Streamlined, Customized Workflow Demonstrates Power and Flexibility of Development Platform
Technical Case Study
Published: December 18, 2007
Microsoft Entertainment and Devices (E&D) created an Office Business Application (OBA) built on the 2007 Microsoft® Office system to more easily access and use business intelligence about every facet of the Microsoft Xbox® video game system. The new OBA lets employees use a familiar Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007 user interface (UI) to utilize more than 140 actions, workflows, applications, reports, and data. Microsoft E&D harnesses the power of the OBA to empower its budgeting and forecasting decisions about the Xbox. The group created a flexible design that it can readily change as business requirements evolve by taking advantage of the native features and functionality of the 2007 Office system.
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Products & Technologies
Microsoft E&D needed to streamline its data collection and financial reporting workflow to empower its business decisions.
The group developed an Office Business Application (OBA) on the 2007 Microsoft Office system that connects more than 140 business activities in a custom workflow solution that provides improved data access, tracking, and analysis.
Microsoft E&D gathers, compiles, and analyzes a variety of data every month from its manufacturers and internal operations to support reporting requirements and to drive business decision making. The process that the group previously used for data collection and workflow was disconnected, labor-intensive, and was becoming increasingly unmanageable.
Thanks to the power and flexibility of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, a handful of developers created an OBA in only about 45 days that streamlines financial workflows and reporting. The OBA connects more than 140 activities, provides a calendar view of workflow, and integrates the workflow within a familiar UI. With a single location for data access, tracking, custom views, and analysis, Microsoft E&D now has the most accurate, consistent, timely reports to empower its business decisions.
The solution that Microsoft E&D developed may help other business decision makers streamline their data collection process and give their employees a more efficient, easy-to-use financial reporting workflow. This case study is intended for chief information officers, technical decision makers, and enterprise IT professionals in the manufacturing industries.
For more information about the Microsoft Office system, visit www.microsoft.com/office.
Through the first year and a half of production, Microsoft sold nearly 13 million Xbox 360™ video game and entertainment systems. Each console contains more than one thousand parts that are assembled by contract manufacturers. To support business reporting requirements, as well as business decision making needs—such as budgeting and forecasting—Microsoft E&D gathers, compiles, and analyzes a variety of data every month from its manufacturers and internal operations. This data include reports on Cost of Goods Purchased (COGP), Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), inventory levels, and planned Bill of Materials (BOM) configurations.
The previous process for gathering this information was both disconnected and labor-intensive, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Previous reporting process
Every month, manufacturers submitted reports in the form of Microsoft Office Excel® 2007 spreadsheets and Microsoft Office Access™ 2007 database software reports. A processing expert then took an entire week to compile and merge all of the data; identify, track down, and obtain missing information; and confirm the accuracy and completeness of each report. Because this information came via file shares and e-mail messages, employees often need to make additional phone calls, send e-mail messages, and set up meetings to make the reports as complete and accurate as possible.
After employees collected and confirmed the reports, they kicked off various other business activities to accurately analyze and effectively use this information. Because many of these more than 140 separate activities relied on each other, any delay, missing data, or inaccuracies severely affected the process and results. Therefore, Microsoft E&D invested extensive time and energy to ensure that each piece of information required for the financial reports (both internal and to Wall Street), and the analysis and projections were current, accurate, and complete. This laborious sequence of tasks usually dictated more phone calls, e-mail messages, and meetings.
Another challenge to the previous workflow occurred when an activity was reassigned within Microsoft E&D or at a manufacturer. Because so much of the workflow occurred for a specific case at hand, the group found it especially difficult to both train new workers and integrate them into the process, causing further complication and delays. Introducing new workers was especially disruptive when the primary process expert left the group. At that time, many reports remained incomplete, limiting the group's ability to identify areas to reduce expenses or increase productivity. It also reduced the group's ability to provide adequate forecasting, budgeting, and analysis to executives and Wall Street.
Necessity for Streamlined Workflow
To significantly improve profitability and reporting, Microsoft E&D wanted a solution that would:
- Unify and streamline reporting from disparate sources.
- Automate the collection of data from more than 30 Office Excel 2007 and Office Access 2007 report stores each month.
- Quickly and effectively reconcile data to improve its reliability.
- Provide easier access to and visibility of information.
- Empower workers by automating as much of the process as possible.
- Provide a collaboration platform across group members and business roles.
- Improve user productivity by integrating workflow tasks with Microsoft Office Outlook® 2007 messaging and collaboration client.
Agile Development Model Challenges
An additional challenge in developing the solution was the methodology that Microsoft E&D chose, which included the following characteristics:
- Requirements that were subject to change
- Frequent intermediate deliveries with working functionality
- The need to develop frequent risk and mitigation plans
- A daily status discussion with the offshore team, affecting the work/life balance due to time differences
- Time-box phase execution
Thanks to the extensibility and flexibility of the features and functionality of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, a handful of developers designed the OBA for financial workflows and reporting in only about 45 days. The OBA accomplishes the desired orchestration of previously disconnected actions, workflows, applications, reports, and data and provides a single location where employees can track the data and can easily access, view, and analyze the information. The following figure shows the path of data as it flows to and from manufacturers and passes through the Integration Platform. The data then flows through both the Data Management Platform and the ERP Platform and appears to employees on the portal platform.
Figure 2. New, streamlined reporting process built on the 2007 Microsoft Office system
Solid, Flexible Development Platform
One key to the speed at which Microsoft E&D developed this highly customized solution is the ease by which the rich set of functionality and features of the 2007 Microsoft Office system can be extended, connected, and even altered as needed along the way. This ease of customization empowered developers to focus their expertise on extending and assembling the 2007 Office system components to align with specific business needs, rather than developing the same components from the ground up and risk scrapping code if business requirements changed.
According to Robert Meshew, Microsoft application architect, "If you want to design a car, you don't want to have to start by designing the ball bearings. With this solution, we were able to focus our effort and expertise on designing the exact solution that the business required even as requirements changed or expanded." He adds, "Because the solution is primarily an assembly of components, it is also incredibly flexible, not only throughout development, but after deployment as well."
One example of this flexibility came when the business made substantial changes to the workflow structure midway through development. Rather than throwing out code and starting over, the development team quickly adapted. Thanks to the flexibility of the 2007 Office system, the workflow change required only a simple change to the workflow definition.
Geehan Handunge, Microsoft program manager, comments, "The agile model of the 2007 Office system allowed us to easily adapt to changing requirements. In most cases, the development team was able to complete any change overnight! Even the few custom extensions that we developed are flexible and reusable, allowing us to deliver exactly what the business needs now and into the future."
Because the various components of the solution can be developed separately, the developers were also able to:
- Easily delegate components to group members based on expertise.
- Reuse components as needed for this or other applications.
Raja Shekhar, Microsoft technology architect, concludes, "We simply chose the building blocks we needed and built on that foundation. Once we learned the capabilities of each block, we were able to quickly implement, reuse, re-configure, and replace blocks as needed. Also, because we can develop each custom component (calendar-based tasks, calendar view, financial month, and so on) as a named feature, we will be able to reuse those blocks within this or any other solution we are asked to develop."
Easily Developed, Rich UI
Another key to the speed by which this complex solution was developed was the ease by which the group could customize and present all the data to employees in a familiar, intuitive UI. Thanks to the robust features of the 2007 Office system, developers created the UI without a single line of code. They created the UI this efficiently by simply implementing the standard functionality of Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft Office InfoPath® 2007 information gathering program.
The Office SharePoint Server 2007 UI provides a single location where employees can access the most current, complete, and official data to inform and drive decision making. Rich out-of-the-box UI and UI extension mechanisms, such as master pages and views on lists and libraries, coupled with an understanding of the feature set and the enforcement of a Zero Code UI philosophy enabled the group to develop, refine, and test the UI in a minimum amount of time.
Single Portal for Working with Data
By providing one location where data is uploaded, collaborated on, analyzed, and integrated, the Microsoft E&D now has a "single version of the truth," and therefore, immediate access to the most current, complete, reliable information to empower confident, timely business decisions. The following figure shows the layout of the portals and how the data flows into its various components.
Figure 3. Diagrams of COGs Portal
By creating a portal, the solution enables the following features and functionality.
Streamlined Data Collection
Whereas manufacturers submitted previous reports in different forms and the reports could reside in different places at different times throughout the process, the new portal provides a single location where each manufacturer uploads reports to a document library. After the reports are uploaded, an event handler directs Excel Services in Office SharePoint Server 2007 to pull specific data from each spreadsheet and to push that data via Web services to a data warehouse.
Customized User Control to Specify and Create Report Requests
The solution also gives employees the ability to copy any file from the extranet to the portal by defining parameters on a custom page, as shown in Figure 4. Previously, Microsoft E&D addressed the solution for reporting on an individual basis and the group had to consult Microsoft Information Technology (Microsoft IT) in order to add a reporting requirement to the portal.
Figure 4. Customized user control to specify and create report requests
Fast Access and Better Views for Data
In addition to providing a single site for reporting, the portal also provides customizable views of data to inform business decisions, such as forecasting, budgeting, and procurement. By using Microsoft SQL Server™ Analysis Services, the group can derive timely, seamless views into the supply chain, customized to identify and report on any required details.
Collaboration to Leverage Knowledge, Streamline Processes, and Fill Gaps
The portal also provides a single location where different group members with different roles can collaborate on reports, activities, and processes. By collaborating through the portal, previous issues with regard to versioning and confusing e-mail threads have been eliminated and employees also know the location of the most current version of information. The solution also provides wikis, which are a standard component of Office SharePoint Server 2007, to improve various processes and activities, such as training.
Effective Application Integration
The portal is also the vehicle by which various back-end applications and data are integrated. Developers used a Page Viewer Web Part available in Windows® SharePoint Services, to enable the portal to display content from a linked Web Page, folder, or file. By using the Page Viewer Web Part, the group has provided a way for workers to interact with various applications, including Microsoft ProClarity® business analysis software.
Additionally, information from other Office SharePoint Server 2007 portals is aggregated, and Office Excel 2007-based dashboards enable a connection to data cubes that reside in systems outside of the solution. By using Excel Services, an Office SharePoint technology that facilitates the use of Office Excel 2007 workbooks as interactive reports, Office Excel 2007-based models can be standardized on the portal. According to Meshew, Microsoft application architect, "By using the improved programmability of features, such as Excel Services, we were able to integrate an Office SharePoint Server 2007 interface with a service-enabled back end and provide optimal integration across multiple applications."
Workflow Accomplished Through Office Outlook 2007 UI
Because the workflow is integrated with Office Outlook 2007, employees do not have to learn another new tool. Instead, they can do their work through the familiar Outlook 2007 UI. Now, workers can simply click an edit task button in an e-mail message and fill out the resulting Office InfoPath 2007 form to complete the task or to manage the activity with familiar flags and reminders, as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Office Outlook 2007 UI with the Web-based InfoPath form that appears
Developing a Streamlined Workflow
Whereas the previous process was disjointed, labor-intensive, and opaque, the improved workflow is streamlined, automated, and clear. The E&D group accomplished these improvements by choosing powerful tools and making use of the latest technology.
By using the rich workflow capabilities of Office SharePoint Server 2007, integrated with Office InfoPath 2007 forms and InfoPath Forms Services, the group orchestrated 143 separate monthly activities, aligning them to the specific requirements of Microsoft E&D. The workflows were developed and integrated by using Microsoft Visual Studio® 2005 development system. By tying the workflow to Office SharePoint 2007 lists, employees can easily define their own tasks by using the list with the calendar view. And, because Office SharePoint Server 2007 can use native Visual Studio 2005 features and functionality the group developed and deployed the workflow components easily and seamlessly as needed across the application.
Improved Workflow Components
The previous document-centric workflow was limited. For example, developers could change the navigation on a page, but any significant customization required extensive work with Microsoft Office FrontPage® 2003 Web site creation and management tool. Even then, template changes would not affect the specific page. According to Andy Day, Microsoft Sr. applications developer, "Now, it's pretty simple to make changes to the top or side navigation, pages, lists, anything. Pages can be linked to other sites or applications and can pop up in another window. This agility also means that changes can be made quickly, while sitting with a customer."
Synchronous Document Event Handlers
The addition of synchronous document event handlers now enables real-time response for success, failure, or validation errors when an employee uploads a document. Previous document event handlers (asynchronous only) would trigger an event, but wouldn't affect the user process or interface. Now, errors are reported back to the screen before the document is uploaded. Catching and correcting errors immediately eliminates significant delays and retreating in the workflow process.
The introduction of a reusable collection of settings called content types in Office SharePoint Server 2007 made it easy for the group to identify and connect data, based on the actual use and function of documents, rather than on the document format. Because content types can be extended to meet specific requirements and taxonomy, the group could easily tag everything from documents and products to regions and subsystems, and encapsulate every process from end to end.
The group also used Office InfoPath 2007 to develop forms that are rendered to employees as Web-based forms via InfoPath Forms Services. Thanks to InfoPath Forms Services, these forms do not require employees to have InfoPath 2007 installed on their computers. These forms, customized for each activity, provide a simple way for employees to complete each activity, identify its status, and provide necessary comments.
Thanks to a rich set of properties that can be developed on each task and the ability to connect tasks with little or no code, the workflow is extremely flexible. By using the Microsoft .NET Framework to integrate the workflow, if Microsoft E&D wants to change the workflow in any way, the group can do so without intervention from Microsoft IT.
Automated tracking within the workflow eliminates unnecessary e-mail messages, phone calls, and meetings. At any moment, it is now clear which employee does what task, when the employee needs to do the task, and how far the task has progressed. By using alerts for both task owners and managers and allowing for comments within the InfoPath 2007 form for each activity, the solution automatically records and tracks any issues that arise throughout the process. The solution also makes use of Excel Services to provide a view of the process as measured against various key performance indicators (KPIs), including arrows that are based on thresholds to give better trend visibility.
Figure 6. View of Excel Services view of KPIs
Customized View of Workflow
In addition to orchestrating the various activities according to the exact specifications of Microsoft E&D, the group was also able to develop a custom-built calendar view of the workflow that is consistent with the current financial calendar.
The developers accomplished this view with only about 100 lines of custom code, thanks to the extensibility of the 2007 Office system. They created lists and data in lists which are then presented in a calendar fashion. By developing a widget to span across the start and due date, the group was able to define sequences of tasks based on calendar dates. This functionality was further enhanced to let employees maintain their calendar template, based on a logical calendar and to generate dates based on specific fiscal calendar dates. Employees can also add, update, and delete entries from the logical calendar, and the solution automatically refreshes the workflow calendar with the changes. The calendar view of workflow as it occurs across financial cycles is expected to significantly improve both the management and rhythm of the process.
The developers were also able to let Microsoft E&D determine how many months into the future the group would like to schedule the workflow. To enable this feature, the developers merely used an extension of a reusable workflow that is entirely data-driven. Because the workflow is data-driven, the source of data can also change without affecting the workflow. In addition, the workflow can be reused for similar solutions, drawing from different data sources.
The 2007 Office system also empowered Microsoft E&D to tie custom assemblies, content, sites, document libraries, and taxonomy around each piece of functionality and deploy all of these components as a package. Because each component can be versioned and can be isolated from the Office SharePoint Server 2007 deployment, no reworking or reproduction is required.
According to Day, Microsoft Sr. applications developer, "Previous deployment included a hodgepodge of assemblies that were not always tied to the content that surrounded them, such as site layouts, taxonomies, or anything else that were standard SharePoint 2007 features. This meant that we had to rework any changes across development, test, and production, requiring a lot of effort to make changes to the site."
The improved deployment process for installing Web Parts and document event handlers to Office SharePoint Server 2007 also provided a much more manageable process for deploying both development and production packages. Automatic versioning and the easy process in terms of what is published means that site downtime is reduced because employees can refer to old versions while upgrading to new versions.
Gathering complete, reliable business intelligence from disparate sources and providing a streamlined, calendar view of workflow through extensive, separate business activities are significant challenges. However, the power and flexibility of the 2007 Office system empowered the group to quickly and efficiently develop such a solution, thereby providing extensive benefits.
Microsoft E&D now enjoys the following benefits:
- A complete solution, tailored to the group's specific and changing requirements
- More accurate, consistent, and timely reports
- Seamless data connectivity with supply chain partners
- Agile workflow that can be improved without Microsoft IT involvement
- Improved integration across applications to remove "white space" between activities
- Ability to identify and improve workflow inefficiencies without Microsoft IT involvement
Employee productivity has been significantly increased because the solution provides:
- One place to go to get work done and the ability to fulfill activities without leaving the familiar interface of Office Outlook 2007.
- The ability to incorporate collaboration on a case-by-case basis, including comments throughout the process.
- A way to view business tasks in calendar fashion along with other Outlook 2007 activities.
- Automatic alerts, flagging, and scorecard views to better manage responsibilities.
Thanks to the power and flexibility of the 2007 Office system, the development team was able to:
- Develop a powerful solution three times faster. The solution was built in about 45 days. According to the development team, a similar solution, built from the ground up, would have taken at least three times longer.
- Develop a flexible solution to meet changing requirements. According to Handunge, Microsoft program manager, "Throughout development, we needed to respond quickly to changing business requirements. So, the ability to leverage as many of the native features and functionality of the 2007 Office system was key."
- Reduce development costs. Much of the code that was eventually unused or was removed from the solution in response to changing requirements can be used for other, similar applications. The group also took advantage of extensive, out-of-the-box functionality and simply customized and extended that functionality via Microsoft Office SharePoint Designer 2007 and minimal coding. Finally, because each component could be developed separately, the group could delegate development based on levels of expertise.
- Focus effort on designing and building the best solution. Rather than being mired in developing minutia, developers could better invest their time assembling and extending available components to create the exact solution that Microsoft E&D required.
Microsoft E&D needs reliable access to a variety of data from manufacturers and international operations to produce reports both internally and for Wall Street and to make informed budgeting and forecasting decisions about the Xbox. Microsoft faced the challenge of improving the group's existing process, which was technically cumbersome and highly labor-intensive.
In about 45 days with minimal coding, Microsoft developers created a streamlined solution by using the 2007 Office system. The new OBA orchestrates more than 140 previously disparate actions, workflows, applications, reports, and data. Through Office SharePoint Server 2007, employees see a familiar UI and can easily pull data, create timely reports, and collaborate with one another. The extensibility of the 2007 Office system also enabled developers to create a calendar view to let employees view their own and the group's workflow in Outlook 2007 and to tie the workflow to financial cycles. The group plans to use this feature to continue to improve both the management and rhythm of their process.
By using the new OBA, Microsoft E&D can now generate reports quickly and accurately and can analyze business intelligence in real time about every facet of the Xbox.
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