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Major Vendors Adapting to User Requirements

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: March 28 2006

SAP and Microsoft Meet Halfway in Mendocino

It is small wonder that the market leaders and largest players have recently had a sudden epiphany concerning user requirements. They have finally realized that they will increasingly be evaluated by how well their products interconnect and interoperate, how intuitive their user interfaces are, and how easily new enterprise-wide business processes (workflows) can change to meet the needs of ever changing working environments. For more information on these user requirements, see Driving Factors in the Enterprise Applications Market.

The prominent and recently announced partnership between SAP and Microsoft for their joint product Mendocino (the name of the town halfway between the companies' US headquarters) promises to deliver familiar Microsoft Office desktop management and productivity tools as the facade for heavy-duty SAP enterprise application processes. At about the same time this announcement was made, Microsoft also announced that it would begin using Microsoft Office open extensible markup language (XML) formats for its Word, Excel, and PowerPoint applications, under the codename Office 12, which should provide better data interoperability, improved security, and reduced file sizes, all with the idea of further blurring the lines between business applications and office productivity tools. This is an attempt to mitigate the current predicament whereby, on the one hand, today's knowledge workers have information overload, but on the other hand, they often still cannot access the pertinent information at the right time.

Mendocino, recently released to fifty pilot customers before going to generally available (GA) release by mid-2006, aims at disseminating useful SAP data among knowledge workers outside its traditionally limited user dispatch list, and to gauge the potential for early composite application development and adoption. It was devised to help workers who spend most of their time in the Office suite but who also need to be in touch with SAP sessions.

To that end, Mendocino tries to eliminate the intermittent (and wasteful) system-to-system steps, since SAP functionality can then automatically be invoked from Microsoft Outlook, for example, with the workflow being completed in SAP. This resembles a composite application modus operandi (MO), since when using Mendocino, corporate data in traditionally pesky SAP business format can be automatically sent to a user's Outlook e-mail inbox, for instance, where any modifications to reports can be made and then sent back to the main SAP data repository. This can all be done without the user having to leave a familiar data processing environment, and reduces the amount of time it takes to modify important business data. The Mendocino 1.0 release will require the latest version of the Microsoft Office suite, Microsoft Office 2003, and will also work with the forthcoming Office 12 suite, which will be available towards the end of 2006.

Microsoft's Approach

Microsoft is citing research indicating that users spend up to 35 percent of their valuable time searching for information needed to do their job, and can miss key information entirely. This is because up to 85 percent of business information is located on desktops, both as structured data and unstructured content. The result is the frequent need to re-key substantial amounts of information, leading to duplicate work, inaccuracies, and a negative impact on the ability of a company to respond, with the net result of lost time and suboptimal performance.

Along the same lines, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said in a recent executive e-mail memo, "The software challenges that lie ahead are less about getting access to the information people need and more about making sense of the information they have—giving them the ability to focus, prioritize and apply their expertise, visualize and understand key data, and reduce the amount of time they spend dealing with the complexity of an information-rich environment."

For these reasons, Microsoft has also begun to deliver roles-based Mendocino-like features, with the familiar Windows look and feel. These features are geared towards a slew of business applications that were recently re-branded under the Microsoft Dynamics umbrella brand, the research and development (R&D) roadmap formerly known as Project Green. Again, the idea is to provide users with a more integrated and contextual working environment (see What Do Users Want and Need?).

Maybe the best example of this is the recently launched Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 product, featuring a native Outlook interface and thus an instantly familiar experience. Also notable in this respect are a slew of reporting and analytic products using the Excel metaphor (see Vendors Harness Excel (and Office) to Win the Lower-end of Business Intelligence Market).

Microsoft Dynamics Snap

Most recently, on February 20, Microsoft announced the release of Microsoft Dynamics Snap, a collection of software programs that, well, snap in to Microsoft Office 2003. Like Mendocino, these four new programs aim for easier data coordination and management for certain Microsoft Dynamics business management solutions, via the familiar Microsoft Office 2003 interface. These applications also have the potential to improve worker performance by allowing direct access and use of business processes and data from business management solutions back-end applications like Microsoft Dynamics AX 3.0 (formerly Microsoft Business Solutions-Axapta) and Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0, all from within certain Microsoft Office applications.

Microsoft points to this as another example of its strategy of delivering business management solutions that fit with customers' existing information technology (IT) systems. As recently reported, the Microsoft Dynamics vision involves at least two series of releases. One of the most important goals of the first series is to deliver a user experience that is integrated with Microsoft Office, by using a roles-based approach. The release of Microsoft Dynamics Snap should be instrumental in evaluating the progress towards that goal. The first four Snap-Ins announced include:

  1. Timesheet Management Snap-In, developed for Microsoft Dynamics AX 3.0, to allow users to use Microsoft Outlook to view or submit time entries for recurring tasks. This solution links Microsoft Dynamics AX time entries to Outlook appointments and meetings, automatically filling in the data and helping track changes made to linked appointments or meetings. This should help save the time and trouble of correlating those tasks, and reduce errors as a result of users having to transpose data from one program to another. This might be useful for Microsoft Dynamics AX customers in service industries, or who have a requirement for employees to track how time is allocated across internal projects;

  2. Vacation Management Snap-In, also developed for Microsoft Dynamics AX 3.0, to allow users to submit vacation requests using Microsoft Outlook. This action then triggers an e-mail to the request approver, who can view details of the request along with the requestor's vacation history, and approve or reject the request. The vacation time entry is then automatically updated into the Microsoft Dynamics time and attendance (T&A) module;

  3. Business Data Lookup Snap-In, developed for Microsoft Dynamics AX, to allow business workers to use the Microsoft Dynamics AX task pane to search and browse Microsoft Dynamics AX data using Microsoft Office Word, Microsoft Office Excel or Outlook, and to copy selected data into Office 2003 documents, or to attach the Office documents to Microsoft Dynamics AX records. One of the uses for this includes sending order status e-mails to customers.

  4. Business Data Lookup Snap-In, developed for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0, to allow searching and browsing of customer relations management (CRM) data within the familiar Microsoft Word, Excel, and Outlook Office 2003 environments. Using a CRM task pane, it is possible to copy data into Microsoft Office documents, or to attach the Microsoft Office documents to CRM records.

These programs try to make manipulation of business management data less complicated and intimidating, by giving users access to data and business processes from within the familiar Microsoft Office 2003 environment. It's easier to do this without opening two or more programs, pushing data around, or having to master the full complexity of all of the software in a company just because they want, for example, to accurately allocate the amount of time they spend working on a particular assignment. At the macroscopic level, pundits may describe this as "bridging the worlds of business productivity and personal productivity." More fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that software should work the way people really work. To that end, Microsoft and SAP have made significant steps towards delivering a better user experience in a roles-based manner.

The Microsoft Dynamics Snap collection is available for free download under the Microsoft Permissive License, as a Code Gallery project called Microsoft Dynamics Snap on GotDotNet.com, a site where a community of developers and IT professionals can share, evaluate, and build evolving Microsoft .NET applications, code, ideas, and technical documents. Microsoft also pledges to provide the source code for these solutions from the linked web site. This should allow the partners, other independent software vendors (ISVs), and customers to modify and distribute these programs. It should then be possible to enhance or customize the shipped solutions or to use them as examples of how to build new composite applications.

Inherent Challenges

Ideally, overlaying composite applications should be instantly usable in a user's native work environment, and also unite analytics, transactions and collaboration into a single process flow. Further, they must easily be added onto the existing applications, and they must be model-based (ideally visually) for the sake of process flexibility. Some will rightfully notice that Mendocino and Snap-Ins are somewhat limited in scope because they currently only enable four self-service SAP processes, with little in the way of deeper workflow- or process-based integration (which would naturally require a significantly higher investment level from both vendors).

Currently, Mendocino product development is focused on integrating Microsoft's e-mail and calendar programs with SAP's back-office business applications, giving employees a more familiar user interface when accessing and manipulating business data in the following four scenarios:

  1. A budget monitoring scenario, purporting to provide managers with access to the financial data they need for budget planning, monitoring, cost analysis, and reconciliation. The functionality includes receiving (as a graphic in an e-mail attachment) budgets, posting alerts, monitoring budgets, transferring budgets, and requesting posting adjustments.

  2. A time management scenario, which should enable employees to record and review hours spent on a certain project (within a drop-down list) in the context of the Outlook calendar. The system then posts the update in SAP's Cross-Application Time Sheets (CATS).

  3. A leave management scenario, whereby employees can request leave in their Outlook calendar, and then receive managerial approval or disapproval via Outlook mail.

  4. An organization management scenario, which incorporates administrative and planning tasks related to human resources (HR) into an Outlook Contact File. Based on authorizations established within mySAP HR, HR managers would then be able to perform self-service functions, such as viewing employee salary information or performance reviews, and suggesting proportional increases, all within Outlook.

Pricing, integration complexity (which depends on the degree of software customization currently in place), and the need for a joint support structure, leave many wondering when more involved processes will be delivered. Such composite applications would be layered on top of Office or mySAP Business Suite, and would also handle both structured and unstructured information. Examples might include complex (but potentially rewarding) business processes to support global trade management (GTM), sales and operations planning (S&OP), market campaign management, or consignment and vendor-managed inventory (VMI). Vertical functionality should then be easier to build, because users and partners could create new types of data objects, and also create relationships between them. In terms of management, users and partners could create the objects, while the master enterprise application would create and manage the metadata (i.e., data about data).

This concludes part one of a two-part note.

 
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