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Digital Asset Management Value Chains – Workflow

by Ralph Windsor on March 1, 2013

Our on-going discussion about Digital Asset Management value chains this time looks at workflow. See the original feature article if you are looking background on this concept.

Workflow in DAM systems is an area that vendors have focussed on a lot more in the last year. Previous linear workflow models where the process designs would look more like something from a railway timetable are disappearing. They are being replaced with more sophisticated techniques that go some way to servicing the dynamic processes involved in marketing and creative studios especially where multiple approvers have to sign off artwork or make decisions about what assets to use.

While the sophistication of what you can do with workflow tools in DAM might have increased, so too has the complexity of setting it all up. I see many ‘workflow designers’ that can be adapted by someone with knowledge and skills of the platform but they may also remain under-exploited and perceived as too complicated by those managers who might not have the time or motivation to investigate them.

Business Process Management (BPM) and workflow specifically (before you even get into any technology issues) is quite logically demanding and difficult for many to understand unless they apply time and effort to the task. You could argue that this is something for a professional services partner to work out on their behalf, but marketing people (in my experience) either like to change their minds a lot, or get told to by someone else further up the management food chain. You can’t expect them to fill out a support ticket each time they need to delegate approval for a given project. My expectation is the usability and enhancements to workflow UIs will continue to require ongoing optimisation for the foreseeable future.

I would anticipate workflow becoming a core element of an integration service and part of the fabric of any protocol used with DAM value chains. This is essential to allow all the dependent services to gain access to information about key events (e.g. someone uploading a file).

There is some activity taking place in this area, but it’s mainly the Cloud PaaS (Platform as a Service) leviathans who are muscling in on the act. For example, Amazon AWS now provide a generic Simple Workflow Service (SWF).  SWF offers a good model because it separates the client interface from the workflow and messaging mechanism itself so it is possible for developers to create services that run on top of it which can be more easily integrated with each other. Currently that isn’t possible with most available DAM systems, you have to take their entire approach to workflow wholesale whether it works for you or not. If that doesn’t appeal, there is an ugly (and expensive) task in prospect getting the vendor’s API and some custom built middleware to play nice with whatever alternative workflow tool you want to use.

From what I have read, Amazon have been smart enough to enable SWF to integrate with services outside the AWS platform.  This gives them the potential to extend out of AWS and bring other systems (including on-premise ones) into the fold in a fairly low impact manner – and further extend their tentacles beyond their own Cloud environment as well.

It’s also noteworthy that the usage scenario Amazon offer for SWF is directly relevant to DAM.  In fact, it reads a lot like a functional spec from numerous DAM projects I’ve been involved in over the years (albeit with a commercial for their Mechanical Turk service in the middle).

There are a number of potential and actual competitors to Amazon. A challenge for them, however, is the scale and ready made sales channel that Amazon have already got at their disposal. Amazon can push their SWF service to both all the DAM SaaS vendors who use AWS and hybrid vendors or IT departments that have elected to use the Cloud to scale up.

This article on Cloudstory by Janakiram MSV suggests that maybe only Microsoft has the form to take them on:

AWS is quietly investing in the key areas that will position them as the next gen PaaS provider. At the first look at SWF, I realized that it is complete in its form and ready for the real world deployments. It is very hard for the traditional PaaS players to match AWS on this front. The only competitor that I personally think that has the potential to match is Microsoft. Microsoft has at least 3 offerings in this space – 1) BizTalk Server, 2) Workflow Foundation and, 3) Azure Service Composition.” [Read More].

I’m not sure it is quite that clear cut (and I note that Janakiram has history with both Amazon and Microsoft), but I can see his point.   He also highlights that Microsoft are somewhat in disarray with their various existing (legacy?) workflow stacks – which certainly concurs with my experience. Workflow Foundation is used in several.NET oriented DAM systems but they have yet to integrate this properly with Azure (their own Cloud platform).

There are some potentially interesting independents, like RunMyProcess who look like they might be alternatives, but whether they have the brand awareness and clout to give Amazon a run for their money remains to be seen. This is an area outside my own personal experience, but I also wonder what people like SAP, Oracle and other BPM/supply chain software vendors are doing with this? I can’t imagine they are just ignoring it?

Workflow is one of the essential infrastructure components of a Digital Asset Management Value Chain.  If you view all process messaging (whether between humans or software) as being essentially workflow too then it is analogous to the central nervous system of your DAM.  For that reason, this is an important subject that vendors and end users need to get up to speed with developments in.

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