Salesforce Tool Runs Plays for Entrepreneurs

Salesforce.com's Visual Process Manager takes an innovative approach to analyzing business processes and workflow.
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SAN FRANCISCO (TheStreet) -- With all due respect to Apple's (AAPL) - Get Report iPad, here's a product with a real small business future: Salesforce.com's (CRM) - Get Report Visual Process Manager.

In 2006, San Francisco-based Salesforce.com launched a pedestrian application effort called the AppExchange. Like other online software markets, it offered third- party business tools based on the Force.com software. That's Salesforce's answer to

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

.Net or

Oracle's

(ORCL) - Get Report

Java. Most AppExchange apps are simple plugins and tools for products, such as the survey maker Zoomerang. The iPhone's Shazam it's not.

That same year, a small Irish software outfit called Informavores had a neat idea. Rather than treat a business process as a series of lists, like traditional Gantt charts, the company looked at business processes visually, like a basketball play. In 2007, it shipped something called Firefly, which let groups collaborate on business problems using shapes, letters and arrows. Growth was quick and in late 2009, Salesforce.com bought the operation, relabeled the code Visual Process Manager, charging $50 per seat in addition to Salesforce.com fees. They demonstrated the product to me earlier this year.

"The idea is that it gives a company one vision of the truth," says Firefly founder Stephen Wood. "That is able to change every day as you learn."

While Visual Process Manager isquirky and has a steep learning curve, this code represents a new idea in business automation.

What you get

: An interactive, visual map of your business.

Visual Process Manager is all about designing and installing a business process without a lot of planning, computer coding or fuss. Say, you need a pricing system, one that figures out what you charge your customers. Instead of the usual email blizzard and margin guesses, you and your sales and production people huddle around your browsers to talk through the steps of figuring out what you need to charge: Where the sales come from, what the mark-ups are for each customer and the price you feel comfortable asking.

Each steps is laid out using visual cues -- squares for customers and triangles for orders, connected by flow arrows. The code automates this flow chart with programs, files and an interactive plugin that's published online, debugged, deployed and most importantly revised without ever using a line of traditional computer languages. Not bad.

And unlike most automated programing tools I've seen, Visual Process Manager actually works. I know, shocking.

What you don't get

: For all of Visual Process Managers's potential, the sheer scope of what this programs asks a company to do will challenge even tech-savvy firms. Getting it to work will be time consuming and a cultural transition. Your people will go a little crazy deploying this thing.

But my gut says, it's probably worth it.

Bottom line

: I'm fully aware that Visual Process Manager sounds like total software kumbaya. And for sure, it will eat up tons of time. But for anybody doing complex business process management -- which is all of us these days -- it's worth a try.

If you don't use it, someone else will. and let's hope it's not your competitor.

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Written by Jonathan Blum in New York

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.