, they can fill in forms online and then pull up a graphical summary of appropriate plans, how they compare and how much they would cost that particular customer. Suddenly, it’s faster and easier for customers to make an instant buying decision, especially because the agent can capture any signatures electronically, get credit card or bank account details, and even print up the contracts.

 

Forrester observes that "Rich media helps boost margins." Average order size increases due to RIA configurators’ superior ability to present options and add-ons. Even at the very last step as a customer is about to check out, a pop-up can appear informing the customer that he or she can order an additional amount of merchandise without paying more shipping - and another pop-up lets him or her view check out all items in the catalog that keep them under the targeted shipping weight.

 

When an organization is ready to move forward with an RIA, a key first step is to plan how to measure the ROI of the RIA from the beginning. This requires identifying the metrics that matter - from conversion rates, call center traffic or purchase of upgrades. These metrics will indicate how an organization is doing and will also show where improvements are possible. If an organization is reluctant to move key business processes to a new RIA overnight, it is possible to set up an online “lab” to test new RIAs in a controlled environment. Selected users can work with the RIAs and provide feedback until the RIA is ready for the rest of the world.

 

RIAs that encapsulate improved business processes are raising the bar for business. Many of today’s best tools have already been proven in hundreds of real-world implementations in finance, manufacturing, government and other industries. For many organizations, the biggest competitive danger now is not in leading the charge: it is in lagging behind it.

 

References:

  1. Forrester. "RIAs Bring People-Centered Design to Information Workplaces." Forrester Research, November 26, 2007.
  2. Ron Rogowski. "The Business Case For Rich Internet Applications." Forrester Research, March 12, 2007.

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