Feature: The Personal Workspace Evolves

In a sign of progress for data hunter-gatherers, Microsoft, SAP, IBM and Google are taking steps toward higher order personal productivity environments that will let you interact with enterprise data.

Events of the past month in the world of desktop software have underscored predictions that the long-term industry trend is toward Web-services-powered desktops. Behind the headlines around vendor alliances and product announcements by Google, IBM, Microsoft and SAP, the back story is that business professionals are in for a big win in terms of easy access to business intelligence and enterprise application data.

In fact, it looks like Microsoft and IBM are counting on enterprise data and report access (particularly to SAP applications) to drive excitement and adoption for their next-generation desktop products. But can BI become the killer application in the information workspace?

Delivering to the Desktop

In early May, Microsoft and SAP announced June availability for their joint project, Duet for Microsoft Office and SAP (formerly known as Project Mendocino). The initial Duet release is limited to four common self-service process scenarios: time management, leave management, organization management and budget monitoring. Microsoft and SAP have announced two additional "value packs" for Duet that will add five more scenarios and bring analytics and report interaction to the Duet desktop later this year.

Within the week, IBM announced two offerings: IBM Lotus Notes access for SAP solutions (formerly known as Project Tatara) and IBM Workplace for SAP Software. These products bring SAP information to IBM's customer base of Lotus Notes messaging and application users and IBM customers who are adopting SOA (service-oriented architecture) infrastructures and moving to the new IBM Workplace browser-based client environment. The Notes product offers direct access to SAP reports as well as functionality and scenario support that is similar to what Duet provides for Outlook. The Workplace product provides service-level access to any information source of the customer's choosing, and employee and manager self-service scenarios are promised in a future release. However, neither IBM product offers anything that parallels Duet's interface to the Microsoft Office productivity tools, particularly Excel. Hold on to that fact.

Offering yet another route to the desktop, Google released a new version of its Enterprise Search Appliance in mid-April that provides support for direct links to BI information and reports. The access is gained though a new "OneBox" interface, and several major BI players have offered their support (see "Google OneBox Cuts to the Chase" below). [Editor's note: At press time, IBM announced it would enable its Omni Find engine to search formal BI reports from vendors such as Cognos. It will also enable direct, ad hoc data query using the natural-language search technology it acquired in last year's purchase of iPhrase. The idea is to let business users untrained in formal data query and filtering approaches ask questions through a search interface to get at important information that might not be available in established reports.]

The aim of all these recent announcements is to alleviate business user frustration with the limitations of what IT has been able to provide at the desktop. To date, desktop software providers, enterprise data and application suppliers and the Internet and enterprise search specialists haven't come close to addressing the work requirements of individual professionals, particularly their information integration needs (see "The Next-Generation Personal Workspace").

Giving Users Control

So will more flexible access to enterprise data be the driver for a next generation of richer desktops for business professionals? Whether you call it business performance management, operational BI, lite analytics, dashboarding, real-time CRM (customer relationship management) or just-in-time decision support, user-customizable, BI-like insight in the context of specific business processes and job functions is increasingly critical. Is opening up access to the BI silos the point, or are we really talking about a new kind of user control?

The experience with enterprise portals and dashboards, many of which were pioneered by BI visionaries, suggests that report access and delivery is necessary but insufficient. Portals have offered a prompt and persistent alternative to lengthy, paper-based report cycles, and they often have succeeded in tunneling through silo walls. Yet they haven't solved the problems of BI's inflexibility in dealing with report development bottlenecks and rigid output configurations. They also lack real-time troubleshooting or exception-investigation facilities that users can control. Plus, portals have failed to become central to most professionals' daily workflows. They are just one of many places to visit to troll for answers but are not "in line" with the main channels of information work, namely e-mail, search and Office.

In capturing the subtleties of typical electronic workflows for business professionals, Duet's design seems most attuned to integrating the typically isolated desktop with enterprise systems. The core of the design breakthrough is not centered on access, but rather on enabling the enterprise data to be rendered live in familiar desktop authoring and analysis tools. The goal, after all, is not just to deliver the right information, but to offer a context that helps the user take action, hook up processes, find experts and kick off ad hoc collaborations.

Ask a financial analyst if she would rather receive the most recent financial statements from a corporation she covers in a text file or in a "live" Excel file. Very few, if any, would opt for the frozen text version. In this example, the SEC may hold a "single version of truth" and many premium information publishers may distribute identical versions of the original in various formats, but the analyst wants to be able to manipulate this data into her models and create new value from that financial report in the form of unique analysis and insight. This same dynamic holds for BI data inside the organization. The ultimate value of the data will grow in line with the ability of employees to apply analysis and insight in a convenient and near-real-time fashion.

The core capability of the next-generation desktop is interactivity, not access. We'll see a positive step in this direction come fall when the Duet Value Pack releases deliver SAP business warehouse BI data directly into Excel and users can manipulate that data in their own models directly from Office. (IBM needs a way to offer this kind of spreadsheet-based interaction.) Duet users can reduce reporting overhead by using Excel to modify the front-end formatting of those enterprise reports to match their local conventions and have SAP reflect those modifications in future reports; many professionals are forced to reformat reports for weekly management review. Integrating the search interface with this functionality will add another interactive tool for establishing context and delivering information streams that link the worlds of structured and unstructured information under user control.

Evolving the Desktop

The recent moves by Microsoft-SAP, IBM and Google are steps toward an interactive desktop, but a lot more work needs to be done. Software that uses the messaging interface, the search experience and Office tools together to engage BI and other structured and unstructured enterprise information sources will begin to let companies engineer a significant shift in users' "hunter-gatherer" activities around the desktop.

Without enterprise data playing a new role in the desktop, new formulations of client software will not bring breakthroughs in productivity. At the same time, the enterprise systems firms will continue to be hammered by customers about breakdowns in accessibility and ultimate return on investment if they fail to commit to a means of getting actionable data with business context into users' hands.

The biggest vendors in enterprise information have realized that it's in everyone's interest to improve the utility not just of the data and the systems but of the primary desktop channels as well. Look for these recent announcements to pave the way for an overdue active period of innovation and experimentation.

Hadley Reynolds is a vice president and Director of Research at Delphi Group, a Perot Systems Company. Write him at [email protected].

On April 19, Google announced new BI-related capabilities for its Enterprise Search Appliance. These are created primarily through alliances with leading software providers like Cognos, SAS and Oracle. The new capabilities are focused in what Google calls "OneBox for Enterprise," a feature they are migrating from the Google public search site.

OneBox is a combination customized search facility, user interface convention and information integration "lite." With OneBoxes enabled, if a user types a query in the Google search bar that the system can recognize as a special kind of information it knows about--such as a FedEx tracking number, an airline flight number or a major city or corporation name--Google will return a highlighted box at the top of its normal results list offering one-click access to services that are appropriate to that information. You can try this out on the Google site; you may have experienced OneBox without looking for it.

The appropriate service links in Google's OneBox would take the user not to a document about FedEx or packages but directly to the FedEx package tracking Web site, or to the airline flight status pages, weather information for a major city or stock ticker information for a listed corporation.

The point of this increasingly popular feature, of course, is to let the user escape the drudgery of reviewing the documents or pages in a results list and cut to the chase to link to actionable information if it fits the context of the user's search.

In the enterprise context, OneBox results could include a broad range of internal options, such as links to specific BI reports, personalized dashboards, graphical displays or custom services such as customer information profiles. This is BI access direct from the search interface, and Google and its partners are betting that many users will find this kind of search-powered access attractive.

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