Introducing the Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework
Microsoft® Office Editions 2003
Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework 2003
Summary: Learn about Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework 2003 from an organizational perspective, including the rationale for exposing line-of-business data to desktop systems and the benefits to the information workers who rely on this data to perform their daily work. In addition, review the Information Bridge architecture and the advantages that this architecture offers for both deployment and maintenance of solutions. (12 printed pages)
The success of an organization depends largely on the ability of its employees to discover, analyze, and act on line-of-business data and operational information. Unfortunately, there is traditionally a deep divide between the enterprise systems used to collect and manage data and the desktop tools that information workers use to communicate and act on this information.
The Microsoft® Office System spans this divide. Support for XML and Web services within the Microsoft Office System applications enables organizations to connect their desktop programs to line-of-business systems in an intuitive, cost-effective way. By providing information workers with the information they need to make sound, timely business decisions, solutions built on the Microsoft Office System help make information workers more productive and organizations more agile.
The Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework is a set of tools and technologies that use these capabilities to extend the Microsoft Office System, enabling information workers to view and act on business data from within the familiar Microsoft Office System programs. Using the Information Bridge Framework, developers can build solutions that enrich Microsoft Office documents, providing relevant information and related actions within the context of the process or subject. Together with Microsoft Office Enterprise Edition, Information Bridge enables developers or solution providers to connect an organization's documents quickly and efficiently to its existing back-office systems, with no need to replace hardware or software.
The Information Age has given rise to information workers employees who spend a majority of their time analyzing and reporting on information about their business and making decisions based on these analyses. The success of a modern organization depends largely on the ability of its information workers to discover, analyze, and act on line-of-business data and operational information.
Although business transactions are becoming increasingly automated, studies show that most business processes still have a significant human element. Studies of Microsoft customers reveal that for every automated transaction, there can be as many as five episodes of high bandwidth communication. (Studies conducted for Microsoft by Accenture, EDS, and Reuters confirm the pervasive nature of these scenarios in the retail, automotive, and investment banking verticals, respectively.) Regardless of the company or industry, the information workers who perform these processes have several common traits. They depend on e-mail, forms, and electronic documents to communicate and collaborate about the business. They rely on data from multiple sources as input to a single decision, and after making a decision, they take actions that involve multiple enterprise applications.
Another common factor in information work is the use of the Microsoft Office System. The Microsoft Office System applications are among the most used applications in the world today, including:
- Microsoft Office Outlook® for messaging and collaboration
- Microsoft Office Word for creation of rich documents
- Microsoft Office Excel for data analysis and reporting
- Microsoft Office InfoPath™ for gathering structured data in dynamic forms
(For more information, see Smiley, Ken, Market Overview 2003: Office Productivity Suite, Giga Information Group, December 2002.)
With a presence on hundreds of millions desktops worldwide, the Microsoft Office is an integral part of daily work in virtually every industry. Millions of employees rely on the Microsoft Office programs to capture, analyze, report on, publish, process, communicate, and collaborate on business information. The Microsoft Office provides a familiar, ubiquitous environment that offers exceptionally powerful features for communicating complex thoughts around business information. When information workers communicate about business matters, they typically use Microsoft Office applications like Word, Excel, and Outlook.
In an enterprise setting, however, key business information typically resides in large, back-end databases and line-of-business applications. The line-of-business applications that collect and maintain enterprise data include systems such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), financial reporting, project management systems, and others. These systems typically include databases or data warehouses, servers, and server applications that collect and manage the data, and in many cases, specialized front-end applications that enable users to interact with the data. These are powerful, specialized systems; in many cases, the front-end applications reflect this complexity.
For specialists who spend most of their work time interacting with a single system—that is, the subset of information workers who execute structured business processes within a single application—the complexity of line-of-business applications is not an issue. But for the majority of information workers—those who aren't directly involved in the creation or management of the data, but whose effectiveness depends on their ability to discover this data, to make decisions based on this data, and to communicate intelligence to others—these specialized systems are not very efficient.
To the typical information workers who spend a majority of their time using Microsoft Office System applications, reliance on specialized enterprise applications can be a significant liability. These systems are difficult to use and master, and users must switch between applications, using one set of tools to locate the required data, and then copying and pasting or re-keying that data into the Microsoft Office application in which they can work with it in a meaningful fashion.
This "application hopping" introduces numerous organizational inefficiencies. It reduces productivity by forcing users to switch rapidly between applications, first learning and then applying the various commands and feature sets. In addition, the act of copying and pasting data from one application to another introduces opportunities for error.
But more importantly, switching applications does not enable the information worker to view the information in context. Unlike the line-of-business applications that provide views into data, documents or e-mail messages typically refer to specific business entities as part of a discussion or a decision or process that involves that information. Leaving the document to look up the information disrupts the flow of the decision or process. Forcing readers to keep track of the context manually as they move between e-mail messages or documents and numerous other applications places a heavy burden on the information worker.
The key to relieving this burden is not to replace or update the systems architecture and applications in organizations, but rather to reexamine the role of documents in enterprise business processes. Today, the paradigm of the static, passive document is being replaced by a new kind of document that plays an active role in the business process it represents. In a recent report describing this trend, IDC predicts, "documents [that] combine information with the processes that surround it. . . will make companies more responsive and adaptive." (For more information, see Duhl, Joshua, and Susan Feldman, Active Documents: Changing How the Enterprise Works, in Industry Developments and Models, IDS # 30405, November 2003.) IDC further concludes that the Microsoft Office System is on the leading edge of this new work environment.
There is traditionally a deep divide between the enterprise systems used to collect and manage operational data and the desktop programs that information workers use to communicate and act on this information. This is the division between the documents that talk about business information (for example, customers and orders) and the information itself (for example, the customer record or order record in the company's ERP or CRM systems).
The Microsoft Office System helps organizations span this divide by providing information workers with the information they need to make sound, timely business decisions. By providing this information in the context of the document, e-mail message, or spreadsheet, organizations realize immediate benefits including increased productivity and better, faster decision making at all levels.
The Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework is an infrastructure and toolset that enables powerful Office-based solutions. Using Information Bridge, developers can create solutions that connect Microsoft Office System programs to line-of-business systems in an intuitive, cost-effective way. These solutions extend the value of the Microsoft Office System by providing the ability for information workers to consume line-of-business data that is, to view, retrieve, and act on critical business information within the Microsoft Office applications.
When using a solution powered by Information Bridge, information workers are no longer forced to manually move or copy data between programs but can establish dynamic links between the company's enterprise data stores and their Office documents, including spreadsheets, Word documents, e-mail messages, and forms. These documents contain live, direct references to enterprise business objects that readers can act on within the document to make and implement decisions.
For businesses that use the Microsoft Office System for information gathering, reporting, analysis, communication, and collaboration, expanding the role of the document to encompass the information and the context and actions that relate to this information is a natural step. Organizations that embrace this new document paradigm will find their people more productive and their processes streamlined. Information workers will spend less time interacting with multiple applications and execute on more of their tasks and decisions from within the comfortable, familiar environment of their Office documents.
Information Bridge attempts to neither replace nor replicate the functionality of the enterprise systems. Rather, it works with these applications to expose the data, the views and the actions that they contain and present it to information workers in a more familiar, more productive context: the Microsoft Office System programs.
The initial release of the Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework supports solutions that extend Word 2003, Excel 2003, and Outlook 2003. The following scenario presents a typical business situation and illustrates how a solution that enables users to access and act on enterprise data sources from within Outlook e-mail messages can streamline business processes and make employees more productive.
TiAnna Jones, an Account Executive at the Litware Corporation, discovers that the Contoso Company, one of her primary accounts, has an outstanding service request that is more than 10 days old. TiAnna composes an e-mail message to Kevin King, the Customer Service Manager, asking him to look into the delay and resolve the issue.
When he reads TiAnna's note, Kevin pulls up information about the Contoso account from Litware's CRM system. He checks the customer contact and retrieves a list of Contoso's top five customer activities. Looking at the recent activities, Kevin can see that one of Contoso's recent service requests (SRs) has been closed, but he has no way of knowing if this is the SR that TiAnna is concerned about. Switching to Litware's enterprise support system, Kevin scans the open SRs and notices that Contoso does indeed have an open SR that has been outstanding for 10 days. The SR has slipped through the cracks.
Kevin decides to alert Mary Baker, Litware's Director of Product Engineering, about the issue. Kevin adds his comments to TiAnna's e-mail message, copies relevant information from both the CRM system and the service management application, and then forwards the message to Mary.
When she receives Kevin' message, Mary logs into the CRM system herself to get some background on the Contoso account. She decides to escalate the outstanding SR, and she wants a senior engineer to take responsibility. Because she is not familiar with Litware's enterprise support system, Mary calls Kevin and asks him to change the priority of the Contoso SR and see that it is assigned appropriately. Kevin talks Mary through the steps necessary to escalate the request, and when they finally complete the task, both are hopeful that the SR will be resolved quickly.
Kevin closes the loop by sending an e-mail message to TiAnna, informing her of the status and the reassignment of the SR.
In this example, both Kevin and Mary spend the morning gathering information from multiple sources to make an informed decision. Although the process begins and ends with the exchange of e-mail messages in Outlook, a majority of their time is spent in other applications, looking up related information, querying databases, and initiating a critical business process, before returning to Outlook to close the loop. In addition, as the following scenario shows, a key piece of information was easily overlooked.
A Better Way
A solution based on the Microsoft Office System with Information Bridge could alleviate the inefficiencies in the process described here by allowing both Kevin and Mary to explore the relevant customer and account information from within Outlook 2003, eliminating the need to "hop" between applications, learn a new interface, or copy and paste pertinent data.
Using a solution developed and powered by the Information Bridge, TiAnna, the account executive who initiated the investigation, would paste appropriate references to the Contoso account into her original message to Kevin (see Figure 1). As TiAnna composes her message, she has the option to insert a reference for each business entity included in the original message (for example, the customer name, service request, and the terms of the customer's service agreement).
Figure 1. The solution enables TiAnna to insert references to business entities discussed in her e-mail message
Rather than typing her concerns into the message, TiAnna retrieves information about Contoso's recent activity using the Find tab in the Outlook task pane, and then pastes references to the specific SR. This takes some effort, but it saves her from writing a detailed note to explain the situation.
For Kevin and Mary, the benefits are immediate. When they receive TiAnna's message, they do not have to leave Microsoft Office to research and resolve the situation. Within the body of the e-mail message, the references inserted by TiAnna present a list of relevant actions for those business objects. For example, when Kevin clicks Show customer summary in the smart tagged "Contoso" reference in the message body, the Microsoft Outlook task pane displays customer information retrieved from the CRM system.
Rather than examining the data in an ad hoc fashion, as when Kevin explored the CRM system on his own, the Information Bridge solution allows a systematic approach, presenting information that is relevant to the issues Kevin must consider. In the case of CRM information, the solution retrieves not only the account contact information and recent activities, but also a view into any upcoming opportunities involving the subject customer.
On examining the opportunities around the Contoso account, Kevin discovers that there is a $750,000 license renewal coming up information he might easily have missed during his own ad hoc exploration of the Litware CRM system. Based on this information, Kevin decides to escalate the issue to the Mary immediately. Kevin adds his comments to TiAnna's e-mail message, inserts a reference to the SR, and then forwards the message to Mary.
When she receives Kevin' message, Mary can explore the circumstances of the upcoming opportunity and identify the parties involved on each side. Similarly, when Mary clicks the reference to the service request, the task pane displays the status and details from the enterprise support system, and a list of possible actions, including the option to change the priority and assign the request to a specific engineer. Kevin and Mary can research the issue, make an informed decision, and take the appropriate actions without ever leaving the e-mail message. In fact, neither Kevin nor Mary even needs to know where to find the customer data or how to query the complex enterprise support system.
Figure 2. The solution enables Mary to take actions related to the service request from the Outlook task pane
The Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework is a set of software components, tools, and prescriptive guidance that enable developers to create solutions that connect the Microsoft Office System to virtually any enterprise system or application. Information Bridge enables developers to very quickly create and deploy flexible, custom solutions that adapt to an organization's existing IT infrastructure and require little or no re-tooling of back-end systems.
Specifically, Information Bridge includes:
- A client-side component, which interprets the context of a region or business entity within an Office document based on the underlying XML markup, and then connects the context to relevant actions available from Web services.
- Information Bridge Metadata Service (MDS), which allow these Web services to expose the data, views, and actions embodied by the line-of-business applications.
- Information Bridge Metadata Designer, a plug-in for the Microsoft Visual Studio® .NET development system, for creating and managing solution metadata.
- Guidelines for creating Web services that can be easily consumed by the Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework.
Information Bridge Solutions
Solutions built on Information Bridge include front-end components that run in the Microsoft Office System applications and a metadata service that enables these components to exchange data with Web services developed according to Information Bridge Framework guidelines. The prescriptive guidance provided with Information Bridge helps the developer build the Web services and define metadata that describes the solutions' views, actions, relationships, and business entities in a standardized way that can be consumed by the Microsoft Office System.
Declarative solutions specify the relationships between business entities across the Web services. Solutions can incorporate actions that contain multiple Web service operations and operate on multiple information sources or data stores.
On the desktop, the Information Bridge client component exploits the capability of the Microsoft Office applications to call Web services and display the data returned by these Web services. The custom user interface (UI) elements and menus that power the solution are bound to the data and presented to the user through smart tags and/or the programmable task pane. The Information Bridge client engine interprets the metadata and presents context-specific actions, navigational elements, and information.
Information Bridge manages the task pane that displays the data retrieved from the back-end system. Likewise, the smart tags expose specific actions that map to the business logic provided by the solution. Both the available views and available actions can be controlled based on the user's role or authentication credentials (through integration with the Microsoft Active Directory® directory service). In this way, you can modify solutions to align with a company's unique data structures, computing environment, and business processes.
Information Bridge Architecture
The diagrams in the following sections illustrate the architecture of a typical solution built on Information Bridge both at design time and run time. The architecture uses metadata to express the relationships between Web services, business entities and views, operations, and UI elements, facilitating reuse of Web services and business logic in multiple solutions. The Information Bridge architecture also offers solution scalability and ease of deployment on corporate networks.
Figure 3 illustrates the run-time architecture of a typical enterprise solution built on the Information Bridge Framework. On the desktop, Information Bridge solutions require that the client be running Microsoft Office 2003 Professional Edition or later, the Microsoft .NET Framework 1.1, and Microsoft Windows® 2000 or later. The server side requires Microsoft Windows Server™ 2003 with Active Directory and Microsoft SQL Server™ 2000 Service Pack 3. Metadata Designer tool requires Visual Studio .NET 2003 or later.
Figure 3. Information Bridge Solution Run-Time Architecture
Solution Design Architecture
Figure 4 illustrates the tools and roles involved in the design of enterprise solutions built on Information Bridge. Information Bridge solutions are developed using Visual Studio (including the Information Bridge Metadata Designer for declarative solutions), XSL, and Windows Forms. Smart tags and the Office task pane reveal line-of-business data and actions. After you deploy Web services and create the metadata repository and service to expose enterprise applications, minimal development effort is required to modify the views and actions that are available within a particular solution.
Figure 4. Information Bridge Design-Time Architecture
By making relevant business information available within the documents in which this information is discussed and analyzed, and by empowering information workers to act on this information from within the documents, solutions based on the Microsoft Office Information Bridge Framework make information workers more productive. In addition, these solutions improve the speed and quality of decision-making, and reduce the costs and effort required to get value from an organization's business information.
An Information Bridge powered solution ensures that the Microsoft Office documents are enriched with information from line-of-business applications, providing context for making better decisions faster. Seamless integration of line-of-business data with the Microsoft Office System reduces information workers' need to visit multiple disparate systems to be able to obtain critical data, eliminates the times between the request for information and the reception of that information, and reduces the costs manually integrating the information from multiple systems.
To the organization and the information workers, solutions built on Microsoft Office with Information Bridge:
- Reduce costs associated with information discovery and integration. Information Bridge enables information workers to aggregate and act on interrelated information from multiple data sources within the context of the document content. These solutions eliminate manual information gathering and reduce the burden on the specialists called upon to extract data or prepare reports.
- Improve collaboration and decision making processes. Information Bridge empowers a wide subset of information workers to communicate critical information about business objects and entities with up-to-date information from multiple related sources. This dramatically improves the efficiency of communication by eliminating the effort required to recreate the context for the communication. Because documents include live, direct links to the information sources, all participants in a decision have access to a current, consistent view of that information.
- Increase the ease of use of information from line-of-business systems. Information Bridge eliminates the need for information workers to learn and operate multiple, complex line-of-business applications. Using custom Information Bridge solutions, workers can perform a greater portion of their daily tasks and initiate business processes from within the familiar, comfortable Microsoft Office environment. Organizations avoid the costs of training and associated downtime, and leverage their investments in the Microsoft Office System.
To the solution developer, Information Bridge offers:
- Rapid time to market. Information Bridge enables solution developers and IT departments to create solutions faster and with less development cost than traditional development methods. Comprehensive access to Microsoft Office UI metaphors and specific host application APIs provides rapid solution start up, and the Visual Studio .NET plug-in Metadata Tool and adapters to widely used enterprise ERP and CRM systems further streamline the development effort. After the initial development and deployment efforts are complete, defining or modifying relevant views and actions within the context of the solution requires very little new code or programming experience.
- Ease of maintenance and deployment. Information Bridge reduces the total cost of ownership through its use of open and interoperable standards (XML and Web services); SQL Server 2000 for storage of metadata; centralized architecture; and well-managed, secure code running within the proven and well-tested Common Language Runtime environment.
- Flexible solutions architecture. The use of metadata to describe business actions, entities and relationships, and the use of self-describing, interactive Web services enables developers to extend solutions more easily and to reuse components in multiple functional solutions.