Office Business Applications (OBAs) deliver people-centric, collaborative solutions to the enterprise through familiar Microsoft Office servers, clients, and tools – we’re talking about bringing toegther the component parts of the Office System here. This post will offer an example of the  “results gap” that contributes to reduced productivity, and shows that OBAs are an effective approach that enables enterprises to achieve the “last mile of productivity.” You will see that several key components of the 2007 Microsoft Office system can be used to develop Office Business Applications and that, when Line of Business Integration (LOBi) for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is released, it will further simplify the development of OBAs.

Before we get to the good stuff lets just consider this results gap. Companies rely heavily on IT to help address many challenges, as evidenced by the huge investment in large financial management systems and solutions for enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and supply chain management (SCM). Nevertheless, many organizations have not realized the expected value from these investments. There is a clear gap between the efficiency and productivity increases that corporate leaders expected to see, and the actual return on investment (ROI) that they have experienced. Not really ground breaking stuff jamesy!

This “results gap” is caused by a fundamental inconsistency between how business systems work and how people work. The systems are based on transactional processes that are necessary in order to accomplish specific tasks—for example, creating a Purchase Order. What they have not effectively captured are the ad hoc, local people-driven processes that invariably arise. The result is that decision makers take a “feed the machine” view to their corporate business applications, but rely more heavily on the people-to-people collaboration for making decisions and taking actions.

Putting this into practice; A common collaborative planning task within an enterprise is the reconciliation of numbers between Sales and Merchandizing – particularly in a retail environment. By using the 2007 Microsoft Office system, a Sales Director and a Merchandise Planner can complete this process more efficiently. They both can use a single underlying Excel document to store the data, and they can use Excel Services to maintain it. In this way, they can have a single definitive version of the data, and the plan can be shared very easily from the server to other persons in the organization.

The document can be stored in a document library in SharePoint. A workflow can be associated with this document library, with custom business logic that is executed whenever the spreadsheet is saved. For example, the workflow could run validation rules on the spreadsheet; apply approval policies to the data; cleanse, validate, or filter the data; or update back-end systems.

You can take the following steps to implement this collaborative planning process with the 2007 Microsoft Office system:

  1. Build application parts—Use the metadata to create an Excel file that contains the Sales and Merchandise numbers. Partition the numbers into different worksheets, based on the type—for example, a Sales Plan sheet for the sales targets, or a Merchandise Plan sheet for the merchandise numbers.
  2. Create a team portal—Create a SharePoint portal, and publish the file to Excel Services within the portal. The document will reside within a document library. Excel Services allows multi-level permissions to be applied to the file. For example, users may be allowed to view the file contents in a browser, but they will be unable to open the file in the Excel client. Or, users will be able to see only the numbers in the Excel client, but they will not have access to any of the formulae being used in the document.
  3. Build custom GUIs—Create personalized sites for the Sales Director & Merchandise Planner within the portal, and provide links to the Excel file on each of the sites. These users will see only those files that they are interested in. Since the file is being hosted within Excel Services, all users receive the same copy of the file.
  4. Design a workflow—Use .NET Framework 3.0 & Visual Studio 2005 to develop a workflow that takes the contents of the Excel file and saves it to a database. Use the OpenXml libraries (under System.IO.Packaging) that are available in .NET Framework 3.0 to get the Excel data. Because the workflow will be hosted in SharePoint Server, it has access at runtime to the attributes of the file. These include, for example, the stream for the file that has been modified, the user who last modified the file, and the library where the file resides. The workflow could also perform more complex functions, such as creating a SharePoint task for a set of users, or sending users an e-mail message with the details of the task. Alternatively, to support communication across partners, the workflow could also send the data externally to a trading partner. As a final step, create a strong-named assembly containing the workflow, and install it in the local .NET Global Assembly Cache.
  5. Build an input mechanism—Create an association form using InfoPath. This form will be used to accept user data when the workflow is associated with the document library. Create an initiation form if required. The initiation form could be used to accept user data when the workflow begins. Install the workflow in the SharePoint portal as a feature, and associate it with the document library that contains the Excel file. Configure the workflow in such a way that, whenever any changes are made to the file and saved, the workflow runs.
  6. Create analytics—At the back end, create a data warehouse that is based on the schema that matches the Excel spreadsheet metadata. Using SQL Server Integration Services, copy data from the database to the data warehouse in a scheduled or on-demand manner. Create an SQL Server Analysis Services cube by using the warehouse. Create a pivot chart in an Excel file, and link it to the cube. Publish the Excel file to Excel Services. Finally, use the Excel Web Renderer Web Part to display the chart to users of the portal. Alternatively, use Business Data Catalog metadata to declare an entity for each row in the database. Use BDC Web Parts to display lists of the entities and enable users to search the database. You can also use the specification to create a parent-child relationship between entities—for example, a Purchase Order can contain line items. Since the metadata is in XML, it does not require users to be aware of any programming language in order to make changes.

By building on the 2007 Microsoft Office system, organizations can deliver LOB data and logic to the people who are responsible for running the business, in the context of their familiar Office applications. OBAs will drive home a higher ROI for the legacy applications by enabling broader access, and they will make process automation a reality to the organizations and people who use them—for just a fraction of what it would cost to deploy these legacy applications more broadly.

I have recently been asked if Microsoft has a defined ‘go to market solution for a digital product Catalogue. So this catalogue idea (as i get my head round quickly developing thought patters) is a document management system, tightly integrated into the customers existing legacy systems that pan across the channels of their route to market such as stores, mail order and the internet. It ensures one, common view/product description and information out to the customer base and is known and a Product Information Management Solution within the industry. An effective Product Information Management (PIM) solution centralises the management of factual and descriptive information and assets relating to a company’s products. This provides increased control and communications consistency across whichever channel or territory the company is operating in.

While many companies have addressed organisational efficiencies from the supply chain perspective, many are yet to introduce the same concept to their marketing and sales operations. For most it doesn’t make sense to try and extend already complex supply chain technologies to offer these facilities due to the mission critical nature of these systems. It also makes no sense to manage such core marketing information in a channel-specific application such as a web content management system.

In a standard deployment this form of solution would take a data feed from a supply chain system (such as S.A.P. for example), which would supply core factual information which would then be enhanced and categorised by product, merchandising and marketing personnel.

Access to this validated product information is then opened up meaning that other stakeholders can collaborate and enrich the product information. This may be between internal departments or can involve external parties such as copywriting, media or photographic agencies.

A central single-entry data repository provides the consistency and discipline to mobilise product information as a strategic asset. You can rest safe in the knowledge that your product information is accurate and complete – ready to deploy across the business!

So do we at Microsoft have something to do this? The answer is no but we do have the component parts to make such a solution that would be bespoke to the customers requirements and have the richness of tight integration with their existing Microsoft investments. From a user point of view we would be familiar and the training implications would be negligible in comparison to solutions from IBM for e.g. I am going to discuss this idea and concept further with our Retail gurus to investigate whether this is something we should invest in – once I know more i’ll post the outcome.

Well, whats this all about then? Formerly codenamed "Mendocino," the groundbreaking collaboration between SAP and Microsoft is designed to revolutionize how Information Workers interact with enterprise applications.

Using Duet software, a company's entire employee population can easily and quickly access SAP business processes and data via their familiar Microsoft Office environment. Jointly developed and supported by ourselves and SAP, Duet enables companies to improve decision-making, increase process compliance and decrease costs. http://www.duet.com

On Tuesday, May 2, 2006 Microsoft and SAP announced Duet for Microsoft Office and SAP (formerly code-named "Mendocino").  Duet bridges the gap between Microsoft Office productivity tools and mySAP ERP for greater productivity, easier access to back-end business processes, and more accurate data across the enterprise. www.duet.com is your best source of up to date information on this interesting development.