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Software // Information Management

When Your E-mail Reads Your Mind

Imagine being handed just the information you need, right when you need it. You don't have to imagine much longer, as Microsoft's Information Bridge Framework lets you right-click from Office applications to contextual details formerly buried in back-end systems. In a sense, e-mail messages (or documents, spreadsheets or presentations) will read your mind because you'll be able to click on keywords and gain insight without opening separate apps such as SAP, PeopleSoft or BusinessObjects.

Picture it: You go to your closet on the first sunny Saturday morning of the year. It's a mild 75 degrees outside, cloudless and forecast to stay that way. All the pertinent variables indicate to your networked, mechanized, computerized closet that you'll most likely want either your gardening clothes or cycling gear, so it pushes these items to the front. You don't have to move piles of sweaters out of the way or hunt for those shorts you haven't seen since last summer.

We might never see such a well-informed closet, but some people already have an office like this. Make that "Office" with a capital O — as in Microsoft Office. In a sense, their e-mail (or document, spreadsheet or presentation) reads their minds. At least, it pushes a subset of enterprise information to them, filtered by their business roles, security permissions and the file's textual content.

By making Office into an alternative presentation for back-end systems and by exposing enterprise and systems metadata to Office, your corporate developers, systems integrators or application vendors can make your users' e-mail read their minds, too. Ever since Microsoft introduced its Information Bridge Framework (IBF) last year, many developers have been busy taking advantage of the relative ease with which they can now integrate back-end applications into the Office front end. Enterprises have been clamoring for Office integration from packaged application vendors and system integrators for a long time. In the past, developers had to slog out hard-coded integrations. IBF makes this integration quicker, less expensive and more flexible.

Say a user receives an Outlook e-mail that says, "Customer X has an order held up." How many different applications would that user have to launch and how many people would have to be contacted before identifying the order, discovering the reason for the holdup and taking the actions necessary to move the order forward? With an IBF bridge properly configured between Office and your order entry, accounts receivable, manufacturing and supply chain management systems, the user could right-click on the customer's name or the word "order" and immediately see or quickly drill into all the pertinent information in the pane on the right-hand side of the e-mail window. Moreover, the user could drop that detail directly into a reply without worrying whether the recipient is authorized to view the information. If recipients don't have permission from the back-end application serving the data, they won't see it.

Work on Your Delivery

It's about time we had information delivered this way. The BI industry has been working for a long time on serving the extreme poles of information demand. On one extreme are the power users and analysts — the rare individuals making good use of ad hoc queries, OLAP and advanced analysis tools. On the other extreme are low-level workers processing high-volume, predictable decisions that can be automated or greatly sped up with embedded analytics.

Unfortunately, the legions of workers in the middle of that spectrum are still greatly underserved. They don't exist in that rarefied world of pure analysis and strategy. BI tools can be overwhelmingly unfamiliar to them and don't let them see the most updated transaction details, which they often need. Yet the decisions they make are not often the type that can be automated. They're the ones who handle the exceptions the automated systems spit out.

Application vendors and corporate developers have recognized this problem, which is evident in all sorts of products and projects: enterprise application integration, enterprise information integration, enterprise portals and portal personalization, to name a few. Yet, for a variety of reasons, these approaches too often leave midlevel workers still unable to make decisions without calls, e-mails and other activities that delay problem resolution. Despite attempts to make portals personalized and easily navigable, for example, they're often unintuitive or too removed from where the final work needs to be done.

One way to shorten the path between midlevel workers and the information they seek is to deliver the information where they primarily work: in their personal productivity applications. Projects usually begin and end in e-mail; it's where notifications first arrive and it's where they issue their requests, conclusions or decisions. Many times the decisions are aided by data manipulation in spreadsheets, and the action required is creating a word processor or presentation tool document. The majority of these midlevel workers use Microsoft Office for all or most of these productivity applications. Why not accept that reality and just use Office whenever possible as the user interface regardless of the back-end source?

While some might cringe at the thought of Microsoft gaining a larger share of the computing universe, many enterprise software vendors and corporate developers are bowing to pragmatic user demands and buying into the concept of allowing Office to be an optional user interface for just about anything.

Vendors Jump at the Chance

Many of the earliest IBF adopters were software vendors, and the development work they began last summer has improved the IBF, its documentation and developer resources — which benefits internal corporate developers who want to bridge in legacy or custom applications.

Basically, the IBF is able to link any application exposed as a Web service after you define the application's metadata within the IBF's metadata repository. It brings down the cost and difficulty of creating and maintaining integration with Office. Therefore, vendors whose customers have been pushing for Office integration now face much less of an obstacle to satisfying these customers.

One of the earliest IBF vendor adopters was PeopleSoft, which continued its IBF development after Oracle acquired the company. Version 8.9 of PeopleSoft Enterprise Performance Management, which Oracle released on April 20, exploits IBF and Office Smart Tags to bring updated calculations of KPIs and refreshed reports directly into the Office environment. Here's a typical user scenario: A manager types in the phrase "Customer Satisfaction" in an Excel spreadsheet. A Smart Tag appears in the cell with that phrase and, on the right side of the application window, the Research Task Pane opens. The manager will right-click on the tagged cell and see a short menu of items related to the Customer Satisfaction KPI (see screen capture 1). After selecting "View KPI Detail: Customer Satisfaction," the manager will see a tree in the task pane displaying red, yellow or green customer satisfaction KPI slices pertaining to lines of business, channels and employees for which he or she is responsible. A hyperlink to source detail is available below each KPI data summary. If the user wishes to explore further, clicking on a detail link will bring the user out of Excel and directly to the relevant report and line item inside PeopleSoft. This scenario would play out much the same in any other Office application.

Screen Capture 1

Users can also bring a small amount of data directly into the spreadsheet with a simple click-and-select in the Office task pane. Normally such data imports can become a problem; with all the applications that allow export to Excel, islands of disconnected, conflicting and questionable data often result. However, using IBF means that someone viewing PeopleSoft-sourced data in an Office application online can simply refresh the information to ensure it's the most recent version.

Other major vendors are working on IBF projects as well. iWay Software is also readying a product based on IBF. iWay Smart Services will prepackage bridges between certain enterprise applications and Office. It isn't released yet, but some of iWay's customers are now using iWay tools to more easily expose their back-end applications as services that IBF can consume.

Business Objects has a feature called Live Office that lets users access BusinessObjects information from within Office applications and embed data sets that can be refreshed by the BusinessObjects server. Live Office was developed before IBF existed, using SDKs that made the development fairly difficult and inflexible. But the next release, due out in the fall, is expected to use IBF to make the feature more transparent to and convenient for the user.

SAP is using IBF along with some hard-coded integration in its Mendocino project that it announced recently at its SAPPHIRE user conferences in Copenhagen and Boston. Lockheed Martin's David Coltrin and Carlos Bivins (who support corporate systems and process management for the aeronautics and space systems giant) think Mendocino could greatly improve the users' experience, inconveniencing them less when they comply with process mandates. Unfortunately, Coltrin and Bivins will have to wait a while: Mendocino isn't yet even in a beta test phase, and the first release (probably in 2006) will operate only through Outlook, not all the Office apps.

Just Enough, Just in Time

Oracle is the only major enterprise vendor providing IBF-enabled capabilities today. Senior Oracle product strategist Jacques Vigeant used to work for an OLAP company that specialized in "pushing a billion cells of data into a cube." He observes that the value of PeopleSoft EPM 8.9 is somewhat the reverse. "We can do much better than give you a billion cells... We can give you only 10." While heavy-duty analysts may benefit from even more data squeezed into OLAP cubes, businesspeople would be no better off. Give businesspeople just the data pertinent at the moment, and they'll be empowered to take action; presented with massive OLAP cubes, they could be hopelessly lost or unacceptably delayed.

Other vendors understand and share the goal of strategically limiting information that users see. "Google isn't successful because it brings back 10,000 links; it's successful because it ranks them in terms of relevance. The fewer choices you give people, the better," says James Thomas, director of product marketing at Business Objects.

Just as workers shouldn't have to fish essential information out of a sea of irrelevant data, they also shouldn't see what they aren't authorized to see. Because PeopleSoft exposed its security schema to IBF, a Smart Tag won't even appear unless the user is allowed to access data associated with the key word.

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