Integrating LOB Systems with the Microsoft Office System

Scenarios & Opportunities

Karthik Ravindran
Architect
Platform Architecture Team, DPE
Microsoft Corporation

November 2007

Summary: LOB systems play a crucial role in supporting the functioning of businesses across a wide range of industries and markets. “The Results Gap” described in this paper plagues a significant majority of existing LOB system deployments. This trend will continue if solutions to bridge the gap are not implemented to unlock the value of LOB system investments across the broad spectrum of business application users.

Contents

Introduction
Part 1 – Understanding the Results Gap
Part 2 – Addressing the Results Gap
Part 3 – OBAs and the Technology Landscape
Part 4 – OBA Opportunities and Evidence
Conclusion

Introduction

Investments in deploying and maintaining line-of-business (LOB) software systems constitute the significant percentage of IT-related spending in the small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) and enterprise business segments. The vast majority of businesses invest in purchasing and integrating vendor offerings that best address the needs of their business model(s), industry vertical(s), and user requirements. This trend is expected to continue and grow well into the future. The SMB market in specific is a multibillion dollar segment with no clear industry leader and a plethora of opportunities. The widespread fragmentation in the business sizes, reach, and domain specific verticals within the broader market segments can be seen as an opportunity for multiple players to co-exist and thrive.

Over 50 percent of LOB system investments fail to meet user expectations today, resulting in adoption challenges and failure to unlock the full business value of LOB systems. Highly structured system processes and user experiences that fail to easily adapt to changing business requirements, and fail to integrate seamlessly with the unstructured real world business processes and business user productivity tools, are the primary causes of the user adoption and return on investment (ROI) challenges experienced in LOB system deployments. LOB systems that offer solutions that are best aligned with an industry’s core competencies, which can easily adapt to changing domain requirements, and which can align/integrate seamlessly with real world business processes and user experience requirements, will have a definite edge over competitive offerings that fall short in one or more of these aspects. A LOB system with these characteristics exhibits the vital user and process centric traits core to materializing user adoption and the desired ROI.

Focusing on core competencies is vital to making timely strides and capitalizing on market opportunities. This applies across the board to all industries and markets, including LOB system vendors. LOB system vendors should carefully evaluate the value of proprietary platform investments in frameworks to enable user and process centric experiences in lieu of leveraging the core competencies of a well-established platform vendor in this space. Leveraging the solution frameworks of a well-established platform vendor to enable user and process-centric experiences will enable LOB system vendors to instead focus on their core competencies of implementing and customizing business processes and services relevant to their industries and verticals, resulting in an improved ability to respond to shifting market/industry requirements.

With the 2007 release, the Microsoft Office System has evolved from being the world’s most popular suite of business productivity tools to becoming a complete solutions platform that integrates deeply with the broader and Microsoft platform, to enable building user and process centric business solutions that can address the LOB system adoption and ROI challenges. This is made possible by a collection of tools and services that make it possible to easily and deeply integrate LOB processes and rich user experiences for LOB data access, analysis, and manipulation, within the broadly deployed and widely popular Microsoft Office rich client and SharePoint Web/browser portal user interfaces.

This paper presents a broad overview of the opportunities and scenarios for integrating LOB systems with the Microsoft Office System. The paper is targeted at LOB system vendors, LOB solution integrators, and corporate IT departments. Senior technology business decision makers are the primary target audience for this paper.

This paper is not a technical deep-dive into the 2007 Microsoft Office System. The core technology aspects are discussed at the appropriate level throughout the paper. Links to related deep-dive technical resources are provided at the end of this paper to enable further offline exploration.

Note: The information in this paper applies to the 2007 Microsoft Office System

Part 1 – Understanding the Results Gap

This section provides an overview of LOB systems, the requirements and expectations of business application users, and the factors that influence adoption/ROI challenges in LOB system deployments.

Line of Business Systems (LOB Systems)

In the context of this paper, the term “LOB system(s)” is used to refer to a software application or a suite of software applications that integrate the core data and processes of a business organization. LOB systems play an integral role in supporting day to day operations and mid-long term business planning and monitoring across a wide range of businesses and industries in the SMB and enterprise segments.

LOB systems can be classified as “back-office” and “front-office” systems, as depicted in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. LOB systems classification

Back-office systems are transaction oriented and facilitate the capture of the core operational line–of-business transactions. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) system modules like general ledger (GL), accounts receivable (AR), accounts payable (AP), and inventory management are some examples of back-office LOB systems. Front-office LOB systems integrate transactional data from across one or more back office systems to facilitate higher level consolidated information analysis, business processes, and data manipulation. Customer relationship management (CRM), supplier relationship management (SRM), expense management, project management, and budgeting and forecasting solutions are some examples of front-office LOB systems.

The users who interact with the applications at each of these layers have vastly different skill sets, working styles, and functional requirements.

It must be noted that LOB systems in the context of this paper are not limited to generic ERP, SCM, and CRM software solutions. Related examples have been referenced here based on the broader user familiarity with these systems. Domain-specific solutions that target specialized industry verticals, such as the public sector, health care, and banking, are also considered as LOB systems in the context of this paper.

LOB Systems and Users

Figure 2 depicts the different categories of users who interact with LOB systems. Users in each of these categories have vastly different skill sets, working styles, and functional requirements.

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Figure 2. LOB System Users

Operational workers are transaction focused and primarily use back-office systems to record and update transactional data in response to operational business transactions as they occur in real time. These users rarely have requirements to access data beyond the scope of their transactional boundaries. They are usually not very fluent in business productivity clients/tools. They are trained to use structured and transactional LOB clients to interact with the back-office LOB systems relevant to their job function. Inventory clerks, machine operators, and service technicians are a few examples of operational workers.

Knowledge/information workers specialize in higher level and consolidated business functions. They constitute a key and significant percentage of LOB system users. They primarily use front-office LOB systems to access, analyze, and/or update consolidated data that spans one or more back-office LOB system modules. These workers are power users and are proficient in using unstructured business productivity applications such as Microsoft Excel, Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint. Business productivity clients/tools are their preferred interfaces for accessing and acting upon integrated and consolidated LOB data relevant to the business processes of relevance to their job functions. Given a choice, these users would prefer to not install or log on to proprietary LOB system clients to access the data required for completing their job functions. CRM/SRM representatives, project managers, and financial analysts are a few examples of knowledge/information workers.

Management and executive level users have a broader tactical and strategic focus. Obtaining consolidated and timely 360-degree views of all aspects of a business is of primary importance to these users. These users rely on strategic dashboards and alerts to monitor overall business health, and also use business productivity applications for drill down/explorative analysis, collaboration, and communication. Given a choice, these users would prefer to not install or log on to proprietary LOB system clients to access the data required for completing their job functions. All CXO (CEO, CIO, CFO, COO) and senior management level users fit into this user category.

The Results Gap

The previous section introduced the different groups of LOB system users and their varying skill sets, working styles, and functional requirements. A number of LOB systems do not recognize these differences and invest in common user experience capabilities for operational workers, knowledge workers, and executives/managers. These user experiences are commonly surfaced through a mix of proprietary and highly structured rich clients and/or Web portals, which fail to recognize the differences in working styles and functional requirements across the distinct user groups. This is depicted in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. LOB systems and users –one size fits all

The “one size fits all” structured approach to surfacing LOB system user experiences is the primary cause of user adoption and ROI challenges experienced in LOB system deployments. This is specifically most relevant to the knowledge/information worker and the executive/management user communities (who will collectively be referred to henceforth as information workers in the context of this paper), where the attributes exhibited by LOB systems are the polar opposites of the user working styles and functional requirements. This shortcoming is commonly referred to as “The Results Gap,” as depicted in Figure 4, which signifies the challenges that these users face to unlock the full value of LOB system investments.

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Figure 4. The Results Gap

Part 2 – Addressing the Results Gap

This section describes the solution requirements that must be addressed to bridge “The Results Gap” and presents the scenarios and opportunities for leveraging the core competencies of the Microsoft Office System as a practical means to achieving the same.

Solution Requirements

A solution platform that addresses the real-world LOB information worker requirements described in this section is well positioned to bridge “The Results Gap.” The emphasis on a platform is important to observe because the solution framework should be based on established and repeatable patterns that can be applied across multiple LOB systems targeting different industries and verticals.

A solution platform should support the requirements described in this section to enable user and process centric LOB solutions that can align and integrate seamlessly with the real world of information work to bridge “The Results Gap”.

Integration with Familiar Business Productivity Clients

Information workers constitute the significant majority of LOB system users. Information workers spend the bulk of their day in business productivity clients analyzing data, performing data manipulations, collaborating with co-workers, and responding to requests for information. Delivering role-tailored LOB system user experiences that are deeply integrated into the business productivity clients that information workers are intimately familiar with is a core opportunity and requirement to make LOB systems more accessible to these users.

Many LOB systems require information workers to log on to proprietary clients and navigate a complex set of menus and screens to gain access to the data required to perform their job functions. Some LOB systems provide information workers with consolidated role-tailored business portals that do a decent job at presenting the big picture view but fall short in addressing unstructured drill-down analysis and collaboration requirements.

Irrespective of the LOB system clients they use, information workers eventually export and integrate relevant LOB data into familiar business productivity clients to complete their tasks. Most LOB systems provide UI options within the proprietary clients to export LOB data to popular business productivity clients like Microsoft Excel and Word. However, these capabilities do not mitigate the far-from-optimal user experience of navigating application menus and multiple forms in the LOB clients to consolidate the data required to complete an information worker task. They also do not enable information workers to execute actions that write/update LOB data from within the business productivity clients. Information workers must manually consolidate the results of work executed in business productivity clients to post data writes/updates from within the proprietary LOB system clients.

Enabling deeply integrated and role-tailored experiences for accessing LOB data and executing information worker tasks from within familiar business productivity clients would be a far more optimal solution to bridge the user productivity gaps in the Information Worker community.

Data Integration

Integrated views of data that are seamlessly consolidated from across multiple related LOB subsystems and presented to users in a role-tailored and contextual manner are important enabling capabilities for information workers.

Data integration is of significant pertinence across the broad spectrum of front-office LOB applications used by information workers. These include domain-specific applications, such as CRM, and generic systems, such as search, business intelligence (BI)/reporting, and planning/forecasting.

Business productivity can be significantly enhanced by enabling integrated and consolidated access to LOB data from within the context of role-tailored information worker business portals and business productivity clients. Enabling such deeply integrated experiences in familiar environments will eliminate the need for information workers to navigate proprietary LOB system clients to access the data required to execute their job functions. Having contextual and consolidated access to pertinent data from within the business productivity client comfort zones contributes to unlocking the value of LOB systems in the information workers community.

Business Documents

Business documents with integrated LOB data are de facto artifacts in a wide range of business processes. Business documents can vary in regards to the flexibility of their formats. Status reports, contracts, planning documents and spreadsheets, business communication templates, and business presentations are examples of free format business documents whose layouts and non-LOB content can vary frequently to accommodate changing requirements and conditions. Business documents, such as sales invoices, purchase invoices, and material requisition slips, are examples of more highly structured documents that tend to retain a fixed format over an elongated duration of time.

Business document templates and business document instances are commonly composed in business productivity clients by accessing and integrating related LOB data. Many information workers tend to spend a significant chunk of their time composing, reviewing, collaborating on, and presenting business documents. Most LOB systems expose options within their proprietary client interfaces to export raw LOB data to one or more relevant business productivity clients from within which business document instances can be composed. This approach requires users to navigate menus and forms in the LOB system client(s) to locate and export the data required to compose the documents. Some LOB systems offer additional capabilities that enable a user to push a button in the client and generate a formatted document with embedded LOB data. However, any modifications to the document content that require access and integration of additional or alternate data will land the user back in the LOB system client(s).

Deeper LOB integration within business productivity clients to enable composing structured and unstructured business documents with embedded LOB data can help bridge related information worker productivity gaps.

A related problem in the context of business documents is that of distributed document silos. Simply stated, distributed document silos is the term used to refer to the condition where multiple versions of one or more business documents exist on individual user workstations and are updated and used independently of each other. This is a non-optimal situation because it could lead to multiple conflicting versions of information that should ideally be maintained at all times as a single unified version of the truth, being used as the base for business decisions. A solution platform should support modeling business documents as first -lass LOB content types that can be managed, accessed, and versioned in a centralized manner to address this problem.

Unstructured and Collaborative Business Processes

Real-world information worker business processes are seldom sequential and structured. Core attributes of real-world information worker business processes include complex and, at times, unstructured information flows that must eventually be materialized as LOB data, structured and unstructured collaboration within and across organization boundaries, the use of a wide variety of communication mechanisms, requirements to be able to work offline and synchronize data when connected, and frequently changing business policies. LOB systems tend to wrap such business processes in highly structured facades that do not align with the real world of information work.

To address “The Results Gap” in this aspect, a solution platform should support materializing unstructured and collaborative business processes through a deep integration with business productivity clients, tools, and devices that align with the real world of information work.

Figure 5 illustrates the unstructured and collaborative steps that play a role in converting an opportunity to a quote within a broader “sales lead-to-invoicing” business process. Notice the structured modeling of the business process in the LOB systems layer (CRM + ERP), and the interplay of the unstructured collaborations and communications between information workers to materialize an instance of the process in the real world. Also note the annotations in the unstructured layer that depict the use of a variety of business productivity applications and devices throughout the process.

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Figure 5. Real-world information work

Manual transfer of data and activity synchronization between the LOB and the unstructured real-world business process layers is the norm in the majority of LOB system deployments today. This results in a significant information worker productivity gap caused by the inability of a business process implementation in a LOB system to align with the real world of information work.

LOB systems can bridge this gap by enabling the materialization of real-world business processes from start to finish through automated and collaborative human centric workflows and a deep integration with business productivity applications and devices used in the real world.

Customizable and Self-Serving

The unstructured nature of real-world information work and the varying functional requirements of information workers require a supporting platform to enable solutions that are customizable and self-serving without requiring constant IT involvement. Information workers should be able to customize the out-of-the-box solution and compose custom application artifacts to access information and execute actions that are not directly accessible using the out-of-the-box solution interfaces. Enabling these capabilities from within the context of information worker business productivity client interfaces is essential to bridge “The Results Gap.”

Compliant Solutions

Compliancy is currently a hot topic that imposes a variety of mandatory requirements on the processes and execution of business organizations. Ensuring that compliancy requirements are adhered to in the unstructured world of information work introduces some interesting functional requirements and related challenges. The solution platform must support modeling and seamlessly integrating compliance policies in information worker business processes. The enforcement of compliance policies should be deeply integrated and as transparent as possible to the user. It should also be possible to easily customize the policies to respond to mandatory changing requirements.

Office Business Applications (OBAs) - A Practical Solution to bridge “The Results Gap”

The Microsoft Office System is a comprehensive and open solution platform that LOB systems can integrate with to bridge “The Results Gap.” With the 2007 release, the Microsoft Office System has evolved from being the world’s most popular suite of business productivity tools to becoming a complete solutions platform that deeply integrates with the broader Microsoft platform to enable building user and process centric business solutions referred to as Office Business Applications (OBAs). OBAs can be designed and implemented to bridge “The Results Gap” by addressing the broad set of information worker requirements described in the previous section. This is made possible by a collection of platform applications, tools, and services that make it viable to easily and deeply integrate LOB processes and rich user experiences for LOB data access, analysis, and manipulation, within the broadly deployed and widely popular Microsoft Office Business Productivity applications and role-tailored business portals built on Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

Integrating with and leveraging the core competencies of the Microsoft Office System in bridging “The Results Gap” is a very compelling and practical solution that LOB system vendors and corporate IT departments can adopt to unlock the value of their LOB solutions across the broad segments of business application users.

Figures 6 and 7 illustrate the attributes and capabilities of LOB systems and the Microsoft Office System and how they can be integrated to build OBAs that bridge “The Results Gap.”

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Figure 6. LOB Systems and the Microsoft Office System

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Figure 7. OBA Solution Attributes

The following sections provide an overview of the OBA platform and how its capabilities address the solution requirements to bridge “The Results Gap.”

The Microsoft Office System—The Platform for OBAs

The Microsoft Office System is a complete solutions platform that integrates deeply with the broader and Microsoft platform, to enable building user and process centric business solutions referred to as Office Business Applications (OBAs). OBAs are not about discarding existing investments in LOB systems. LOB systems are crucial to the functioning of a business, and OBAs are not intended or positioned to replace them. Building OBAs is about integrating existing LOB systems with the Microsoft Office System to use its established core competencies in addressing the solution requirements to bridge “The Results Gap” and unlock the full value of LOB system investments.

The Microsoft Office System comprises a collection of platform applications, tools, and services that make it viable to easily and deeply integrate LOB processes and rich user experiences for LOB data access, analysis, and manipulation, within the broadly deployed and widely popular Microsoft Office Business Productivity applications and role-tailored business portals built on Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

Figure 8 illustrates the components and capabilities of the Microsoft Office System and the integration of LOB Systems with the Microsoft Office System to materialize OBAs.

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Figure 8. The Office Business Applications Platform

The core components of the Microsoft Office System include the Microsoft Office Business Productivity client applications (Outlook, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, InfoPath, and Visio being the most widely deployed and used) and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS). Different levels of LOB system integration can be accomplished across these offerings to materialize OBAs. Solutions can also optionally use the services and capabilities of domain-specific Office Application Servers, such as Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server (advanced BI for planning, monitoring, and analytics) and Microsoft Office Live Communications Server (real-time communications and collaboration).

Open standards and interoperability are core tenets of the Microsoft Office System. The metadata definitions of OBA solution objects are based on XML schemas, all Office products are service enabled from ground up (see the OBAs and Service Orientation section in this paper), and interoperable OpenXML file formats are the default schemas for business documents created using/generated for the Microsoft Office business productivity client applications.

The Microsoft Office System is also designed for extensibility from the ground up. Extensibility is enabled across the Office client and server offerings. The Office business productivity clients can be fully customized and extended to enable role-tailored user experiences and introduce required levels of structure when accessing and manipulating LOB data. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is a fully extensible platform that supports/enables customized extensions to all its core service offerings.

It must be noted that Microsoft Office integrated solutions deeply integrate with the core Microsoft platform and the Microsoft .NET Framework. Visual Studio .NET and managed .NET programming languages (such as Visual C# and Visual Basic .NET) are the primary development tools for building OBAs. This implies that all capabilities of the broader Microsoft platform and the .NET Framework can be used when designing OBAs. It also implies that existing investments and skills in .NET development and related software development life cycle (SDLC) practices can be fully leveraged in the OBA solution development process.

Scenarios and Opportunities for Integrating LOB Systems with Microsoft Office Client Applications

Information workers are power users who are proficient at using unstructured business productivity applications like Microsoft Excel, Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint. Business productivity clients/tools are their preferred interfaces for accessing and acting upon integrated and consolidated LOB data relevant to the business processes of relevance to their job functions. Given a choice, information workers would prefer to not install or log on to proprietary LOB system clients to access the data required for completing their job functions.

Enabling seamless and integrated access to LOB data from within the context of the widely deployed and broadly adopted Microsoft Office client applications is a proven approach to successfully extend the reach of LOB systems to information workers and to unlock the value of LOB system investments. Examples of related scenarios are described in the OBA Scenarios section of this paper.

The benefits of enabling seamless access to LOB data and processes from within the Microsoft Office client applications are generally well recognized. The challenges are more commonly in relation to developing an understanding of how to accomplish this and concerns regarding investments in related technology and development skills.

Figure 9 illustrates the approaches that can be taken to integrate access to LOB data and processes in the Microsoft Office client applications.

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Figure 9. Integrating LOB Systems with Microsoft Office client applications

LOB system integration interfaces in the Microsoft Office client applications are implemented and deployed as Office client add-ins. Add-ins can be implemented to function at the scope of an entire Microsoft Office client application or at the scope of individual document instances (where applicable). Application-level add-ins enable generic LOB system integration capabilities that are not document-specific. A generic business data look-up add-in that enables querying and integrating LOB data in any context is an example of an application-level add-in. Document-level add-ins are used to integrate capabilities which are specific to a particular type business document that is created, managed, and collaborated upon using a Microsoft Office client application like Word or Excel. Document templates designed for business communications and specialized tasks like planning, budgeting, and forecasting are examples of scenarios where document-level add-ins can be implemented to facilitate the integration of contextual LOB data and processes.

The two commonly adopted patterns to integrate LOB systems with the Office client applications are the Direct Access pattern and the Mediated pattern. The choice of the pattern to use should be solution specific and determined by the functional requirements. In the Direct Access pattern, Office client applications can integrate with LOB systems by directly consuming interfaces exposed by the LOB system layer. The supported interfaces for this pattern include ADO.NET data providers and Web services. Web services, when available, are the preferred interfaces for this type of integration. In the Mediated pattern integration is achieved by using interfaces exposed by a middle tier application server which exposes additional services over the core LOB system layer. The Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is an example of a middle-tier application server whose capabilities will be introduced in the next section.

The following table describes some LOB integration scenarios for the most commonly used Microsoft Office client applications:

Office Application

Scenarios

Microsoft Excel

Information worker scenarios driven by requirements for spreadsheet-style data analysis, data manipulation, number crunching, data visualizations, and document processing. Planning, budgeting, forecasting, and generic business reporting and data analysis are examples of scenarios that could benefit from a user experience deeply integrated in Microsoft Excel.

Microsoft Word

Creation and management of structured and unstructured business documents with LOB data integration.

Microsoft PowerPoint

Creation and management of business presentations with LOB data integration.

Microsoft Outlook

Mainstream client for information worker LOB data access and processes that are messaging-centric, collaboration-centric, or both. Unlike the other Microsoft Office client applications, which have scenario-specific use cases, Microsoft Outlook is more ubiquitous and can be customized/extended to serve as the primary LOB client for information workers whose responsibilities are messaging and/or collaboration centric.

The Microsoft Dynamics CRM Outlook client is a great example of a 100-percent Outlook–integrated user experience for LOB data access and processes. To explore the CRM Outlook client and get a feel for similar possibilities in the context of other LOB systems, download the Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 Virtual PC Demonstration – August 2007.

The SAP Duet offering includes Microsoft Outlook integrated user experiences for a number of core business processes. Video walkthroughs of these scenarios can be accessed at the following link:

SAP DUET Scenarios

Microsoft InfoPath

Creation and management of electronic forms (business documents with form like layout and user requirements) with LOB data integration.

Microsoft Visio

Rich operational process/model data visualizations with LOB data binding and overlays. To see a video demonstration of related scenarios, click here.

In regards to technology and development skill investments, the tight alignment and integration of the Microsoft Office System with the broader Microsoft platform and the .NET Framework imply that all related technology and skill investments can be leveraged in full capacity to integrate LOB systems with Microsoft Office client applications. Visual Studio .NET and managed .NET programming languages (Visual C# and Visual Basic .NET) are the primary tools to build OBAs that integrate with the 2007 Microsoft Office System. This trend will continue into the future and is unlike, as in the past, when deep COM and C++ development skills were required to extend the Microsoft Office clients. Visual Studio .NET includes abstracted visual designers and wizards that make the development experience for building Office client add-ins similar to that of building Windows Forms and ASP.NET applications. Governance of development efforts to implement Office client add-ins can also be achieved through integration with the Visual Studio Team Foundation Server or other similar systems used for .NET development projects. These significant enhancements in tools and services make investing in integrating LOB systems with Office client applications a very practical and viable solution to addressing “The Results Gap.”

Scenarios and Opportunities for Integrating LOB Systems with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server

While the benefits of investing in Microsoft Office client integration is generally obvious, the scenarios and opportunities for integrating LOB systems with Windows SharePoint Services and the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server is initially not very clear to the broader community. This section will attempt to de-mystify this subject and provide the information required to help decision makers make a call on whether SharePoint integration is an investment that could benefit their OBA solution requirements. While it is not essential that an OBA solution must integrate with the SharePoint platform, related capabilities will benefit many common information worker solution requirements.

It is first and foremost important to develop a broad understanding of the SharePoint platform and the capabilities enabled by Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

Figure 10 presents a layered view of the SharePoint platform.

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Figure 10. The SharePoint platform

The SharePoint platform is rapidly morphing from primarily being a solution framework for team and enterprise collaboration portals to becoming a comprehensive and viable middle-tier application server for LOB systems. While team and enterprise collaboration portals continue to be significant strengths of the SharePoint platform, the 2007 release of the Microsoft Office System introduces a number of core middle-tier application services in the SharePoint platform that have a broader applicability in the context of extending the capabilities and reach of LOB systems.

In the context of the SharePoint platform, it is important to understand the distinction between Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) and the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS). At the grass roots level, the SharePoint platform is built on top of the broader Microsoft platform that includes the Microsoft Windows Server operating system, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Internet Information Server, and the .NET Framework (the SharePoint development platform). Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) is the core SharePoint solutions platform that provides the base framework upon which SharePoint services and solutions are built. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) is built on top of the WSS platform and includes a number of services that span portals, enterprise content management, LOB system integration, and middle-tier application services.

Windows SharePoint Services (WSS)

WSS, at its core, is a Web site provisioning engine with built in support for team level collaboration workspaces in a corporate network environment. WSS sites can also be configured to publish Internet-facing content and scale out sites to service thousands of users in a Web farm deployment. In addition to these out-of-the-box capabilities, the WSS platform is also an extensible development platform that can serve LOB solution requirements.

If a simple Web portal solution framework that enables internal team collaboration workspaces to support LOB processes and basic data presentation capabilities to extend the reach of business data/information to users within and outside an organization is a solution requirement, WSS is a solution platform that should not be ignored.

The Web site provisioning (site model and storage), management, and security capabilities of the WSS platform greatly simplify the administrative processes involved in deploying, managing, and securing both internal team sites and external-facing sites. Abstracted user interfaces/tools for site administration and a powerful site provisioning engine enable these benefits. Site administrators can have fully functional internal and external-facing sites configured and running in a fraction of the time that it would take to do the same if working directly at the Internet Information Services (IIS)/ASP.NET layers. Strongly typed .NET object model and Web service APIs are also provided to enable the implementation of custom clients to administer and manage WSS deployments.

WSS integrates tightly with the broader Microsoft platform. Windows Server is the core operating system on which WSS runs. WSS uses IIS as a front-end Web server to host and scale out Web sites; it uses Microsoft SQL Server on the back end to store site definitions, content type definitions, published content, and configuration data.

The deep integration with ASP.NET and the broader .NET Framework enable leveraging existing .NET development skills to extend the core WSS platform with custom solution artifacts required to enable LOB data presentation and external facing sites. Customized site templates, page templates, styles and themes, page definitions, Web parts and ASP.NET server/user controls to display LOB data, content types (lists, columns, and document libraries), custom security providers (ASP.NET), and content collaboration workflows are solution artifacts that can be implemented by leveraging existing ASP.NET and .NET Framework development skills. The WSS solution deployment and extensibility frameworks enable the deployment and integration of such custom solution artifacts in WSS server farms.

The flexibility of WSS as a development platform and its tight integration with the .NET Framework is a double-edged sword from a custom solution development perspective. LOB system vendors and corporate IT departments should carefully evaluate the solution requirements and business constraints to make the right choice in relation to implementing solutions for application services provided out of the box by Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS)

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) is built on top of the WSS platform and includes many value adding services that span portals, enterprise content management, LOB system integration, and middle-tier application services.

In this context, it is important to recognize that MOSS has an unbreakable dependency on WSS. While it is theoretically possible to custom build services like those offered by MOSS on top of the WSS platform, doing so would not be a practical investment of resources. MOSS is a result of many man years of Microsoft research and development effort invested in developing the related services and core competencies. Microsoft’s continued commitment to evolving and adding on to the set of core services will result in newer innovations and richer capabilities being enabled in the future releases of the product. Investing in and leveraging these core competencies and services based on solution requirements is the recommended practical direction for LOB system vendors and corporate IT departments.

The following table is a summarized listing of the MOSS services relevant to LOB systems and the business capabilities that they enable:

Service

Service type

Capabilities enabled

Enterprise Collaboration Portals

Portal

Content rich and secure department/enterprise scale business portals enabled by rich extensible and customizable out of the box collaboration portal site templates. Portal reach can span intranet and extranet users.

Content Publishing Portals

Portal

Content rich and secure Internet-facing portals enabled by out-of-the-box customizable and extensible publishing portal site templates. Portal reach targeted at external customers and the general public.

Enterprise Content Management

Portal and Content Management

Full cycle and customizable content management processes that span content creation, review, approval, publishing, versioning, and disposition. Out-of-the-box capabilities support the user experience and functional requirements of IT, content managers, and content publishers. Also included is a full featured and customizable records repository/management site template to support content archival and disposition policies.

Content Targeting

Portal

Rich extensible metadata support for defining user profiles and audience groups to selectively target portal content in a role tailored and contextual manner.

Business Intelligence - Excel Services

Portal and Application Service

Service enablement to extend the reach of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, data visualizations, and business formulas that use the Microsoft Excel calculation engine. Capabilities include deeply integrated publishing capabilities in the Microsoft Excel rich client to deploy data views to MOSS content libraries, thin client browser rendering of Excel spreadsheets and data visualizations, and Web services to enable leveraging the Excel calculation engine in custom client applications.

Business Intelligence – SQL BI Integration

Portal

Deep out of the box integration with the core SQL BI offerings (Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services and Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services). Out-of-the-box capabilities include the option to configure MOSS as the SQL Reporting Services Catalog to treat SSRS reports and data connections as first-class SharePoint content types and a number of Web parts to integrate the display of SSRS reports and data from SQL Server Analysis Services Cubes in MOSS portals.

Business Intelligence – The Report Center

Portal

The MOSS Report Center is an enterprise site template that facilitates the storage and management of BI content artifacts like Office data connections, KPI definitions, reports (both Excel and SSRS reports), dashboards created using Excel Services, and report schedules. The Report Center integrates tightly with the entire MS BI Platform (SQL Server Reporting Services, SQL Server Analysis Services, and the Office BI offerings) and enables MOSS content management features for BI artifacts.

Business Data Catalog (BDC)

LOB System Integration Service

Middle-tier service to enable the integration of LOB data from multiple (and potentially heterogeneous) LOB data sources.

Includes unified XML based metadata schemas to consolidate abstracted LOB data model definitions from physical LOB data sources for consumption by SharePoint-based services.

Also includes out-of-box Web parts that can be used by business users to self-compose LOB data views in MOSS portals.

Current level of support in the 2007 release of MOSS is limited to read-only data access (using the BDC APIs) with capabilities to associate actions that reference non-BDC services to facilitate data updates and write back scenarios. Out-of-the box data presentation support in the 2007 release is also limited to SharePoint portal integration.

Future releases can be expected to add on unified APIs for data update/write back and out-of=the-box data presentation capabilities that integrate with the Microsoft Office client applications.

Enterprise Search

Application Service

Core service offering to crawl, index, and enable searching across a variety of enterprise data sources. Out-of-the-box support for searching SharePoint sites, Web sites, network folders, public Microsoft Exchange folders, and LOB data (via the BDC). Custom search data sources can be integrated into the mix by implementing custom search provider interfaces.

Also includes out-of-the-box customizable site and page templates to integrate search experiences in MOSS portals, and APIs that can be used to integrate search capabilities in non-portal clients (Microsoft Office client applications and custom clients).

Electronic Forms Services

Application Service

Service enablement to extend the reach of electronic forms designed using Microsoft InfoPath. Core capabilities include deeply integrated publishing capabilities in the Microsoft InfoPath rich client to deploy electronic forms to MOSS document libraries and thin client browser rendering of InfoPath e-Forms.

Collaboration Workflows

Application Service

Rich set of out-of-the-box content collaboration workflows built on the Windows Workflow Foundation. Also supports customizing and extending the workflows collection using the Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer and Visual Studio .NET. The out-of-the-box and custom workflows can be associated with SharePoint content types surfaced in SharePoint lists and document libraries. The out-of-the-box workflows collection includes the following workflow templates to address common content collaboration requirements:

·         Approval

·         Feedback collection

·         Signature collection

·         Disposition

It must be noted that the references to “content” in the capabilities described in the preceding table are not limited to just unstructured documents. In the context of the extended capabilities, it is important to distinguish between the notions of SharePoint content types and content as in data and data visualizations published using the portal page and Web part frameworks.

The SharePoint solutions platform comprises a fully extensible content type metadata framework that can be used to define and integrate rich LOB integrated content types into the SharePoint Enterprise Content management (ECM), workflow, and search services. Content types are physically surfaced in SharePoint as lists, document libraries, and custom metadata columns associated with lists and document libraries. LOB data integration in SharePoint content types can be accomplished in one of the following ways:

  • Promoting LOB data-bound fields in unstructured documents to SharePoint document metadata properties. Example: Promoting the Total Expense Amount data-bound field in an Expense Report document template to a document metadata property of the SharePoint document library used to publish and collaborate on individual expense report instances. The promoted property can be used in interesting ways in ECM workflows and by the MOSS Enterprise Search service.
  • Leveraging the BDC service to create LOB data-bound custom fields that can be reused as metadata attributes across multiple SharePoint lists and document libraries.
  • Creating custom SharePoint LOB data lists by defining or composing LOB data bound fields.

In addition to SharePoint content types, the page and Web part frameworks can also be used to present views of LOB data in SharePoint portals. The MOSS Business Data Catalog service includes out-of-the-box Web parts for surfacing LOB data accessing using the BDC service in MOSS portals. The base Web part framework can also be used to implement custom LOB data presentation Web parts.

Overall, MOSS offers a compelling set of pre-packaged services that could add tremendous value in the context of LOB systems and solutions. Investing custom development efforts in building similar services would be a wasted effort for reasons mentioned earlier in this section.

Technology/Development Skill Investments

As in the case of OBAs that extend/customize the Microsoft Office client applications, the tight alignment and integration of the SharePoint platform with the broader Microsoft platform and the .NET Framework imply that all related technology and skill investments can be used in full capacity to integrate LOB systems with WSS and MOSS. Visual Studio .NET and managed .NET programming languages (Visual C# and Visual Basic .NET) are the primary tools to build OBAs that integrate with the SharePoint platform. This trend will continue into the future. Visual Studio .NET project templates for SharePoint development further simplify the development process. Governance of related development efforts can also be achieved through integration with the Visual Studio Team Foundation Server or other similar systems used for .NET development projects. These significant enhancements in tools and services make investing in integrating LOB systems with the SharePoint platform a very practical and viable solution when there are compelling business requirements for doing so.

OBA Capabilities

The following table summarizes the core OBA platform capabilities in relation to each of the solution requirements identified as being crucial to bridging “The Results Gap.” Links to related scenarios, demos, and resources are provided to illustrate some of the capabilities. The capabilities illustrated in the referenced scenarios/demos are not intended to be all encompassing and comprehensive. They merely illustrate some of the OBA solution possibilities. The OBA solution platform can be used to implement functionally richer and more complete end to end scenarios in comprehensive real world LOB system integration solutions.

Solution requirement

OBA platform support

Scenarios/Demos

Integration with familiar business productivity client applications

Extensibility/Add-in Model for Microsoft Office Client applications

.NET Framework and Visual Studio integrated tools for customizing and extending the Microsoft Office client applications to enable LOB system integration and role-tailored user experiences

SAP Duet Scenarios

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Outlook Client
Download the Virtual PC Demonstration to explore the Outlook integrated Microsoft Dynamics CRM client.

Sample Interactive Demo
This is a custom CRM system integration scenario that illustrates a number of related capabilities.

Data integration

Business data integration in unstructured documents using the Office OpenXML File Formats

Extensibility/Add-in Model that enables the creation of document and application level add-ins to integrate consolidated LOB data access within the Microsoft Office client applications

Deep integration with the Microsoft BI platform offerings (SQL Server and Office) to enable rich data integration and presentation

Data analysis and visualization capabilities of Microsoft Excel

MOSS Business Data Catalog services to integrate data from LOB data sources

MOSS Business Intelligence services to present integrated and role tailored views of data in MOSS portals

 

Reference Application: OBA RAP for Manufacturing Plant Floor Analytics
The OBA Reference Application Pack for Manufacturing Plant Floor Analytics demonstrates some very interesting data integration and Business Intelligence capabilities.

View the videos of the end-to-end scenarios and download/walk through the interactive click through demonstration.

Business documents

Business data integration in unstructured documents using the Office OpenXML File Formats

Extensibility/Add-in Model to enable the creation of LOB integrated structured Microsoft Office document templates

Extensibility/Add-in Model to enable the creation of generic application level add-ins to enable LOB data integration in free format unstructured documents

SharePoint integration for centralized document management and collaboration

Out-of-the-box document collaboration workflows to address common requirements like approval loops, signature collection, feedback collection, and disposition

Electronic forms enabled by InfoPath Forms Services

Demo: Microsoft Dynamics AX Office Snap-in for Business Data Lookup

Reference Application: OBA RAP for E-Forms Processing in the Public Sector

This OBA Reference Application illustrates an end-to-end e-forms processing scenario in a public sector environment. View the presentations available on the referenced page and download/walk through the click-through demonstration

Unstructured and collaborative business processes

Extensibility/Add-in Model to enable the creation of Microsoft Office client application add-ins to front the initiation, tracking, and completion of business processes

Human-centric SharePoint workflows

SharePoint content types that enable associating workflows with content type definitions to trigger collaboration processes as content type instances are created and/or modified

SharePoint workflow task synchronization with Microsoft Outlook

Integration opportunities with Office Communications Server for presence integration and real-time collaborations/communications

Integration opportunities with Microsoft BizTalk Server for B2B and EAI scenarios

Reference Application: OBA RAP for Supply Chain Management

The OBA Reference Application Pack for Supply Chain Management implements some interesting unstructured and collaborative business processes. View the video presentation of the end-to-end solution available on the referenced page.

Customizable and self-serving

The Composite Solution Platform section of this paper contains information about how the Microsoft Office System addresses the customizable and self-serving solution requirements.

 

Sample Interactive Demo
Self Service Reporting and Analytics in Microsoft Excel: View the video walkthrough of the Plant Manager scenario in the Reference Application: OBA RAP for Manufacturing Plant Floor Analytics.

Compliant solutions

MOSS Records Management Services

Compliance policies

Auditing

Digital signatures

Content types and routing

Compliance workflows through integration with the Microsoft Windows Workflow Foundation

 

BizTalk integration to address data exchange compliancy requirements in B2B and EAI scenarios

IRM Integration

White Paper: Compliance Features in the 2007 Microsoft Office System

Article: Item Level Auditing in SharePoint Server 2007

OBAs—A Silver Bullet or Not?

While there are numerous compelling scenarios and opportunities for integrating LOB systems with the Microsoft Office System, it must also be noted that Office integration is not a stand-alone 360-degree silver bullet for all problems pertaining to unlocking the value of LOB systems.

Poorly designed information worker business processes for instance result in problems that cannot be solved by just enabling Office integrated façades. Designing optimal business processes from the ground up and making the right Office integration investments are crucial to delivering compelling user and process centric experiences.

Placing Office clients in front of every user across all levels of an organization is not an optimal investment, either. One-off transaction–oriented operational workers like service technicians, machine operators, and order-entry clerks deal with small and specific subsets of transactional data. These users may not be familiar with business productivity applications, and they generally feel comfortable working with the proprietary and structured LOB client UIs that they have been trained to use. Re-training such users in the Office client applications in lieu of the limited and structured scope of their functional requirements may not materialize significant business value. Identifying users who execute (or would like to execute) the bulk of their job functions in business productivity applications and targeting related scenarios is the recommended approach.

Finally, a poorly implemented user experience/interface will face adoption challenges no matter how it is surfaced and even if as an OBA solution. Thoroughly understanding the functional requirements of information workers, storyboarding Microsoft Office integrated user experiences, prototyping solutions, and conducting usability studies up-front and throughout the formal development cycle are mandatory steps in OBA SDLCs as in all other software projects.

Net-Net: Well-designed OBA solutions can be silver bullets to address information worker productivity gaps in relation to LOB systems. However, OBAs are not all-in-one 360-degree solutions for all problems pertaining to the usage of LOB systems.

The Business Benefits of Integrating LOB Systems with the Microsoft Office System

The business benefits of integrating LOB systems with the Microsoft Office System are many and compelling. The following are the top three and most significant:

  1. Unlocking the value of LOB system investments and extending their reach by enabling information workers to seamlessly access LOB data and execute related actions from within the comfort zones of broadly deployed and widely popular Microsoft Office business productivity applications. This is a proven recipe to bridge “The Results Gap” (see the OBA Evidence in the LOB Marketplace section of this paper for related evidence).
  2. Integrating with and leveraging the core competencies of an established platform in addressing “The Results Gap.” This is a very significant benefit that eliminates the need for proprietary and expensive platform level investments to address the related solution requirements. It is also significant from the perspective of continued future platform advancements (which will be many in the time to come, considering the focused Microsoft research and development commitment to this space) being readily accessible and available for uptake.
  3. The ability to fully leverage existing investments and competencies in the broader Microsoft platform across all phases of the SDLC.

Part 3 – OBAs and the Technology Landscape

This section introduces some core topics related to the positioning of OBAs in the context of the broader technology landscape.

OBAs and Composite Solutions

Composite business applications are solutions that are built by weaving together reusable and configurable solution artifacts. A composite solution platform must enable a framework that supports building reusable solution artifacts and composing solutions by assembling and integrating a relevant set of reusable solution artifacts. The reusable solution artifacts are implemented by IT/Development based on user requirements. Solution composition is typically performed by power business users/analysts and at times by IT when business users do not possess the basic skill set required to compose custom solutions. A composite solution platform can deliver unparalleled productivity in both cases if leveraged as intended.

The Microsoft Office System was designed from ground up to support solution composition. Figure 11 illustrates the opportunities for reusable solution artifacts at the various solution layers that can be used to compose solutions that integrate with the Microsoft Office System.

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Figure 11. The Microsoft Office System as a composite application platform

Enabling solution composition requires disciplined design and development efforts. Without the right set of reusable solution artifacts, the benefits of composite solutions cannot be materialized even on the most robust composite solution platform.

The Microsoft Office System is designed from the ground up to support solution composition. Tools and services to enable related development and composition activities are provided out-of-the-box. However, it is up to the developers and users to fully take advantage of these capabilities. Empowering the business users to self-compose solutions and investing in the design and development of reusable and configurable domain-specific solution artifacts, must be embraced as core tenets to deliver on this premise.

Sample Scenario:

With the right set of reusable solution artifacts, a Plant Floor Manager could self-compose a role-tailored SharePoint business portal that includes the following solution artifacts:

  1. A KPI scorecard that enumerates operational key performance indicators to facilitate the monitoring of plant floor operations.
  2. A graphical representation of an interactive plant floor map that enables the detection and analysis of real time exception conditions.
  3. A list of active safety incidents recorded in the plant floor and their current status.
  4. Quick links to frequently accessed resources, including a link to launch an e-form in the browser to fill out and submit a new safety incident report modeled as a SharePoint content type with an associated routing workflow (implemented using Windows Workflow Foundation) to locate and engage a service technician for incident resolution.
  5. An Excel Services Chart that renders a graphical display of plant production performance over time.
  6. A list of shift workers and their current clocked-in status.

View the Shift Foreman Portal demo of the Manufacturing Plant Floor Analytics OBA Reference Application to see a working instance of the described portal.

The online MSDN book on Building Composite Applications using the Microsoft Platform and the Microsoft Office System contains additional detailed information on this topic.

OBAs and Service Orientation (SOA and S+S)

Service enablement is a core tenet that is deeply integrated into the design of the Microsoft Office System. Service-oriented architectures in the context of LOB systems comprise both service provider components and service consumer components that integrate and interface with each other to materialize a service-oriented solution. In the context of the Microsoft Office System, the Microsoft Office client applications are service consumers, while the Office servers play a dual role of being service providers and consumers.

The Microsoft Office client applications have deeply integrated support to enable the consumption of services. This capability is core to enabling the integration of LOB data in Office client integrated user experiences. LOB data integrated in the Office client applications could be sourced from services exposed by on-premise LOB systems and/or hosted services. Hosted services could be LOB services or generic utility services like those offered by Windows Live. Figure 12 illustrates a custom Outlook message inspector whose UI integrates a list of sales leads retrieved from a CRM system and the Windows Live Maps and Search services to look up more information about a sales lead and the location of the lead.

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Figure 12. A custom Outlook message inspector

The Office servers are dual-faceted. While they are externally seen as providers of services that can be consumed by Office client applications and custom clients, their internal implementations and integration needs also require them to be service consumers. For example, the MOSS BDC service consumes services exposed by LOB systems to access LOB data and exposes services that enable service consumers to access LOB data using a unified API. The MOSS Search service is another example that consumes services exposed by content sources to crawl and generate search indexes, and it exposes services that can consumed by service consumers to execute search queries and navigate search results.

Office servers can also serve as service providers in live hosted offerings. The Microsoft Office Live platform is a great example of an online service offering built-on Windows SharePoint Services.

Figure 13 illustrates the service-oriented aspects of integrating LOB systems with the Microsoft Office System in on-premise and hosted deployment models. Integration with external and generic third-party utility services hosted in the cloud from within both on-premise and hosted deployments of OBAs, though not explicitly shown in the illustration, can also be achieved.

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Figure 13. OBAs and service orientation

OBAs and the Broader Microsoft User Experience Platform Initiatives

The deep integration of the Microsoft Office System with the broader Microsoft platform and the related benefits from the capabilities, development, and SDLC governance perspectives has been emphasized in the earlier sections of this paper.

A specific topic in relation to the positioning of OBAs as the preferred solution for surfacing rich information worker experiences in lieu of cutting-edge Microsoft presentation technologies, such as WPF (rich client), ASP.NET AJAX (Web), and Silverlight (Web), deserves some additional insight.

Information workers prefer integrated access to LOB data and processes from within their comfort zones in familiar business productivity applications, as opposed to having to use proprietary LOB system clients. WPF, ASP.NET AJAX, and Silverlight should be viewed as technologies that can complement and enable richer OBA/information worker user experiences. WPF can be leveraged when implementing rich client UIs for add-ins integrated into the Microsoft Office client applications. Similarly, both ASP.NET AJAX and Silverlight can be used to implement Web parts, ASP.NET server controls, and user controls which can be integrated in SharePoint portals to enable rich and compelling portal user experiences.

From an information worker user experience perspective, viewing these and other new platform initiatives as complementary capabilities that can further enrich OBA user experiences is the recommended approach.

This is not to say that technologies like WPF, ASP.NET AJAX, and Silverlight do not have other domain-specific use cases that extend beyond LOB information worker requirements. As mentioned in the discussion about whether OBAs are a magical silver bullet, Office integrated user experiences should not be viewed as a “one size fit all” solution to address all user experience and adoption challenges. There are many valid use cases for custom rich client applications built using frameworks like WPF, and for non-SharePoint Web experiences built using frameworks like ASP.NET AJAX and Silverlight. Some examples include LOB system user interfaces for operational users who are not familiar with business productivity client applications and Web site deployments that do not have requirements for a site provisioning engine or rich collaboration and LOB data integration capabilities.

Part 4 – OBA Opportunities and Evidence

This final section details OBA investment opportunities for LOB system vendors and corporate IT departments to bridge “The Results Gap” in their LOB solution offerings and deployments. Examples of real-world evidence are also provided to support the described investment opportunities.

OBA Opportunities for LOB Solution Vendors

Integrating with and leveraging the core competencies of the Microsoft Office System is a tremendous opportunity for vendors of packaged LOB systems that run on Windows operating systems to bridge “The Results Gap” in their product offerings.

Releasing optional Microsoft Office integrated add-ons for selected business processes is a viable short-term approach that could be taken (examples: SAP Duet and the Microsoft Dynamics Office snap-ins) to address information worker productivity problems in released versions of product offerings.

For future product versions, there is a compelling and practical opportunity for LOB system vendors to consider investing in and delivering OBAs as the primary out-of-the-box information worker interfaces to access their systems. This approach would be similar to the highly successful decision taken by the Microsoft Dynamics CRM product team to deliver a 100-percent Microsoft Outlook–integrated rich client experience in version 3.0 of the product. A similar investment that is based on integrating with one or more Office business productivity applications and potentially the SharePoint platform is an equally viable option for other generic and domain-specific front-office LOB systems. Examples of this include LOB solutions for supplier relations management, expense management, human resource management, health plan management, financial services, and manufacturing execution systems.

When pursuing an investment in a 100-percent OBA solution, it is crucial to thoroughly document all related business processes and identify the right Microsoft Office integration opportunities. Engaging with the information workers/business users who will use the solution during the early stages of the SDLC is vital to ensuring success. The business users should be involved in documenting and validating the business processes, assumptions, user experience designs, and proof-of-concept storyboards.

Compiling business process storyboards and tagging predefined icons to identify the user roles and business productivity applications and devices used at each stage is a recommended approach to document and validate business processes. Figure 14 illustrates a sample business process storyboard. This will enable a validated understanding of how a process is executed in the real world, and it will help identify the right business productivity applications and devices within which information worker user experiences must be enabled to mirror the real-world information work as closely as possible in the system.

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Figure 14. A business process storyboard

After a collection of all the business process storyboards relevant to a system is compiled, it is possible to perform a consolidated analysis and identify common patterns. Reusable implementation frameworks can then be implemented for the patterns to help materialize individual scenario instances. For example, the Assemble response and Approve response phases in the sample Lead-to-Invoice business process depicted in Figure 11 are also fairly common steps in other business processes. From the compiled process templates, it would be possible to identify that Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook are the business productivity applications from within which information workers would like to execute these tasks. The requirement for a document approval workflow to support the approval process is also a common requirement that could be identified by studying the business processes. This information could be translated to requirements for generic capabilities to enable composing business responses in Microsoft Word by integrating relevant LOB data, associating approval workflows with individual instances by leveraging SharePoint, and receiving notifications for workflow tasks and being to complete the tasks from within Microsoft Outlook. These requirements translate to solution patterns that can then be implemented to support materializing individual instances.

Some important requirements may not have supporting patterns and will need to be implemented as one-off features that are integrated into the broader solution.

The following are some additional advanced ISV opportunities that extend beyond integrating with the Microsoft Office System from within pre-packaged solutions deployed at customer sites:

  1. Implementing and delivering domain specific reusable OBA solution artifacts that can be assembled and configured by business users to compose composite solutions.
  2. Implementing and delivering hosted LOB solutions on the Microsoft Office Live platform.
  3. Implementing and delivering self-hosted LOB solutions as live services by integrating with Microsoft Office Servers on the back-end and enabling hooks to integrate with and use desktop client investments in the Microsoft Office client applications.

All in all, integrating with and leveraging the competencies of the Microsoft Office System is a compelling and practical opportunity for LOB system vendors to design and deliver user and process-centric solutions that align closely with real-world information work and enable customers to unlock the full value of their investments.

Figure 15 highlights some of the LOB solution ISV opportunities in the broader OBA opportunities landscape.

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Figure 15. OBA opportunities for LOB system vendors

OBA Opportunities and Challenges in Corporate IT Departments

LOB system investments that are of concern to corporate IT departments include a combination of one or more home-grown LOB applications that are regularly maintained and periodically enhanced, off-the-shelf vendor solutions customized to meet an organization’s business model and requirements, and legacy systems in a maintenance mode.

Addressing the solution requirements to bridge “The Results Gap” can help significantly optimize the cycles spent by IT staff in educating business users and servicing information worker requests for data. This optimization if materialized will enable IT staff to spend a greater percentage of their time on higher-value IT functions.

In environments where LOB system investments are 100-percent off-the-shelf vendor solutions customized to meet an organization’s business model and requirements, functional requirements to bridge “The Results Gap” through a deep integration with the Microsoft Office System could be pushed downstream to the solution vendor(s). However, in the real world, such requests may never materialize. Requirements to integrate vendor solutions with home-grown applications and legacy systems introduce a different a set of challenges.

When faced with the task of building OBAs to enhance information worker productivity (because of either lack of support from the LOB system vendor(s) or the home-grown/legacy nature of existing LOB systems), corporate IT departments have two options: apply the design and development practices described for LOB system vendors to custom implement OBAs and partner with and leverage the services of LOB solution integrators to achieve the same.

Adopting an incremental approach to surface OBAs for one or more business processes at a time by starting with the higher-priority processes and gradually working downward through the list is typically a more practical approach in corporate IT environments where time and budgetary constraints are usually tight. The flip side and risks of doing this include lack of consistency in design/implementation approaches and the potential for the eventual solution(s) to appear as individual silos versus a consolidated whole. These risks could be mitigated by adopting rigorous software engineering practices and mandating the identification and reuse of patterns in every iteration.

When faced with the task of integrating multiple disparate systems to materialize OBAs, investing efforts in service-enabling access to data from across the various systems is the recommended first step. Services are the recommended interfaces to access LOB data in OBAs. Services will also serve as conduits to leveraging the MOSS services like the Business Data Catalog (BDC) and Enterprise Search. Integrating with the MOSS BDC service will enable a unified set of APIs and interfaces to access LOB data from across multiple disparate LOB systems. The MOSS Enterprise Search service can use the BDC investments to enable an integrated LOB data search experience that can be used from within SharePoint portals, Microsoft Office Client Applications, and custom clients.

All in all, OBAs present compelling opportunities and interesting challenges in the corporate IT environment. The options and approaches described in this section can be applied effectively to address the challenges and enable OBA solutions that help bridge “The Results Gap” in corporate LOB system investments.

OBA Opportunities for LOB Solution Integrators

OBAs also present compelling opportunities for LOB solution integrators. LOB solution integrator opportunities surface when LOB system vendor offerings fall short in bridging “The Results Gap” and/or when undertaking related custom development efforts within a corporate IT setting is a not a viable option. Such circumstances will be fairly common and will open great opportunities for competitive LOB solution integration service offerings.

Developing and establishing OBA-centric practices and services is a highly recommended investment for LOB solution integrators.

Figure 16 highlights some of the LOB solution integrator opportunities in the broader OBA opportunities landscape.

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Figure 16. OBA opportunities for LOB solution integrators

OBA Evidence in the LOB Marketplace

OBAs are being rapidly adopted as a viable solution to bridge “The Results Gap” in LOB system investments.

Leading ERP/CRM system vendors like SAP (Duet) and Microsoft (Microsoft Dynamics CRM) have successfully leveraged the Microsoft Office System to deliver compelling OBA experiences that have been embraced by related user communities.

The business solutions space is still a very open playing field with numerous opportunities to tap into the multibillion dollar market. The SMB market in specific is a multibillion dollar segment by itself with no clear industry leader and a plethora of opportunities. The widespread fragmentation in the business sizes, reach, and domain-specific verticals within the broader market segments can be seen as an opportunity for multiple players to co-exist and thrive.

LOB solutions that are best aligned with an industry’s core competencies, which can adapt easily to changing domain requirements, and which can align/integrate seamlessly with real-world business processes and user experience requirements, will have a definite edge over competitive offerings that fall short in one or more of these aspects. In this regard, the Microsoft Office System and OBAs enable a tremendous opportunity, which, if widely adopted, has the potential to even the playing field in enabling user and process centric experiences that bridge “The Results Gap.” This would enable LOB system vendors to focus their efforts on delivering services that enable the core competencies of their target industries and on adapting to evolving industry requirements.

LOB system vendors and solution integrators are starting to realize the OBA opportunity. A number of vendors and solution integrators have started execution to materialize this opportunity, resulting in the steady formation of a vibrant community and eco system. OBA Central is the online portal for this community. Readers should explore this community to get a feel of the OBA momentum and to explore the existing OBA market evidence.

Conclusion

LOB systems play a crucial role in supporting the functioning of businesses across a wide range of industries and markets. “The Results Gap” described in this paper plagues a significant majority of existing LOB system deployments. This trend will continue if solutions to bridge the gap are not implemented to unlock the value of LOB system investments across the broad spectrum of business application users. Integrating with and leveraging the core competencies of a platform vendor established in and committed for the long term to IW productivity solutions is the most practical approach to bridging “The Results Gap” in existing LOB system deployments and from inside out in future releases of LOB systems. The Microsoft Office System presents a compelling, practical, and dependable opportunity for LOB system vendors and corporate IT departments whose LOB solutions run on the Microsoft platform to materialize such integration and unlock the full value of LOB system investments. This paper presented an overview of the related capabilities and scenarios and described the related opportunities for LOB system vendors, solution integrators, and corporate IT departments.

The following links point to top-of-the-line resource centers that can be explored to gain further insight into the technology aspects of building Office Business Applications and the related market momentum and opportunities:

The Microsoft Office Business Applications Home Page: The Microsoft.com home page for Office Business Applications.

The Microsoft Office System Architecture Center: The OBA architecture resource center. Contains links to comprehensive end-to-end OBA reference architecture/application packs, white papers, articles, and Web casts.

Office Business Applications Developer Portal: The one-stop shop for OBA developer content.

OBA Central: OBA Central is as a vibrant and active online community with active participation from Microsoft, Microsoft OBA ISVs and services partners, and customers. OBA Central makes it easy to connect and to find OBA solutions and services that address your business and technical needs.