Can Microsoft Office Front-End Your Business Processes?

Microsoft is set to kick off an Office-for-business-processes strategy, focusing on composite apps called Office Business Applications, or OBAs, starting next month.
Duet, a joint SAP-Microsoft project to funnel accounting, supply chain, and human resources data to Microsoft Office apps, aiming to put the power of notoriously user-unfriendly software into the hands of the common worker and oh-so-familiar Microsoft Office, has seen more than 400,000 licenses signed in less than a year.

It's also been a lead-in for Microsoft, which is beginning to kick an Office-for-business-processes strategy, focusing on composite apps called Office Business Applications, or OBAs, into full swing.

In the last two weeks, Microsoft has introduced three reference architectures for developers to create OBAs, which surface back-end data and business processes in Office apps. At Microsoft's annual Worldwide Partner Conference in Denver next month, there'll be even more focus on OBAs, with a series of related sessions and keynotes for interested enterprises and vendors. The aim: to vastly expand the user base that has truly functional access to the back office.

The three new Reference Application Packs, as Microsoft calls them, include one to connect employees with health plan systems, one to help process forms, and another to make manufacturing plant analytics available to more employees. But don't think these are simply quick and dirty mashups like a widget for a Web portal.

"It's not intended to be that lightweight," said Enterprise Applications Consulting analyst Josh Greenbaum. "What Microsoft is saying is that instead of creating entirely new applications in the portal, why don't we surface that data in applications we already use, in a clean, Office interface." The implication is that back-office apps aren't quite ready for the mashup era.

It's not uncommon for business applications to use Microsoft Office products at some points along the value chain. I2's Demand Management, Microsoft Edition, for example, uses Excel as its client in order to help people better understand demand for a product or service.

"There's nothing new in having Office, particularly Excel as an interface to applications," Greenbaum said. "You almost have to say, who doesn't do it."

What's different here, however, is that OBAs aim to use Office as the front-end at several steps along the way. In one example, an order comes into the system via a form filled out online, automatically gets translated into a Word document, and gets sent through Outlook along the relevant approval chain, all while the system has logged the process in a database whereby someone looking over its shoulder can see what's happening in Excel.

Skanska USA, the American arm of global construction giant Skanska, uses Oracle's JD Edwards ERP system for all its finance and accounting and some project management needs, using forms to surface the information in SharePoint. There's long been a gap between JD Edwards and Office apps that's led to the inelegant process of sometimes manually entering finance data into the system when such a step, or at least entering that much data, shouldn't be necessary. To mitigate this, Skanska built services on BizTalk Server to pre-populate JD Edwards finance information automatically into InfoPath forms on SharePoint and cut out the manual middleman. It took a two-week process down to three days.

Needless to say, this wasn't the simplest of tasks, and the user uptakes thus far shows. So far, Microsoft only knows about 120 or so enterprise customers using apps like these. The aim behind the reference applications, of which there are now six, is for Microsoft to start showing developers and organization how they could weave apps from companies like Oracle and SAP into everyday work. Future reference apps might focus on specific geographies where laws and processes differ. But don't doubt that there's more in store for OBAs.

This article was edited on July 2 to remove a relationship between Oracle and i2's Demand Management product.

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer