Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Nintex InspireX Conference – Day Three

Erik Abderhalden

Two truths and a lie: I met Donald Trump Tuesday night, I broke even playing craps, and this is the last day of InspireX.

Ok - I'll make it easier for you. Here's a truth: it is the last this is the last day of InspireX. It's been a great three days. If you missed my previous recaps, you can read day one here and day two here. Instead of reading my drippy sentiments about the conference ending, let's get right to the recap. If you want to find out what’s a truth and a lie, you'll have to scroll to the bottom.

Keynote

When I heard that keynote presenter Mike Walsh is a futurist I immediately conjured up images of Chesley Bonestell’s art. Walsh is a different kind of futurist. He gave this great speech which was half Ray Kurzweil, half agile methodology, with a smidge of change management. His keynote wasn't specific to workflow and forms, but several topics from his speech really resonated with me.

At Rightpoint we focus a lot on culture. We're not a cube farm; our desks have short walls and we have an open seating policy. Walsh said that employers need to create social workspaces. In many ways, by not being a cube farm and letting people who may not interact with each other on project comingle, we have is a social workspace. I can't tell you how many times I've seen some one pop up either from across the room or from the desk across from me and either ask me a question or help me out with a problem. Walsh believes that collaboration is a culture, not a platform.

Here's my inference about how that translates to workflows: when we work with clients who may have entrenched processes, if we don't have them change the culture around the process, the solution may not be as successful as they want. If the process is already changing, we should start considering how more insight and collaboration can be added to the process and it's accompany assets. This isn't just sending an email for the sake of sending an email, but rather an effort to be more transparent and social so that the process isn't a black box, but rather something dynamic and organic that can change and adapt as necessary.

The second component of Walsh's presentation was about agility. He stressed the need for organizations to be agile. As a workflow developer, I often develop solutions to automate pain points and make organizations more nimble. But it's not just the processes alone that should be agile. The people in front of the screens need to be agile too. Walsh believes that to accomplish this organizations should hire high performing, high performing people who are not process driven. By process driven he was getting at people who play by the rules or those who do a good job thinking inside the box. Now there is certainly a place and time for those individuals, but an agile team is not one of them. To be agile, you shouldn't be afraid to take risks. These people are ones who are energized by the unknowns.

The last component Walsh talked about was human intelligence. Sometimes I think when we talk about how today's youth and how they have it so good we sound like a broken record; I feel my parents heard this growing up, and their parents heard it too, etc., But the fact is with advances in computing and software, things are changing more rapidly than ever and I should stop holding this cynical point of view. Walsh didn't talk about the singularity, but instead stressed that we should better utilize what we already have. The best way to do this is through data. We should find data that matters, explain it better with graphics, and use data to kill sacred cows.

That all sounds pretty heavy, but it's not a monumental ask. With the correct data, we can create gorgeous graphics that help persuade others with stories and not statistics. Plus, the days of saying "it's always been done this way" are over in Walsh's eyes. Walsh pointed to the example of how Amazon is opening physical book stores that are stocked only with well-reviewed and popular books on Amazon. Amazon may have driven the nail into Border's coffin, but here it is, like a brick and mortar Lazarus, only more well informed.

TL;DR - think big, think new, think quick. Challenge everything we know to be true. You can view the slides here.

Building User Defined Actions

I kinda geeked out a little when I saw Vadim Tabakman this week. As long as I've been using Nintex, I've been using his solutions. It was great to see him in person. I was really stoked to see his presentation as my usage of user defined actions (UDA) has been pretty limited, so I was eager to learn more.

I'm totally sold about UDAs. Basically think of UDAs this way: if you have something that typically takes multiple actions and you do it repeatedly - think a web service request that parses data, or some sort of operation where you manipulate a string, or do a calculation - save yourself the headache of rebuilding it by building it once and have it be an UDA instead.

A UDA hides logic from workflow builders. Essentially it's like a black box. Add a UDA to my workflow, configure any input and output parameters, and that's it from a workflow developer's perspective. The rest may as well be magic.

The beauty of UDAs is that you can target them to particular users. An example would be that if you only want a certain user base using a UDA that makes a web request, you can target it to them.

UDA deployments can be done in two ways: export as a NWF like other Nintex elements or export as a UDA file. While you may be ok exporting and importing forms and workflow via NWF files, you should not do that with UDAs. The reason being is that there is a GUID within the UDA and exporting and importing it will lead to some fun troubleshooting later. Exporting as a UDA preserves the GUID. Just be sure that the UDA is deployed in your environment prior to the workflow being deployed.

Troubleshooting UDAs is similar to troubleshooting a workflow: build in some redundancies, log to the workflow history list. Also, consider adding an output parameter or two to the UDA that denotes an errored state.

The only drawback I heard about UDAs in today's session is that they make publishing a workflow a little slower.

And last but not least, UDAs are not presently supported in Office 365 but they are coming.

Nintex O365 State of the Union

Nintex has had an Office 365 offering since late 2012. In that time the product has grown so much that 300,000 workflow instances start a month and 12,000 forms are submitted daily. So the state of the union is good. But it's probably going to go from good to great with these offerings.

Soon you'll be able to email people outside your O365 tenant. I'm told there will be some spam filters so you won't be able to create an infinite loop and let people SPAM the world.

A lot of the talk at InspireX was around document generation. Now, you sorta, used to be able to do this with SharePoint Designer workflows back in the day. I stress sorta used to because it sorta used to be half-baked. With Nintex's acquisition of Drawloop, they now have a lot of robust abilities in this space. While I didn't get to try it out myself, to help pass variables between workflows and documents, there's some sort of fat client integration called "the tagger." I can't wait to try this out. Oh, and every client in O365 gets 50 free document generations. Get doc creatin' y'all!

Nintex is also expanding their O365 infrastructure. Presently their O365 offering resides in a North American datacenter. In the near future, they'll have a presence in Europe, Asia, and Australia.

The workflow history page in O365 is also getting some TLC. You'll soon be able to see every action like you can on-premise, but the page is going to look a little different than before. What they showed it looks great. You'll be able to see what action the workflow is on, see task responses, and other instance data. This isn't something revolutionary like Insight, but is a welcome overhaul.

I know I said this in yesterday's post, but once again I hope you're sitting down when you're reading this: Managed Metadata is coming to Nintex O365 Forms.

noway

Way! Also, it was me who started clapping in the session when they announced this.

Workflow Best Practices

I personally didn't get a whole lot out of this session, but in hindsight I'm not sure I was the target audience either. I attended with the hope of seeing if this old workflow dog could learn some new tricks. The presenter talked a lot about reusable workflows, UDAs, best practices for variable naming, and workflows in general.

Here are the key points: smaller workflows are better, use UDAs when possible, it's ok to have workflows starting workflows, and avoid long running workflows. The key take away for me was that we should "pause smartly" in our workflows to make sure, rather enforce, that our changes are there.

If you're interested in learning more about reusable workflows check out my previous blog.

Create Reusable Branding for Nintex Forms

Nintex Forms allows you to define what the default form template looks like and it's rather easy to do. On any list or library, create a form. Style it however you want and capture that CSS either in an external stylesheet or the form itself. When you preview it, you don't need it to be pixel perfect because each form is going to be different. Controls on one form are going to look and behave differently than others. Once that is done, select and delete all of the controls for the fields. We don't need them because the form template is agnostic to lists and these are not needed.

To deploy the form as reusable, export the form. If you're on-premise go to Central Admin and upload the template there. This makes it the default form across the farm. If you're using O365, this is done at a site-level basis. Go to Site Contents>Nintex Forms for Office 365. Click in the upper right hand corner and upload the form.

What's cool about reusable forms is that if you use an external stylesheet, you can essentially push code updates without having to go into the form. However if you do anything other than that, say add a new photo to the form's header, those updates will only apply to new forms that that point forward.

If you're creating mobile forms, mobile layouts are part of the reusable forms too. I asked if you're using Bootstrap whether or not layouts are necessary. The presenter admitted he didn't know, but thought it would be ok, but still erred on the side of creating layouts. My hunch is that you probably don't need layouts, but I'll save that for another blog.

My verdict: branding and reusable forms is a no brainer and is a great step, nay a quantum leap, in forms governance.

Closing Thoughts

There was a lot to digest this week, and I wish I had more time or the ability to clone myself to attend all the sessions. I left the conference with a few thoughts about Nintex and where it's going.

Organizations need to start exploring mobile apps built using Nintex. There were some really intriguing use cases around mobile this week and I feel that's just the tip of the iceberg. Mobile may have started with lazy approval, but it's so much more than that now. With GPS, cameras, and offline capabilities, there are a lot of fertile opportunities out there to do something amazing with Nintex and mobile devices.

I wrote elaborately about Insight in my post yesterday. I strongly believe that this is going to change the face of workflows. It'll change how we build them, how we use them, and how we talk about ROI. I cannot wait for Insight.

In real estate, I've been told the mantra is "location, location, location." When it comes to building apps for the modern organization, the manta is now "integration, integration, integration." Workflows aren't just for SharePoint anymore. There's a rich toolset already for these integrations and I know there's more actions on the way. These integrations will allow developers of all skillsets create killer mobile apps. This, coupled with the ability to start workflows externally, outside of SharePoint has a potential to really shake up how we think about electronic processes in an organization.

Lastly, I feel empowered. There were over 400 of us at the Aria this week and we all came together because of Nintex. It was stressed multiple times in the presentations about how important our collective voice is because most of the functionality and features announced are because of feedback from the community. I know I personally voted on some of the requested functionality on the UserVoice site (link). Let's keep on making our voice heard and make this product even greater!

With Insight, the new mobile features, and a forthcoming workflow-as-a-service offering, Nintex seems to be set up for great things in 2016 and beyond. But it's not just great things with the Microsoft stack. Integrations with other platforms are very promising too. The future of creating solutions with Nintex is so bright, you have to wear shades.

image 

Aww yeah!

Well that was a long post, but there was a lot to recap. I had a lot of fun writing these posts and I hope you enjoyed reading them. I also want to shout-out to all the Nintex fangirls and fanboys I conversed with and befriended this week. You're all super cool, passionate people and I look forward to seeing you soon.

 

Truth:

·         I broke even with craps. Well, I didn't spend a dollar on gambling, so in a way I broke even. Ok, I see my attempt to be funny here has run its course and will stop.

Lie:

·         I did not meet the Donald. Mildly related: I had to chuckle that the news was talking about the light breezes in Las Vegas area and how it would be good for his hair compared to the wind the day prior.

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