A Case for FileMaker

Looking to Improve Organizational Processes? Four ‘RAD’ Reasons to Give the FileMaker Platform a Closer Look

Perhaps your organization has determined it is time to embark on an effort to improve important business processes. The effort will probably involve leveraging technology and you have a continuum of technology options … from the least ambitious (paper and/or MS Excel) to the most ambitious (traditional business/application approaches using tools such as Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and MySQL). Of course, all options have their pros and cons. The FileMaker Platform offers a ‘middle way’ use case and, for most organizations, is worthy of careful consideration.

The FileMaker Platform has been around under a few different names since its debut as the MS DOS based Nutshell in the early 1980s. By 1990, the ‘FileMaker’ name was introduced by the software’s new owner, Apple Inc. and steady, transformational improvements to the platform’s feature set have been implemented through today’s powerful version 15.

FileMaker is RAD. That is, it is a Rapid Application Development environment. Frank Ohlhorst in his article Supercharging Return on Investment with Rapid Application Development Tools explains that FileMaker has a unique design whereby the three primary elements of a data-driven solution:

  • database architecture — (think Oracle, MySQL, or DB2)
  • business/application logic — (think C++, .NET, C##, or J2EE/JAVA)
  • user interface — (think HTML, JSP, ASP, or VB)

are combined into a single, cost effective product. This RAD architecture “changes the fundamentals of building applications” and “replaces tedious hand-design and coding processes with automated design and coding”. Mr. Ohlhorst articulates a few benefits that accrue from RAD — “expediting application development and improving the agility of change management”. This RAD bit is what makes FileMaker fast, responsive and affordable. RAD is what makes the FileMaker Platform special.

Specifically addressing the FileMaker Platform, Mr. Ohlhorst states that the tool is ideal for:

  • Solutions that are currently based on spreadsheets or paper
  • Retrieving and exchanging data with enterprise systems
  • Data tracking, report generation, and analysis
  • Workflow solutions for the department or workgroup

Quite a set of bullets … I’m guessing that most readers see something here that resonates. Lets’s look at each of these a bit closer.

Spreadsheet / Paper Solutions

Even the most sophisticated organizations often have their share of spreadsheet /paper processes and they are productivity and quality killers. Paper must be stored and eventually purged and paper processes necessarily involve rework — e.g. data is repeatedly reentered — introducing wasted time and errors. MS Excel processes, perhaps, create the illusion of being a step up from paper, but are also problematic. With Excel, rework and duplication of effort remain a problem and the article, The Risk of Spreadsheet Errors sites “reuse and recirculation of workbooks and code … cutting and pasting information … formulas can be damaged, links can be broken, or cells can be overwritten”. The article goes on to site a study which determined that 94% of spreadsheets is use contain errors. A worthy organizational goal is the minimization or elimination of these manual processes — especial in ‘mission critical’ areas. Replacing them with processes rationalized with FileMaker is a logical next step.

Data Exchange

In many organizations, important data is captured and stored in multiple programs and applications. Since this data is generally silo’ed, duplicated data entry (into other systems) often occurs — again slowing processes and providing the opportunity to introduce errors. FileMaker facilitates easy import and export of data in a handful of different formats and both import and export routines can be automated through scripting. Also, using ODBC or JDBC, FileMaker can be a source of data for other systems. Certain types of external database data (Oracle, MS SQL Server, MySQL) can be fully integrated into FileMaker’s relational database structure.

Tracking, Reports and Analysis

FileMaker can facilitate data entry using completely customizable ‘layouts’ and many useful views of data can be created — tailored for specific groups of users . As the FileMaker Platform is relational, related data from different ‘tables’ can be integrated into a single view. The relational nature of FileMaker eliminates duplicate data entry. As an example, each customer’s contact information is entered only once into a customer table and then is reflected wherever needed — utilizing common ‘linking fields’. The platform has exceptional analytical capabilities including the ability to create menu-driven column and row summary type reports and a charting engine that can can display data using several different chart types. Analysis is facilitated by a calculation engine with over 200 functions available throughout the development environment and a set of 150 script steps that can be used with script triggers to automate aspects of report generation such as filtering, sorting, and printing.

Workflow Solutions for Department or Workgroup

The FileMaker Platform is scalable from one to more than 1,000 users but is emphasized by many organizations at the workgroup level to address custom processes not appropriately addressed by off-the-shelf solution alternatives. Members of the workgroup can access the platform from a desktop, laptop or mobile device (iOS or Android) and more occasional users can securely access a solution using only a browser. FileMaker offers attractive pricing for small ‘teams’ — who often securely access their SSL encrypted FileMaker data from the cloud.

More about ‘RAD’ … FileMaker allows a developer to build and deploy ‘custom apps’ in an intuitive menu-driven ‘drag and drop’ environment with helpful ‘wizards’ and similar tools. This video from FileMaker demonstrates how a simple (but useful) custom app can build be built very quickly. Richard Carlton, a renown FileMaker guru, posits a dollar value made possible by FileMaker’s ease of use. He estimates that a development project using a traditional relational database tool that would take 100 hours to build could be completed with FileMaker in 25–30. Additionally, a comprehensive ROI analysis presented in the Frank Ohlhorst article sited above compares a FileMaker project to a similar project built with several traditional competing products. This study considers a number of cost components including: development costs; deployment costs; upgrades; and support and maintenance. For a project with 25 clients, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for a FileMaker project was reported to be more than 73% less costly than a similar project utilizing MS SQL, MySQL or Oracle. Clearly, the client wins by obtaining a solution in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost.

FileMaker is used in an amazingly wide range of organizational categories to solve myriad business problems. Worldwide, the platform is used by businesses (small, medium and large) to track manufacturing processes, inventory and sales and marketing activities as well as for data, document and record storage. Non-commercial organizations that widely use FileMaker includes non-profits, higher education and K-12 schools. A sample of the solutions I have built include custom apps that track retiree benefits for an employee benefits consulting firm; vehicle location at car dealerships; patient cases for a medical startup; and search and candidate information for an executive search firm.

So there you go — a whirlwind tour through some of the advantages of the FileMaker Platform. Unless you are looking for a solution for 1000s of simultaneous users, your organization would do well to consider leveraging FileMaker to build highly customized apps reflecting exactly your business and priorities and, thereby, obtaining vastly improved outcomes as compared to your current processes. As my teenage son used to say … ‘now that’s RAD’!