Enterprise, Meet Mashups: User Experience 2.0 via SOA and OBAs

[This is something I wrote recently for a partner of my company (iLink Systems) who wanted to know more about Microsoft OBA soutions based on our experience. It's not a full-on marketing brochure, to be sure, but it's not meant to be "objective," either, thus this disclaimer.]

The cornerstones of “Web 2.0” are Mashups, web sites which pull information from multiple sources — open API web applications and data sources — and combine them to give the user an experience they wouldn’t otherwise get from a single online application. For example, a mashup can combine a restaurant listing with a mapping application to show a user information about nearby restaurants that are conveniently plotted on a map.

We are accustomed to thinking of mashups in connection with MySpace and consumer users rather than the internal systems of Fortune 500 companies and corporate users. But substitute “Enterprise web services” for “open API web applications” in the definition of mashups above and the concept of mashups slides smoothly over to the Enterprise domain.

Enterprises increasingly rely on web services as part of a Service Oriented Architecture (“SOA”). These web services allow access to the specific functions of Enterprise applications, including antiquated legacy applications, without using the original application user interface (“UI”). Custom UIs can be created which are the equivalents of mashup web sites because functions from multiple applications can be combined in one UI for greatly increased ease of use. For example, secure sign-on, workflow, and data functions from different applications can be merged in one simple smart phone UI.

Similarly, the key benefit of Office Business Applications (“OBAs”) is making information from Enterprise back-ends easier to get by allowing users to access it through already familiar Microsoft Office applications (Outlook, Word, Excel) and web browsers (SharePoint portals). In addition to Office’s broad range of options, Microsoft’s “Office” product line now includes SharePoint (recently renamed “Microsoft Office SharePoint”) and its content management, data connection, and workflow features, plus integration with components like InfoPath Forms and Business Scorecards (dashboards).

At my company we pride ourselves on our ability to improve “user experience.” In essence, this means customizing the parts of software that users touch to make software fit users better. In recent years we’ve been seeing increasing interest in developing systems that make more of the back-end accessible to more users, in particular making information that traditionally has only been accessible to database specialists accessible to business users. We also continue to see, surprisingly often, manual re-entry of information, even in very large companies. The solution in both scenarios often involves SOA (web services), OBAs and related Microsoft technologies. Here are a few examples:

1. A hospital system. The managers of a particular government agency’s hospital system rely almost exclusively on Microsoft Outlook (email) to obtain and share information. For better or for worse, Outlook is currently the only information tool most likely to be widely used by these managers. Additionally, these managers were frustrated by their inability to obtain real time business intelligence about how specific hospitals, and the hospital system as a whole, were performing over time.

We created an OBA to place a dashboard showing graphs and charts with up-to-the-minute business information into each managers’ Outlook home folder. The dashboard, clickable to “drill down” into more detail, connects via SharePoint to the hospital systems’ legacy database systems, reducing the technical know-how required for information access to nearly zero, ensuring that information received by managers is complete and current, and removing the middle-man bottleneck from the data flow. Authorization for access to information can be synchronized to email sign-on, maintaining simplicity without lowering security.

2. An agricultural wholesaler. A wholesale distributor in the agricultural sector has numerous farm suppliers, most of whom have limited computer capabilities. Handling supplier-provided pricing and availability information was expensive because it required the distributor’s people to do a lot of manual data entry. Extra people had to be available at peak times of the work day to manually enter data from faxes and emails while simultaneously taking telephone calls.

We worked out a custom OBA solution to enable automated extraction of purchasing information from the text of emails, email attachments, and faxes, drastically reducing manual data entry. For example, after opening an email from a supplier with an attachment containing purchasing information, the distributor’s people click on a custom button “add-in” we added to their Outlook. The add-in automatically extracts all relevant information from the Word document attached to the email, places the information in a form, and submits the form to create a temporary SQL Server database entry. A workflow is triggered which reminds the staffer to review and approve the new entry before it goes “live” in the purchasing system.

Similarly, for Word documents that originate within a company, Word button add-ins can be used to automatically generate data forms from the information in those documents as well as workflows that route those forms to different users for review or approval.

3. A telecom provider. Employees at various levels in a telecom found that the software they had been given access to was either difficult to use or didn’t allow information to be arranged in desired ways, or both, causing them to use manual workarounds. Field technicians transferred information to paper before leaving the office, took notes by hand in the field, and manually re-typed information back in the office. Business analysts manually typed information into temporary spreadsheets to prepare regular reports, then spent a great deal of time reconciling those spreadsheets with primary data before accurate reports could be submitted. All of this manual re-entry not only consumed expensive personnel time but led to hard-to-detect errors which consumed even more time and reduced individuals’ responsiveness to other important tasks.

We created .Net components and services that collect and filter information then deliver the information in the proper format for different kinds of users. Users sign on once to obtain access to multiple data sources and workflows. A browser-based mobile UI brings up precisely the data each field technician needs. Field representatives no longer need to take notes by hand then manually re-enter data after they return to the office, or place calls to support personnel while working in the field in order to obtain current information.

4. A marketing communication company. Account representatives working at a marketing communications company were spending quite a bit of time manually retrieving their accounts’ independently produced sales and marketing collateral. In addition to finding the right collateral, they found themselves trying to maintain and update duplicate sets of the latest versions of their accounts’ collateral.

To streamline this process, we designed a custom web-based application for importing accounts’ collateral automatically into the company’s SharePoint portal, with version control features that validate the freshness of the collateral. We then updated another web application that can be viewed within a “pane” (sub-window) of representatives’ copies of Outlook 2007 that allows representatives to incorporate fresh collateral from their SharePoint portal directly into outgoing email messages with no intermediate steps.

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