K2: Serious ambition and credentials for business process automation

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K2’s process application platform has undergone a few extensions and changes in its near 20-year history, but following its successful 2015 venture funding round its technology capability, applicability and business credibility have all developed quickly.

Top takeaways

“Automating every business process in every organisation”

The K2 platform has been around for a long time: its first release was in 2001.

In 2015, though, after nearly 20 years as an organically-funded business, the company raised over $150m in venture funding. Since then K2 has become much more ambitious and aggressive: it now says its mission is to “automate every business process in every organisation”. K2 has been using this money to build and launch a new cloud platform, as well as growing its global sales and marketing capabilities. The company, now headquartered in Bellevue WA, USA, has over 400 employees; its applications are used by around 1.5m users at around 4,000 organisations across over 80 countries.

A platform with wide applicability and serious credentials

With its latest K2 Platform release, K2 is starting to match its longstanding application platform technology strengths with a real business development push. By embracing a true PaaS subscription and delivery model and embracing web-based design and administration tools – and by enhancing the platform’s openness through provision of OData and REST-based interfaces – the K2 Platform now has much wider practical applicability than it had a couple of years ago, and multiple customer stories demonstrating huge K2 application portfolios bear this out.

There’s more that K2 needs to do if it wants to address the very ‘high end’ of application delivery program complexity, as it wants to – but nevertheless, even today K2 is worthy of serious consideration for most kinds of process application development project.

A long-established process application platform vendor, now accelerating

The company behind the K2 brand – SourceCode Technology Holdings – was originally founded in 1998 in South Africa. It released its first product – the first release of the K2 platform – in 2001. In 2015, after nearly 20 years as an organically-funded business, the company raised over $150m in venture funding (from Francisco Partners); it’s been using this money to build and launch a new cloud platform, as well as growing its global sales and marketing capabilities. The company, now headquartered in Bellevue WA, USA, has over 400 employees; its applications are used by around 1.5m users at around 4,000 organisations across over 80 countries.

Following its venture funding in 2015, K2 has become much more ambitious and aggressive: it now says its mission is to “automate every business process in every organisation”. For many years, K2 technologies were designed and promoted with very strong alignment to Microsoft’s ecosystem and platforms – with a particular focus on adding value to SharePoint. Today, although it’s still built on Microsoft technology, the K2 offering is less explicitly promoted as being about adding value to Microsoft platforms and applications. In addition, where the offering used to be aimed at helping organisations address business-critical processes, with new product and marketing developments it’s started to focus increasingly on helping organisations address their ‘long-tail’ business process automation opportunities, too. Some of its customers now have well over 500 business process applications now implemented with K2 technology.

K2 doesn’t have any particular geographical focus for its business, though the US accounts for the bulk of its revenue; likewise, it doesn’t have any particular industry focus, but it does have industry-specific teams focused on promoting K2’s suitability for manufacturing, healthcare, financial services, legal and oil & gas industries, as well as the public sector.

Inside K2’s offering: the K2 Platform

The K2 Platform is a process application platform that the company offers in two ways: cloud-based subscription (K2 Cloud) and on-premises installation (currently called K2 Five).

As mentioned above, the first K2 product was launched in 2001, though it delivered its first full-featured process application platform – K2 blackpearl – in 2007. For many years, the K2 technology focused principally on delivering business process applications based around three core capabilities: forms, workflow and data management. Customers needed to use Windows-based graphical design tools to specify application components, which were compiled and deployed as Windows applications (typically alongside SharePoint).

Now, though, with K2 Cloud and K2 Five, the tools are 100% web-based, and more capabilities have been added to the mix – though forms, workflow and data are still at the core:

  • Workflow. A graphical workflow model design environment, with a ‘SmartAssist’ feature that recommends the next actions you might want to specify based the current workflow model on the design canvas, supports all the usual workflow concepts you would expect – branching and merging, switching and looping, human and automated activities, and synchronous and asynchronous subprocesses. There’s also support for events and timers, escalations and reminders, and you can also define SLAs for workflows. There’s no current support for swimlanes with which you can model activity assignment to roles, but you can specify sophisticated work assignment rules on specific activities if you need to. You use K2’s own simple workflow notation rather than the BPMN 2.0 standard. Real-time workflow validation ensures that incompletely specified flows can’t be saved.
  • Forms. The K2 Platform’s forms technology – SmartForms – is highly mature, although the design tooling and deployment options have been significantly upgraded with K2 Cloud and K2 Five. A web-based drag-and-drop forms designer enables users to quickly define responsive, multi-part and dynamic web-based forms. Underpinning each SmartForm is one or more reusable View definitions that define underlying data structures; SmartForms themselves are also reusable, and can be separately styled – so it’s easy to define libraries of Views and SmartForms and then extend, alter or style them as required. There’s support for electronic signatures on SmartForms (through integration with DocuSign) and the ability to upload documents and attach them to workflow instances. K2 provides integrations with third-party content management systems (Box, SharePoint) for content storage and versioning. As well as being presented within K2 application user interfaces, it’s also possible to embed SmartForms in third party applications’ user interfaces (for example Salesforce application UIs, Microsoft SharePoint installations or other web pages).
  • Data and integration. Data management, together with integration with external data sources, is facilitated through a powerful, patented, data virtualisation layer native to the K2 Platform. SmartObjects are virtual business objects; in turn, these are mapped to physical data structures. SmartObject instances can represent simple data records, or they can represent one-to-many relations (for example, an invoice comprising a header and one or more invoice lines). Each SmartObject can represent data within either a relational data store managed directly by K2, or within one or more external data sources or third-party systems (including SAP, SharePoint, Active Directory or any system with appropriate web services or REST APIs). In either case, the persistence logic associated with creating, reading, updating and deleting SmartObject instances is handled transparently by the platform. SmartObjects can of course be linked directly to SmartForms and managed via workflows; but in addition, operations on them (create, read, update, delete) can also be exposed externally via REST APIs or OData service.
  • Rules. A new rule editor enables you to specify reusable business rules using a simple graphical language; these rules can be used to determine branching and other behaviours (eg escalation, work assignment) within workflows, validate forms, show/hide/protect SmartForm elements or sections, dynamically calculate SmartForm field values, or constrain updates to data sources (for example).
  • Analytics. Both process administrators and end-users can easily access a set of reports based on process, activity and team performance metrics, together with drill-downs so they can explore process bottlenecks. Reports and charts can also be embedded in SmartForms, so any permissioned application user can see and use them. Reports and charts can be configured so that they not only provide information about process metrics; but also data from SmartObjects – so, for example, it’s straightforward to measure invoicing value flows over time, or customer complaints over time by customer segment. In addition, there’s a set of OData connectors which enable you to work on K2 application data from third-party platforms like Tableau and Microsoft PowerBI.
  • Mobile. K2 provides standard mobile app containers for both iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android. You can make any SmartForms you create as part of your applications available from within these mobile apps; a unified task list is also provided within each app – so any tasks you’re working on or assigned will be available, across all apps you’re using. The apps use a role-based access control scheme to make sure that only the forms and tasks available to given roles are accessible to users with those roles. It’s easy to make SmartForms available for offline mobile use; this is simply a matter of checking a box when designing a responsive SmartForm. In this mode, if a user has no connectivity then they can still fill the form, and attach photos and other documents – the work will be synchronised to the server when connectivity is regained. Access to native mobile device features and capabilities (for example, the camera and microphone, location and so on) are provided to forms and tasks through the iOS and Android apps, too. Finally, there’s integration with Docusign from within the mobile apps, so users can capture digital signatures on forms.

Role-based access control runs through all of the K2 design and administration tooling, meaning that sufficiently permissioned administrators can set up fine-grained access and editing controls on individual application components, as well as determining who can access and work on particular tasks or particular application data. User identities are managed by Azure Active Directory for K2 Cloud or Active Directory for K2 Five (for on-premises deployment). In addition, K2 can Integrate with other IDaaS providers that support federated authentication, such as Okta, Ping Identity, etc.

As well as providing its core process application development and deployment functionality, the K2 platform also includes a set of three App Wizards. These template-driven tools enable teams to very quickly build simple applications of three kinds: survey applications, data collection applications and simple approval applications, through the use of a step-by-step wizard interface.

What’s more, K2 now ships and supports a growing library of ‘SmartStarter’ prebuilt applications – built using these templates – that support ‘long tail’ workflow automation use cases like travel approval, IT equipment request, expense claim management, legal document review, and so on.

Figure 1: K2’s SmartObject architecture

Source: K2

Team support, versioning and reuse

All K2 components are versioned, and check-in/out to support teamworking is provided natively in the platform. All application components (SmartForms, workflow definitions, SmartObjects and so on) are reusable within and across application projects. However the K2 Platform doesn’t currently offer any impact analysis functionality (functionality that shows developers the potential impact of changes to specific code or components).

A packaging and deployment tool simplifies the deployment of applications, and their migration from development environments to staging and production. This is a graphical tool that doesn’t require any deep technical knowledge to use. More technical users can, if required, also use PowerShell scripts to automate application packaging and deployment, and integrate those actions with actions in externally-managed continuous integration workflows. Customers can also make use of Microsoft Team Foundation Server for continuous integration if required.

Deployment options

K2 offers the K2 Platform in two ways: via its own fully-managed cloud hosting service (the K2 Cloud) and as an on-premises deployed product (called K2 Five).

The K2 Cloud service complies with ISO 27001, SOC2 Type II and G-Cloud, and can be delivered from data centres in the US, Canada, UK, EU, Asia Pacific (Singapore), Africa (South Africa), and Australia. K2 delivers new functionality to the K2 Cloud on a quarterly basis.

Customers opting to implement the K2 Platform on-premises are responsible for managing the installation; K2 updates K2 Five on an annual basis.

Packaging and pricing

K2 licenses its platform using four tiers of service, regardless of whether you choose to deploy on-premises or with the K2 Cloud. The tiers are distinguished based on the numbers of workflows and forms you can deploy, and prices are calculated based on the number of users:

  • Starter. This tier, only available from the K2 Cloud, provides for up to five workflows and 25 forms.
  • Builder. This tier provides for up to 25 workflows and 125 forms.
  • Premier. This tier provides for up to 125 workflows and 600 forms.
  • Enterprise. This tier provides for up to 1,000 workflows and 5,000 forms.

K2 provides a ‘limited user license’ option (priced at 25% of the full-user license price), useful where your applications have users that only interact with K2 applications on an occasional basis. For anonymous user access (essential where applications are public-facing), K2 charges a flat-rate license fee, enabling anonymous users to access SmartForms (but not directly interact with any other aspects of a K2 application).

Future plans

K2’s plans revolve firmly around continuing to develop, and evangelise, the capabilities of K2 Cloud in particular as a platform for digital transformation. It intends to do more to help customers address mid- to high-complexity application challenges (deepening the platform’s integration capabilities, and introducing more sophisticated , more secure application data storage options); introduce an easy-to-access online product trial environment; encourage partners to develop and promote K2-based application solutions through the K2 marketplace and introduce more pre-built application templates and starters. From a business development perspective, the company intends to do more to address the specific needs and interests of specific industries.

Recommendation

With its latest K2 Platform release, K2 is starting to match its longstanding application platform technology strengths – in particular, the virtualised data management layer that SmartObjects provide – with a real business development push. By really embracing a true PaaS subscription and delivery model and embracing web-based design and administration tools – and by enhancing the platform’s openness through provision of OData and REST-based interfaces – the K2 Platform now has much wider practical applicability than it had a couple of years ago, and multiple customer stories demonstrating huge K2 application portfolios bear this out.

As K2 works to address the needs of larger and more complex application delivery initiatives it will also need to continue to push its technology forward – particularly in the areas of integration, security and team/lifecycle support. It will also need to do more to pull together a broader business automation story (likely with the involvement of technology alliance partners).  Even now, though, you should consider K2 a very serious contender for a great many process application development opportunities.

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