On the Radar: Work-Relay

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Work-Relay is an innovative work co-ordination toolset built on the Salesforce platform. Its vision is to provide a total work management solution for clients, bringing together capabilities for collaboration and process, projects, task, and resource management in one place.

Who?

Work-Relay, based in Chicago USA, has its heritage as a specialist Salesforce consulting provider. Since 2015, it has also begun to offer a novel work co-ordination toolset, native for the Salesforce platform, also called Work-Relay.

What does it do?

Work-Relay combines features and capabilities that are naturally associated with business process management platforms, with features and capabilities normally found in project management tools, in one unified toolset. Process models are used to manage the sequencing and assignment of tasks; but (as found in project management environments) resources and deadlines are also supported as first-class citizens.

In the Work-Relay environment the core work management concept is the Step (rather than a process), and a step itself can be associated with multiple individual tasks. Tasks can be created and managed at design-time within the context of processes or projects – as well as being created on-the-fly by Work-Relay users themselves at runtime or surfaced from other applications (from Salesforce or otherwise). As a consequence of this, the standard work management ‘front end’ for individuals isn’t a standard-style work queue or task list; instead the front end uses a more natural task management concept as its starting point – the Kanban board (see below). In addition, step assignments can be communicated and acted on via email, Chatter conversations, or SMS.

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Source: Work-Relay

In the Work-Relay environment, tasks aren’t only presented to users through simple task forms (although they can be if required). Rather, the user experience for task execution (‘Smart Steps’) combines some kind of visual task form with contextual information about people and content that are likely to be relevant to the task at hand – and also provides a user interface for contextual messaging conversations about tasks.

For each Step you can define rules (preconditions for carrying out the work), a number of checklist items that need to be completed, one or more automated actions (that are executed on step completion), and connectors (to next Steps). Actions can drive behaviour in external systems via database updates, email sends, Salesforce Apex code execution, and web service invocations.

In Work-Relay, you can build hierarchies of processes on the fly in the runtime environment – so, for example in an insurance client onboarding scenario, Work-Relay can dynamically assemble a multi-part onboarding process based on the number and variety of family members and products a given client wants to include. It’s also very easy for any user with sufficient permissions to modify a running process instance on the fly and detach it from a given process template; and conversely, to take a completed process instance and use that as a template for later reuse. In other words, in Work-Relay process models are adaptive things that can be easily influenced by operating conditions on the ground. What’s more, you can design work patterns as business processes (sequencing steps on a canvas, assigning them to swimlanes, grouping them into milestones, and so on); and you can manage and report on individual work sequences at runtime more as projects (monitoring their progress against deadline and resource usage, and so on).

Naturally, Work-Relay is built using Salesforce native tools and technologies – including VisualForce, Apex and Lightning. If you’re already a Salesforce customer, then you’ll use your existing user database to provide access permissions, and all the Salesforce objects core to your Salesforce applications will be available to reference within your Work-Relay installation. Work-Relay leverages all the functionality of the Salesforce platform, so it natively takes advantage of social collaboration features (via integration with Chatter), mobile application delivery (via Salesforce1), file-sharing (via Salesforce Files), and so on. However by default, task forms don’t use Salesforce’s native UI technologies; Work-Relay provides its own form building and rendering technologies, which support more dynamic presentation and behaviour options than Salesforce’s own technologies do. Having said that, if you prefer to use Salesforce Forms, VisualForce pages, or even your own hand-built HTML pages (leveraging Work-Relay’s API to get and set data) you have these options available.

Work-Relay also provides simple work activity and performance tracking capabilities. Users with sufficient permissions can monitor all the processes that are executing against a given Salesforce record, and there’s also a visual tracking interface that can show currently-executing instances either in a tree (project view) or a flow (process view) layout.

As well as delivering the product within a client’s Salesforce environment, Work-Relay also makes its product available as a standalone offering for customers who don’t already have a Salesforce investment: in these situations, the Salesforce platform is embedded as part of the Work-Relay offering but you don’t have access to any of the Salesforce applications.

Who is it for?

Although Work-Relay is built on the Salesforce platform and can easily be used to build on data and functionality made available through Salesforce applications, Work-Relay isn’t only aimed at, or useful for, Salesforce application customers. Having said that, Work-Relay is clearly positioned as meeting client needs when Salesforce’s native Process Automation facilities don’t go far enough.

The Work-Relay pricing structure is designed to enable customers to get started cheaply. Licenses are priced per user; users internal to your organization pay $39/month (with a minimum commitment of 20 users). Users external to your organization can use Work-Relay free of charge.

Today Work-Relay has customers in a variety of industries, and there’s no particular industry specialisation in either the product or the way that the company promotes, sells or delivers Work-Relay.

Why is it interesting?

Work-Relay is particularly interesting for three reasons.

Firstly, the product’s support for process and project management concepts – as two related but differing perspectives on one underlying model of work co-ordination – creates an environment in which organisations struggling to systematise repeating work can not only model the structure of the work, but also the resources required to complete the work, and the timescales required to complete it in. In traditional process management tools resources and timescales aren’t modeled as ‘first-class citizens’, whereas in traditional project management tools, the flow of tasks isn’t modeled in that way.

Secondly, the high priority given to task management, and the way that task management facilities are designed very much around the needs and responsibilities of individuals, promotes a work environment where structure can be introduced into work co-ordination systems, but where individuals also have discretion over how the details of individual tasks are completed (and indeed, who completes them). The use of a Kanban board metaphor for the presentation of work context to individuals is a great touch, and the ability to combine native Work-Relay tasks with tasks sourced from other applications and systems is another smart move.

Thirdly, the fact that Work-Relay is built on the Salesforce platform makes it notable in itself. Although there are many work co-ordination and business process management platforms available that provide very solid connectivity to Salesforce applications, there are no other well-established, full-featured work co-ordination platforms that actually run natively on the Salesforce platform itself. Given the size of Salesforce’s customer base, Work-Relay’s choice of platform for its product should make it an attractive proposition for any organisation looking to build its own business platform strategy to some extent around Salesforce.

How established is it?

Work-Relay was founded as SilverTree Systems by Jonathan Sapir in 2006 as a specialist software development service provider for the Salesforce platform. Sapir is a veteran of another consulting services company, InfoPower Systems, that built a software product – the SnapActive mashup tool. Its software development clients include Adobe, Docusign, Joyent and BMC Software.

The Work-Relay product was launched in 2014. The company now has around 15 customers of Work-Relay, providing access to over 3,000 individual users. The company has around 50 developers.

How open is it?

Work-Relay leverages all the technologies used in the Salesforce platform, and so supports all the technology standards that the Salesforce Platform is built on. Key areas where open standards are relevant here include user authentication (federated single sign-on via SAML, OpenID Connect, OAuth and SCIM); and application integration (there’s support for SOAP and REST APIs). However it’s also worth noting that the VisualForce UI framework, on which the Work-Relay tool and application user interfaces are built, uses a custom data and content tagging system that’s proprietary to Salesforce.

Who does it partner with?

Not surprisingly, Work-Relay’s biggest partner is Salesforce. Beyond that, the company is currently developing an emerging partner network worldwide. As a specialist software development services provider Work-Relay expects to conduct most of the Work-Relay related implementation work required by clients itself; but as a US-only company today it is looking internationally for partners that can help support clients outside the US.

Are there areas for improvement?

As a relatively new service, Work-Relay’s process and project performance reporting and dashboarding capabilities still fall short of those provided by more established platform providers. It offers a reporting view that shows how individual instances are progressing, but doesn’t currently provide tools that help you analyse performance trends over time. This is an area that the company could choose to develop within its own service, or it could elect to partner. Either way, though, a more well-defined approach here would be welcome.

What’s next?

Work-Relay’s current technology focus is on implementing critical chain project management functionality. This functionality is an estimation management tool, which enables managers to understand the risks of project overruns at any particular point in time; implemented in the context of a business process, the functionality enables managers to predict how likely it is that a given instance will complete in line with an established SLA. Crucially, critical chain project management estimation is based on an analysis of resource availability, rather than on an analysis of the critical path inherent in a project task structure.

The company is also focused on developing dynamic resource management capabilities – including an interactive scheduling tool that helps you visualise a work plan for your entire organisation, taking into account skills and attributes of individual resources, and providing a context for resource allocation at the project level. The work plan then drives the assignment of individual steps to targeted resources in order to ‘smooth out’ resource demand.

Should I consider it?

If you’re exploring ways to improve on Salesforce’s own business process automation and workflow capabilities, then you should definitely look at what Work-Relay has to offer. If your business operations rely on your ability to repeatedly and effectively execute complicated projects – either for clients or, for example, to enable you to expand your business’ footprint – then you should also look seriously at Work-Relay’s ability to help you manage work from both project and business process perspectives.

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