Context-Driven Access via Microsoft Office

 

by Thomas Demmler

Summary: Aggregating document-centric content from heterogeneous systems is an ongoing challenge for system architects—as it is for the information workers who require that content. It is a major challenge to help customers improve the efficiency of their sales and customer service operations. Open Text solved this problem using Microsoft Office and the Information Bridge Framework.

Contents

Aggregating Enterprise Information Access
Case Study: Streamlining Customer Information Access for Sales and Customer Service Workers
Key Concepts
Aggregating Information Access in the Microsoft Office Environment
Open Text's Enterprise Connect Framework
Building Blocks of the User Interface
Conclusion
Appendix: Technical Specifications
About the Author

One of the main challenges in collaborative workflows today is that sales and customer service staff often have to spend a lot of time searching within heterogeneous systems, such as financial systems and document management systems, to find the information needed to respond to customer inquiries. To meet this challenge, Open Text developed Livelink ECM–Customer Information Management, a composite application based on our Enterprise Connect technology framework. This enables Microsoft Office users to access the document-centric content they need from the standard Outlook interface, irrespective of the enterprise system that is the source of the content. When a sales or customer service employee receives an e-mail inquiry from a customer, Customer Information Management recognizes pieces of information in the e-mail, such as order numbers, customer numbers, customer names, and so forth, and tags them. The sales or customer service employee can then launch a single, full-text search across all enterprise systems for documents, business objects, and records relating to the tagged item. The results are displayed in a pane within Outlook, and the sales or customer service employee is transparently logged in (via single sign-on) to the information source of an item when the employee clicks its link. This article describes the architecture on which the Customer Information Management composite application is based.

Aggregating Enterprise Information Access

As Figure 1 illustrates, critical business processes often depend on information that spans multiple enterprise applications, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Document Management Systems (DMS), and others. Business processes are not as efficient and accurate as they could be, because information workers are spending too much time searching for information in different applications and aggregating it manually.

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Figure 1. Complex challenges of enterprise information access

Case Study: Streamlining Customer Information Access for Sales and Customer Service Workers

One of our customers in the heavy manufacturing industry based in Western Europe needed to streamline its operations to remain competitive with lower-cost competitors. One area in which it was looking for improvements was customer inquiry processing.

Typically, a sales executive or customer service worker would receive an inquiry by e-mail. E-mails contained questions about shipments, invoices, purchase orders, and other information stored in various modules of SAP financial and ERP systems. Staff would then have to take the information contained in the e-mail (such as invoice numbers, PO numbers, customer numbers, etc.) and log in to different systems to gather the information necessary to respond to the customer. Not only was this a time-consuming process, but the staff often did not know whether they had found all pieces of relevant information.

Using a combination of Open Text's own technology and Microsoft's smart tag and Information Bridge Framework technologies, Open Text developers created a composite application (Customer Information Management) that places all customer-related information directly at the fingertips of sales and customer service staff in the Microsoft Office environment. Customer Information Management is the first of several planned composite applications based on Open Text's Enterprise Connect technology framework.

Key Concepts

Before looking into the architecture, it's important to cover the following key concepts: business objects and smart tags, defined below.

What Is a Business Object?

When a business transaction is carried out, there are many entities within it that interact by means of different types of business documents. For example, in the case of a simple transfer of goods, entities such as the vendor, customer, and distributor interact with one another using business documents that include purchase orders, invoices, and delivery receipts.

Within enterprise applications such as SAP systems, each of these entities and documents is represented by electronic objects. For example, customers and vendors are represented by their profiles or records in a database, and scanned images of purchase orders are stored in a repository. We use the term business object as a generic way of referring to these electronic objects that represent business entities.

What Is a Smart Tag?

Smart tags are a feature of Microsoft Office applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Word. They appear as indicators applied to text recognized by smart tag recognizers as representing a particular type of information. For example, the name of a recent Microsoft Outlook e-mail message recipient can be recognized and marked with a smart tag indicator.

The sentence below was typed into Microsoft Word with the smart tag recognizer for "person names" enabled. The smart tag recognizer recognizes "Thomas Demmler" as a person name, because e-mail was recently exchanged with him, and the recognizer tracks the names of e-mail correspondents.

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Figure 2. Smart tag displayed in Word

The recognized text is marked with a smart tag indicator, which is represented by a lavender dotted underline. When users place their mouse pointers over the tagged item, an icon appears that provides access to a menu of available actions.

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Figure 3. Icon linking to smart tag action menu

The following image (Figure 4) is an example of the menu of available actions for a Microsoft Outlook contact recognized with a smart tag.

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Figure 4. Smart tag actions for a name recognized as an e-mail contact

Open Text's Enterprise Connect leverages the Microsoft Office Smart Tag technology to tag information types, such as a customer name or customer number, and then provides an extended menu of actions that can be performed on the tagged information, such as searching for all information related to the customer in SAP ERP or other enterprise applications, including Open Text's own Livelink ECM document management system. The results of the search are displayed in a special pane in the Microsoft Office application's UI, the task pane.

Aggregating Information Access in the Microsoft Office Environment

This section illustrates how end users experience Enterprise Connect technology in Microsoft Outlook and other Microsoft Office applications.

Figure 5 displays an e-mail sent from a customer to an account manager. In the e-mail, the customer references a delivery number, which is recognized and marked with a smart tag.

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Figure 5. Smart tagged delivery number in a Microsoft Outlook e-mail

When the account manager places the mouse pointer over the tagged delivery number, it opens the action menu, as shown in Figure 6.

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Figure 6. Action menu for smart tagged delivery number

The menu lists the Show Details action. When the account manager selects the Show Details action, all enterprise information related to the delivery number is searched for, and the results are displayed in the Information Bridge task pane within the Microsoft Outlook interface, as shown in Figure 7.

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Figure 7. Information Bridge pane displaying result of Show Details action

The Information Bridge task pane displays links to all business objects relating to the delivery (orders, documents, billings, inquiries, and so on) from SAP systems, Open Text's Livelink ECM document management system (DMS), and other online sources. In the example above, the Information Bridge pane is shown in the Microsoft Outlook interface, but it can also be displayed in Microsoft Word and other Microsoft Office applications. Documents that are attached to the delivery business object, such as offers, documents, orders, inquiries, or billings, can be directly accessed from the Information Bridge task pane.

With a single click, the account executive can access the information displayed in the Information Bridge pane, such as the invoice number referenced in the customer's e-mail message.

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Figure 8. Invoice details from SAP displayed directly in the Information Bridge pane

The account executive can also quickly access orders in SAP, contracts and other documents in Open Text's Livelink ECM DMS, and more.

The Information Bridge task pane also has a Search tab, as shown in the following image. This tab enables information workers to search directly for business objects, rather than initiating the search from a smart tag.

Users can also attach the e-mail itself to the business object in SAP by dragging and dropping the e-mail message from Outlook onto the task pane.

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Figure 9. Search tab in Information Bridge task pane

Open Text's Enterprise Connect Framework

Enterprise Connect comprises several interrelated layers. The central layer is the Enterprise Connect Engine, which not only connects the enterprise systems, but also creates a foundation of common business objects and processes.

To mark and display these business objects within Microsoft Office applications, Enterprise Connect uses Microsoft Office's smart tag technology. Enterprise Connect applications provide the intelligence to recognize references to specific business objects in Microsoft Office documents.

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Figure 10. Attaching an e-mail to the order in SAP using drag-and-drop

Enterprise Connect Engine

The Enterprise Connect Engine currently runs on Open Text's Livelink ECM framework and will be supported on SAP's NetWeaver™ business infrastructure platform in future versions. The Enterprise Connect Engine is implemented in Java and uses Web Services, which enable communication between Microsoft Office, the Microsoft Information Bridge Server, and enterprise applications. Open Text Enterprise Connect is a Web Service that can be easily integrated with any Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), such as SAP's Enterprise Service-Oriented Architecture (ESOA).

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Figure 11. Open Text's Enterprise Connect Framework (Click on the picture for a larger image)

Livelink ECM DocuLink

The connectors to SAP systems leverage Open Text's Livelink ECM DocuLink. DocuLink is a module based on SAP's Advanced Business Application Programming (ABAP) language and runs on SAP NetWeaver. It connects end users to all SAP business objects and executes SAP's authorization model, which restricts all unauthorized access to business-critical information in SAP systems.

DocuLink extends the SAP system with a process-oriented and application-spanning view of all business documents—across SAP systems, SAP modules, and even non-SAP systems. DocuLink collects all business documents and reorganizes them according to the business process and the need for document retrieval. The navigation scheme can also be configured to reflect changing business processes.

Livelink ECM Search

The connector to Open Text's Livelink ECM DMS is based on its integrated search engine. This connector makes it possible to include documents, such as project and customer documents, from several Livelink ECM DMS repositories in the Enterprise Connect object model.

Single Sign-On Technology

Enterprise Connect provides end users with single sign-on access to any of the enterprise applications in which business objects reside, because the credentials used to connect to Microsoft Outlook automatically provide them with access to the related enterprise systems. Enterprise Connect provides central administration of access to external systems, making it easier to define individual and group mappings.

Building Blocks of the User Interface

Open Text's Enterprise Connect uses the Microsoft Information Bridge Framework technology to integrate smoothly into the Microsoft Office applications.

The Information Bridge Framework Task Pane Tabs

The Information Bridge task pane is the central location for interaction with the connected back-end systems. The Information Bridge task pane contains two tabs:

  • Information Tab: Displays information about business objects
  • Search Tab: Allows searching for a business object

Once a business object is located on the Search tab, information workers can click a result to view information about the object in the Information tab. In addition to the Search tab, recognized text (such as customer names, numbers, and so on in the case of Customer Information Management) in Microsoft Office documents (such as Word documents and Outlook e-mail messages) that are tagged using Microsoft's smart tag technology also allows information workers to find business objects.

Identifying Business Objects

The most convenient way for information workers to identify a business object is by means of smart tags inside an e-mail or a Microsoft Office document. In Figure 12, a customer number has been identified in an e-mail. By selecting the Show Details action, information workers can obtain detailed information about the customer, which is displayed on the Information tab of the Information Bridge task pane.

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Figure 12. Smart tag (Information Bridge tag)

To identify business objects within an e-mail that has just been received, information workers can click the Recognize button in the Outlook toolbar to initiate smart tagging. Each Enterprise Connect solution includes a predefined set of patterns (customizable by the administrator via a graphical configuration screen) that the recognizer searches for. These patterns correspond to the business objects of interest for the specific solution. In the example of the Customer Information Management solution described in this article, the predefined patterns recognize customer-centric information such as customer numbers, purchase order numbers, and so on. The e-mail is converted into HTML format, and all recognized business objects appear underlined in the Outlook preview pane or opened e-mail.

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Figure 13. Recognizer in Microsoft Outlook

There may be some cases in which a business object identifier (customer name, number, and so on) is written incorrectly or in a way that confuses the recognition technology. In cases in which business objects are not identified automatically, information workers can use the Search tab in the Information Bridge pane (see Figure 9) to search using specific attributes. For example, an order can be searched by order number, order date, customer number, and purchase order of the customer. Wildcards for nonspecific searches are also supported.

Views of Business Objects

The Information tab provides information about a business object and its context. Enterprise Connect provides a simple user interface model inside the Information tab. Each business object has a set of information (including other business objects related to it) that can be displayed on the tab. The set of information available to each Enterprise Connect solution is based on an Information Bridge Framework configuration created using the Enterprise Connect graphical configuration tool. The information set is deployed as XML to either the Information Bridge Framework Metadata Server or to individual Microsoft Office workstations.

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Figure 14. Native SAP WebGUI

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Figure 15. Information tab with subsections grouping related objects

The top section of the Information tab displays details about the business object selected. The type of business object (for example, "Delivery") is displayed in the heading of the Information tab. Using the information stored as XML in an Information Bridge configuration, Enterprise Connect provides several different views of a business object, from which end users can select the most appropriate one for the task at hand. If end users are familiar with the back-end system from which the business object originates, they can click a link to open the object in the native user interface of the back-end system. For example, information workers can click to view an order object in the SAP WebGUI.

The set of operations that can be performed on a business object from the Information tab depends on what the back-end system supports for that object. For example, the back-end system may support operations such as "Attach document to business object" or "Add new version of document," depending on the business object in question.

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Figure 16. Information tab of an invoice object with Workflow History section open

Within the Information tab view of a business object, other business objects related to it are grouped into subsections by type.

For a "Delivery" business object, the Information tab displays customer details at the top of the pane and a number of sections below it that group other objects related to the customer, such as Orders, Documents, Billings, Quotations, Inquiries, and so on.

For a "Billing" business object, the Information tab displays invoice details at the top and related objects, such as Orders, Documents, and Workflow History, below it.

Conclusion

To address a particular type of content aggregation and access need, Open Text developed Livelink ECM–Customer Information Management, the first of several planned composite applications based on our "Enterprise Connect" technology framework. Enterprise Connect aggregates document-centric content relating to business objects in multiple SAP systems and modules, in addition to documents in Open Text's own Livelink ECM DMS, and provides access to this content in the Microsoft Office user environment.

The Enterprise Connect composite application leverages Open Text's own document management and search technologies in combination with Microsoft's smart tag and Information Bridge Framework technologies to deliver the aggregated content via the Microsoft Office interface.

Appendix: Technical Specifications

Available Enterprise Connect Connectors

  • SAP R/3 4.6 C/D, SAP Enterprise (4.7), SAP NetWeaver 2004 and SAP NetWeaver 2004s
  • Livelink ECM–Enterprise Server (DMS) 9.2 SP1 and 9.5 SP1
  • Livelink ECM–Production Document Management 9.5.5

Client Environment

  • Microsoft Windows Office 2003 Professional or higher
  • Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional or higher
  • Microsoft Windows .NET Framework 1.1

Server Environment

  • Information Bridge Framework Server
    • Microsoft Windows Server 2003 or higher
    • Microsoft Windows .NET Framework 1.0 or higher
    • Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 or higher
    • Microsoft SQL Server 2000 or higher
  • Platform for Open Text's Enterprise Connect
    • Livelink ECM–Enterprise Server (DMS) 9.5 SP1
    • In future: SAP NetWeaver
  • Document Archive
    • Livelink ECM–Archive Server 9.5 and 9.6

About the Author

Based in Munich, Germany, Thomas Demmler is currently product management director for SAP-related products at Open Text Corporation. He has a Master's of Computer Science (Diplom-Informatiker) from the University of Karlsruhe in Karlsruhe, Germany. Mr. Demmler joined IXOS AG (acquired by Open Text in 2003) in 1998 and has been involved with the company's SAP-related product lines in various roles since that time.

This article was published in the Architecture Journal, a print and online publication produced by Microsoft. For more articles from this publication, please visit the Architecture Journal website.

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