Improving Proposal Processes at Microsoft
Technical Case Study
Published: November 9, 2007
Approximately 10,000 Microsoft field sales representatives respond regularly to requests for proposals (RFPs) that solicit competitive bids on large contracts for products and services. To create winning proposals faster, Microsoft Information Technology (Microsoft IT) created InfoWeb Proposal Center. Based on Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Server 2007 capabilities, the tool accelerates proposal processes, helps ensure high quality of content, and facilitates close partner collaboration.
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Products & Technologies
To streamline proposal processes, Microsoft IT developed Global Proposal Exchange (GPX) three years ago. This solution was based on Windows SharePoint Services. The solution helped Microsoft Public Service Bid teams in the United States and Canada to standardize proposal creation processes. Yet, the solution was based on custom code and did not reach other Microsoft teams that also create business proposals.
To replace GPX with a comprehensive solution for managing proposal life cycles, available company wide to all Microsoft employees concerned with proposals, Microsoft IT created a proposal center within the Microsoft InfoWeb infrastructure. InfoWeb Proposal Center is based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and uses standard components readily available in the 2007 Microsoft Office system.
InfoWeb is one of the largest internal LOB applications at Microsoft. It is a worldwide portal infrastructure that includes more than 450 Office SharePoint Server sites and more than 40,000 unique visitors each month. Microsoft consultants, account managers, sales representatives, marketing managers, and other employees who work with Microsoft customers and partners use InfoWeb as the primary source of sales, marketing, and services information.
Streamlining proposal processes is an ongoing effort at Microsoft. In 2004, members of the InfoWeb team participated in the development of Global Proposal Exchange (GPX), a line-of-business (LOB) application that helped Microsoft Public Service Bid teams in the United States and Canada standardize proposal creation processes.
GPX was based on the 2003 technologies of the Microsoft Office System and Windows® SharePoint Services. It helped the bid teams increase productivity by 13 percent and raise the close rate from bid team proposals by 8 percent. A cost-benefit analysis performed by an independent consulting firm showed that GPX delivered an internal rate of return of 490 percent. However, the LOB application required custom code, was limited in flexibility and scalability, and met the business requirements of only Public Service Bid teams.
As an early adopter of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, the InfoWeb team deployed Office SharePoint Server 2007 to take advantage of advanced document management, content governance, and workflow capabilities. Both Windows SharePoint Services and Office SharePoint Server support workflows through Windows Workflow Foundation.
Inspired by the new improvements in Office SharePoint Server 2007, the InfoWeb team revisited the GPX success story and identified a new opportunity to create a company-wide solution for managing proposal life cycles. This solution would be a proposal center and would take advantage of the existing global InfoWeb SharePoint infrastructure to reach employees who have customer responsibilities in all 102 countries that have Microsoft locations around the world. Specifically, InfoWeb Proposal Center would help Microsoft address the following sources of revenue loss:
- Bidding on unqualified leads Microsoft bid desks receive a staggering amount of RFPs each month, sometimes up to several thousand requests. Bid desks often waste time, money, and resources by pursuing low-value RFPs and RFPs where Microsoft does not provide a compelling solution, either directly or by working with a partner. Without a company-wide solution for proposal management, it is difficult to establish consistent and repeatable evaluation processes that enable business groups to focus efforts on opportunities with the highest return on investment (ROI) potential.
- Inefficient proposal development processes Business groups work with a variety of Microsoft Office and LOB applications to create proposals. However, collaboration across these application silos to accomplish tasks such as authoring assignment management and status reporting is difficult. As a result, business groups often re-create proposal content that already exists in other documents. Reusing revised and approved boilerplate and content would be more efficient, yet locating this content often takes more time than writing from scratch.
- Non-compelling RFP responses The more time business groups spend re-creating existing content, the less time they have to edit and shape proposals in an effort to increase proposal consistency and effectiveness. Consistency issues in a proposal are often the result of an inability of authors to collaborate effectively, missing editing processes, and inconsistent formatting and style conventions. Furthermore, due to little or no document retention, authors cannot exploit the full potential of the company's intellectual property, including best practices, expert advice, and content that proved effective in previous proposals.
- Incorrect and non-compliant proposals Key factors that can lead to erroneous and non-compliant content are manual processes for proposal authoring, assembly, and management; frequent changes in industry regulations; and misinterpretation of customer-specific guidelines. The company needs a global proposal-management solution to address these issues. Proposal authors need accurate and approved content; authors, reviewers, and approvers need access to up-to-date style guides, reference materials, and other company-wide or group-specific guidelines and information.
Equipped with a first assessment of potential business benefits achievable by addressing these sources of revenue loss, the InfoWeb team approached the Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector and Microsoft Enterprise Partner Group with an initiative to create a company-wide proposal center. Enterprise Partner Group is the second-largest Microsoft organization that creates proposals. With both Worldwide Public Sector and Enterprise Partner Group supporting the initiative, the InfoWeb team had the necessary executive consensus to launch the InfoWeb Proposal Center project. The project addressed the following business requirements with a scope that covered the entire company:
- Designing a scalable and flexible solution Many diverse business groups are involved in sales and marketing efforts. InfoWeb Proposal Center must be able to grow and scale up to a very large infrastructure that includes all Microsoft business organizations worldwide that have customer responsibilities.
- Increasing qualified RFP bidding To consistently pursue proposals that represent the highest ROI potential, it is important to establish consistent and repeatable evaluation processes. InfoWeb Proposal Center must enable sales and bid managers to compare incoming RFPs with each other and with past successes based on metadata. This comparison helps sales and bid managers to select RFPs that have the highest ROI potential quickly and efficiently.
- Optimizing proposal development processes To support streamlined proposal processes, InfoWeb Proposal Center must provide sales and marketing managers with the capability to provision security-enhanced team collaboration sites and custom workflows autonomously, without the involvement of InfoWeb administrators.
- Creating more compelling RFP responses faster InfoWeb Proposal Center must facilitate enterprise-wide searches to locate revised and approved content that has a proven record of accomplishment across all sites and document libraries that the user can access. Ideally, the solution includes an assembly tool that accelerates proposal authoring processes directly from within Microsoft Office Word 2007 to help business groups create more compelling RFP responses faster.
- Maintaining accurate proposal content For managing content life cycles, InfoWeb Proposal Center must provide records managers and compliance officers with capabilities to enforce appropriate policies and controls through records management and information rights management features of Office SharePoint Server 2007.
The technologies, applications, and server systems available in the 2007 Office system enable organizations to achieve measurable business benefits through compelling LOB applications. InfoWeb Proposal Center is a good example. It is an LOB application that helps Microsoft increase revenue streams from RFP-based sales while lowering costs and business risks associated with proposal processes. Most of the features available through InfoWeb Proposal Center rely on out-of-the-box 2007 Office system functionality. Only the user interface is a custom component to facilitate proposal assembly processes.
The InfoWeb Proposal Center solution relies on the following key Microsoft Office technologies:
- Office Word 2007 Provides comprehensive document editing capabilities and supports an object model that facilitates the integration of custom components, such as Office Word 2007 custom task panes.
- Office SharePoint Server 2007 Establishes a security-enhanced infrastructure for managing proposal life cycles at a global scale, covering the entire corporate production environment. Within this infrastructure, individual business groups can manage their own content sites, team collaboration sites, and workflows autonomously, with minimal reliance on IT operations.
- Microsoft Office Groove® 2007 Enables seamless partner collaboration across firewalls and other barriers and includes all necessary components to synchronize Groove workspaces automatically with Office SharePoint Server 2007 document libraries.
Proposal Assembly Tool
To simplify the proposal authoring and assembly processes, the InfoWeb team developed a proposal assembly tool, which is a Component Object Model (COM) add-in that introduces a custom task pane into Office Word 2007. Proposal authors do not need to download content snippets and existing proposals in Windows Internet Explorer® and then open the files in Office Word to copy and paste appropriate sections into the active proposal document. Instead, proposal authors can use the custom task pane to search for existing proposal content across InfoWeb Proposal Center directly in Office Word 2007 and import items into the active proposal document via a drag-and-drop operation. Employees can download and install this tool from the InfoWeb portal site.
Figure 1 shows the user interface of the proposal assembly tool. The tool relies on enterprise-wide search capabilities available in Office SharePoint Server 2007 to perform searches based on specified keywords, roles, categories, and ranking values. The custom task pane dynamically displays the results in a list view. The list view displays individual document properties in separate columns so that the user can identify appropriate content pieces quickly and efficiently.
Figure 1. Proposal assembly tool for Office Word 2007
The proposal assembly tool is the only InfoWeb Proposal Center component that is not directly available in Office SharePoint Server 2007 or other 2007 Office system products. However, the tool's implementation is straightforward because the tool relies heavily on out-of-the-box Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Office Word 2007 functionality, such as Office SharePoint Server Web services and Office Word drag-and-drop capabilities.
To create this tool, the InfoWeb team used Microsoft Visual Studio® 2005 Tools for the 2007 Microsoft Office system (Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office Second Edition). This add-in to the Visual Studio 2005 development system simplifies the development of applications in the 2007 Office system. By using Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office Second Edition, a skilled application developer can create a basic custom task pane in less than five minutes. Overall, the InfoWeb team took less than 40 developer hours to create the full-featured proposal assembly tool. For information about how to create custom task panes for Office Word 2007 or other Microsoft Office applications, refer to the Custom Task Pane Object Model Reference included in Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office Second Edition.
Note: The video "Adding Custom Task Panes to 2007 Office Applications Using Visual Studio 2005 Tools for Office SE" (http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb426920.aspx) demonstrates how to add custom task panes to Microsoft Office applications. The video is three minutes and five seconds long.
Office SharePoint Server 2007 Web Services
The proposal assembly tool interacts with Office SharePoint Server by means of Web services, specifically the Enterprise Search Query Web service, the Users and Groups Web service, and the Lists Web service. These Web services are available on every computer running Office SharePoint Server 2007. For detailed information regarding these Web services, their methods, and code samples, refer to the SharePoint Products and Technologies software development kit (SDK), available at http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/aa902526.aspx.
Streamlining Proposal Assembly Processes
Based on a custom task pane for Office Word 2007 and Office SharePoint Server Web services, the proposal assembly tool helps eliminate repetitive manual tasks and reduces the time required to find and reuse the approved content from company and group-level document libraries. For example, the user can select specific roles and categories in the user interface. The tool then automatically performs an Office SharePoint Server search to refresh the list of available documents and content snippets located in the document libraries of the selected business organization. The tool populates the list boxes with information from SharePoint site groups and lists. The advantage of this approach is that business groups can dynamically define searchable document properties to customize the taxonomies of reusable intellectual property by simply adding new items to the corresponding SharePoint list.
The document list view that the proposal assembly tool populates with the search results displays important metadata in separate columns so that the user can quickly identify relevant items. The user can then conveniently drag and drop the relevant items into the active proposal document. This feature increases the productivity of revenue-generating employees by eliminating the need to switch between different types of applications during document creation and assembly processes. It also promotes reuse of intellectual property and content pieces that already exist in various locations throughout the company.
InfoWeb Proposal Center Design
An advantage of the proposal assembly tool is that it hides the complexities of InfoWeb Proposal Center from the end user. Proposal authors do not need to concern themselves with technical details when searching for appropriate content pieces, such as the hierarchy of sites and document libraries within InfoWeb Proposal Center. Content is always just one mouse-click and one drag-and-drop operation away from the user. The enterprise-wide search capabilities available in Office SharePoint Server 2007 return results according to selected criteria from all InfoWeb Proposal Center repositories that the current user can access. At the same time, the InfoWeb Proposal Center design provides business groups at Microsoft with autonomous control over group-level content, guidelines, and other information.
Figure 2 shows the initial design for InfoWeb Proposal Center, which relies on an isolated Office SharePoint Server Web application that is hosted on a dedicated set of servers. These servers are separate from other InfoWeb resources, such as News Center and Calendar Center. This isolation provides better control of system and search performance and increases security and scalability because each site collection can have its own Office SharePoint Server content database on a separate database server. As Figure 2indicates, users access InfoWeb Proposal Center from within the global InfoWeb portal through standard navigation controls on the main user interface.
Figure 2. InfoWeb Proposal Center architecture
Master Proposal Center Site
The logical architecture of InfoWeb Proposal Center relies on a structured organizational hierarchy that facilitates sharing of information within and between business groups while maintaining security for each site collection individually. At the top is a master site, which establishes the base URL (such as http://rfps). This master site corresponds to a rollup portal site that contains general corporate information organized in document libraries and dashboards to provide an aggregated, personalized view of sub-level site content. Individual document libraries exist for officially approved boilerplate snippets, samples, templates, and corporate proposal guidelines. Dashboards and Web Parts (such as the Documents rollup Web Part) enable users to query, filter, and list all relevant proposal documents that exist on group-level sites within InfoWeb Proposal Center.
Group-Level Content Sites
The InfoWeb Proposal Center site collections under the master site correspond to the main business organizations at Microsoft. The InfoWeb team uses managed paths with explicit inclusions to provision these site collections, while using a single Shared Services Provider (SSP) for personalization and enterprise-wide search across all sites within InfoWeb Proposal Center. Separate site collections facilitate autonomous site management and help to limit access to group-level information to relevant user groups.
For RFPs that a business group decides to pursue, a bid manager or sales manager can provision team sites within the business group's site collection without assistance from an InfoWeb administrator. Granting bid managers and sales managers administrative permissions in the local site collection gives business groups the required flexibility to streamline proposal processes. It also helps ensure a consistent taxonomy and structure across the entire InfoWeb Proposal Center.
Team Collaboration Sites
Each actionable RFP opportunity results in the creation of a corresponding team site. The team site is the place where the actual collaboration and proposal creation occur. Each team site includes a document library, calendar, task list, and discussion forum. The InfoWeb team automated the process of creating a team site. Initial team permissions are set up at the creation of an opportunity and are automatically incorporated into the process of creating a team site.
The creation of the team collaboration site can also trigger an e-mail message to each team member to explain that a team site has been created. The e-mail message contains a link to the site and information that explains how to work with InfoWeb Proposal Center.
The authoring team that owns the proposal or RFP response uses the team site to develop the proposal. Group sales managers can access the team site to monitor the proposal creation efforts and assess progress.
Common Document Libraries and Lists
Figure 3 shows the hierarchy of document libraries within InfoWeb Proposal Center. To reuse existing content, proposal authors typically have access to the document libraries on the local group-level content site and the master proposal center site. However, a business group can also share content horizontally by granting relevant users from other business groups access permissions to the local group-level content site.
Figure 3. Document libraries within InfoWeb Proposal Center
Security-Enhanced Collaboration and Content Sharing
To support efficient and security-enhanced collaboration and content sharing within a particular proposal project—and between projects within a particular business group and between business groups—InfoWeb Proposal Center relies on the built-in security features of Office SharePoint Server. Based on site groups, the InfoWeb team can specify which users can perform specific actions in the InfoWeb Proposal Center site hierarchy.
For example, The InfoWeb team manages the access permissions to the master proposal center site and grants all Microsoft employees (that is, authenticated users) read access to the master content and information approved at the corporate level. Only InfoWeb administrators have the ability to provision group-level content sites and associated site collections for business groups that want to use InfoWeb Proposal Center to streamline their proposal processes.
It is important to note that each group-level content site uses its own set of site groups to define access permissions for relevant users and group-level administrators. In this way, the InfoWeb team can delegate rights to manage group-level sites, list permissions, and team sites to each business group. Business groups can create team sites autonomously. If they want to share proposal content with other business groups, they can do so without having to involve the InfoWeb team. Sharing group-level content, proposal guidelines, and other information is merely a task of adding relevant users and use groups to the corresponding site groups.
The workflow capabilities that Office SharePoint Server team sites provide enable proposal teams to implement automated proposal review and approval processes according to specific needs. Within the settings of each document library that team-site administrators can configure by using the standard Office SharePoint Server user interface, business groups can define workflows based on workflow templates to route documents to reviewers and approvers. Team-site administrators can also define task lists to keep track of work that the proposal team needs to complete. Again, setting up workflows does not require any involvement of the InfoWeb team. Business groups can set up workflows autonomously.
Automating document workflows helps decrease the time required to review and approve new proposals. Reusing previously reviewed and approved content pieces helps decrease the number of required handoffs between authors, editors, and approvers in any workflow. Substantially less work is required to bring the previously edited content into proper shape, especially if that content proved successful in a previous proposal to the same customer. Authors, editors, and approvers can spend more time perfecting proposal documents instead of merely bringing proposals to the minimum required quality level. Chances to win contracts increase with high-quality proposals. Content reuse and automated workflows are effective means to decrease time and costs required to produce these winning proposals.
Ensuring Proposal Compliance
Content reuse and automated workflows based on Office SharePoint Server document libraries help to ensure proposal compliance with customer standards and government regulations—especially when proposal authors reuse content from the Master Proposal Center Site. Documents are tagged according to their legal status, such as customer ready, confidential, or non-disclosure required. Automated workflows enable business groups to implement formal review and approval processes. These processes can include members from departments that have expertise regarding legal and customer requirements.
Increasing RFP-Based Revenues with Lower Cost of Sales
In a typical RFP-based sales situation, engaging the prospect in sales activities during the bidding period is legally prohibited. A business group cannot intensify cold calls, customer visits, or presentations to win the contract or streamline to decrease cost of sales. Winning contracts and lowering the cost of sales primarily relate to creating effective RFP responses.
By promoting reuse of content that previously proved successful, InfoWeb Proposal Center can help business groups create more winning proposals with the same set of resources, time, and money. By facilitating workflows and decreasing handoffs within workflows, InfoWeb Proposal Center can help business groups decrease requirements for resources, time, and money while maintaining a steady or increased flow of winning proposals.
Collaboration with Partners
The InfoWeb team designed InfoWeb Proposal Center as a solution that is available only to employees who have user accounts in the corporate production environment. Partners and vendors with extranet accounts cannot access InfoWeb Proposal Center. To provide a solution for business groups that need to collaborate with partners, the InfoWeb team decided to capitalize on the existing Office Groove 2007 deployment in the corporate production environment.
Office Groove 2007 enables proposal teams to collaborate on RFP responses and create content, even when individual authors are in different organizations that are separated through firewalls, proxy servers, and network topologies. By using Office Groove 2007, sales and marketing groups within Microsoft can create collaborative workspaces that are synchronized with Office SharePoint Server 2007 through the SharePoint Files Tool. The SharePoint Files Tool is available in Office Groove 2007 right out of the box.
Figure 4 illustrates how business groups can collaborate with partners on leads and opportunities where Microsoft provides integrated solutions that involve multiple contributors.
Figure 4. Collaborating on RFP responses with partners
After creating a Groove workspace, sales and marketing groups can invite partners via e-mail to participate in projects regardless of the partners' physical locations. After accepting the invitation, each partner receives an exact copy of the Groove workspace, which each Office Groove 2007 client maintains locally. All Office Groove 2007 clients communicate with each other to keep the virtual workspace synchronized. Communication between Office Groove 2007 clients within and outside the corporate production environment occurs through relay servers that are deployed in the Microsoft extranet environment. The Office Groove 2007 client in the corporate production environment also synchronizes any document changes with the team collaboration site for the proposal project by using the SharePoint Files Tool.
The advantage of this approach is that Microsoft employees can work directly with Office SharePoint Server document libraries, such as by using of the proposal assembly tool in Office Word 2007. Partners can contribute and review content without requiring an internal Microsoft user account.
For more information about the Office Groove 2007 deployment at Microsoft, refer to the technical white paper "Deploying Groove Server 2007 and Groove 2007 at Microsoft" at http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/bb735162.aspx
Many of the business requirements that the InfoWeb team decided to address with the initial design for InfoWeb Proposal Center translate directly into tangible and intangible business benefits, such as increased revenue from proposals with lower cost of sales. The InfoWeb Proposal Center solution as a whole benefits from a scalable and flexible design, and it includes specific components that meet defined business requirements. Deployed as a company-wide solution for proposal management, InfoWeb Proposal Center helps Microsoft achieve the following key business benefits:
- Greater productivity and efficiency of revenue-generating employees InfoWeb Proposal Center provides revenue-generating sales and marketing employees with efficient and security-enhanced collaboration and content sharing within a particular proposal project, and between projects within a particular business group and between business groups. InfoWeb Proposal Center includes global content libraries that store historical proposal content, market information, customer data, and approved boilerplate content. To facilitate access to this data, the proposal assembly tool enables authors to use a single application, Office Word 2007, to create proposals.
- Reduced proposal development costs OLE drag-and-drop capabilities expedite the proposal assembly processes. Within minutes, an author can create substantial portions of a proposal document. Based on Office SharePoint Server Web services, the proposal assembly tool eliminates repetitive manual tasks and reduces the time required to find and reuse the best information from company and group-level document libraries.
- Decreased turnaround time InfoWeb Proposal Center provides workflow capabilities based on Office SharePoint Server team sites and decreases the number of required handoffs between authors, editors, and approvers. The result is more winning proposals created in less time with appropriate resources and in higher quality.
- Accelerated sales cycles InfoWeb Proposal Center facilitates the sales team in assessing all incoming RFPs based on systematic evaluation of risk and return. This assessment enables the sales team to drop irrelevant and low-value opportunities, before the sales team engages in developing a proposal.
- Higher proposal win rates Highly compelling, accurate, and up-to-date proposals not only reduce the overall cost of sales, but also increase revenue streams from RFP-based sales as the proposal win rate increases. However, to create winning proposals, authors must fully understand customer requirements, standards, and expectations. InfoWeb Proposal Center helps authors in this area by providing centralized access to market information, customer data, and existing proposals to the same customer that previously proved successful. InfoWeb Proposal Center is a proposal management system and a targeted business intelligence solution.
- Decreased business risks associated with erroneous proposals A better understanding of customer requirements, such as compliance standards and government regulations, closely relates to reduced business risk associated with erroneous proposal content. By reusing approved intellectual property, proposal authors can ensure that their work meets business requirements. Furthermore, InfoWeb Proposal Center enables business groups to ensure proposal compliance with customer standards and government regulations through formal review and approval processes based on Office SharePoint Server-based workflows.
- Closer collaboration with partners InfoWeb Proposal Center facilitates partner collaboration through Office Groove 2007 workspaces that are synchronized with Office SharePoint Server team sites through SharePoint Files Tool. The resulting business benefits of this efficient way to collaborate on RFP-based opportunities include lower cost of sales, increased revenue streams through higher win rates, and lower business risks for both Microsoft and Microsoft partners. In this way, InfoWeb Proposal Center helps Microsoft increase partner satisfaction and loyalty.
Streamlining proposal processes is an ongoing effort at Microsoft. The 2007 Microsoft Office system enables Microsoft to continue this effort by eliminating custom code on the server and by implementing a design that can scale up to the entire enterprise environment. InfoWeb Proposal Center provides a solid foundation for approximately 10,000 Microsoft field representatives and other employees, who respond regularly to RFPs, to create winning responses with more consistency and higher quality of content faster.
For More Information
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