Using modern apps to streamline and standardize business processes
Business Case Study
Published June 2014
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Read about MSApprovals, a new cloud hosted service and modern app that Microsoft IT developed to standardize and streamline the approval process for a number of business processes.
Business Case Study, 1.4 MB, Microsoft Word file
Products & Technologies
Microsoft IT supports dozens of line-of-business (LOB) systems and over 300 LOB apps. The approval process was different in each LOB app because each approval task was categorized by the particular LOB instead of by a common user function. This resulted in a proliferation of different types of approval tasks with multiple designs, styles, and layouts. Employees had to adjust how they worked in each interface, which was time-intensive and unintuitive. Microsoft IT wanted to develop an approvals service that would leverage existing LOB infrastructure and offer a mobile, cloud-based solution that would span multiple LOB environments.
Microsoft IT developed the MSApprovals service to seamlessly integrate devices, LOB applications, and other enterprise systems. This new service reflects Microsoft IT’s commitment to move key business processes to the cloud. When using MSApprovals, users are presented with a unified, modern experience regardless of LOB. MSApprovals not only simplifies how pertinent approval information is displayed, but as a cloud hosted service, it also supports Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) by enabling tasks to be completed anywhere on any device at any time.
CFOs, CIOs, and other executive leaders of large enterprises are struggling to help their organizations keep pace with today’s speed of business. To do so, they need to optimize processes. They also must find insight in information that is more accurate and that can be obtained more quickly than ever before. And this all must be achieved while mitigating risk—which can seem to be at odds with workers’ demands to support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).
Consider approvals processing, for example. Global enterprises typically have a large percentage of their employee base working remotely; workers don’t have offices they go to every day. Yet when an employee needs to approve a purchase order, he or she might be required to travel to an office to access the appropriate line of business (LOB) app within the corporate network. Moreover, because each LOB app typically has its own unique portal and approval process, users spend time navigating between systems and learning (and re-learning) how to properly interact with each different experience. Multiply this inefficiency by the number of workers and the number of approvals that must be processed, and its impact on productivity becomes clear.
How can a CFO or CIO leverage a traditional LOB infrastructure to deliver a mobile, cloud-based solution that optimizes the approvals process across multiple systems? Can it be developed with minimal cost and risk? What changes to existing processes can be incorporated to improve the user experience and promote faster and more accurate decision making?
Similar to other large enterprise organizations, most of Microsoft’s approvals could only be accessed from within the corporate network. These approval processes had limited alert mechanisms, which further slowed processing time when managers were away from their desks. Moreover, approvals were categorized by business process instead of by function, which led to a proliferation of different types of approval tasks. Multiple designs, styles, and layouts meant employees had to adjust their user experience to a variety of interfaces, which translated into a time-intensive and unintuitive approval experience.
In order to help the company embrace the new world of work, streamline processes, and enhance productivity, Microsoft IT needed to develop a new enterprise approval service based on modern application technologies that would:
- Embrace users’ demand for choose your own device (CYOD) and bring your own device (BYOD) by supporting non-domain-joined devices. This solution would leverage the cloud to enable access on any device, anytime, anywhere.
- Emphasize user-centric design principles to present a single, integrated approval experience to corporate users, regardless of the underlying or companion LOB application.
- Allow customization to support multiple business process LOB applications while maintaining a consistent overall experience.
- Scale to support the very high volume that would be required to support the company’s global workforce with multiple LOB applications and approval processes.
Microsoft IT developed the MSApprovals service to standardize and streamline the approval process across a number of business processes. Instead of thinking of tasks categorized by LOB, the MSApprovals app reflects Microsoft IT’s shift to defining tasks and standardizing processes across businesses. MSApprovals presents an intuitive user experience for all devices and form factors that is based on the latest modern app principles.
As illustrated in Figure 1, MSApprovals has evolved the company’s approach to approval processing from a set of independent, LOB-specific experiences into a single, consistent methodology for processing all approval-like tasks.
Figure 1. Instead of each LOB app having its own approval process and user experience, MSApprovals provides a single, intuitive user experience for any approval task across a number of business processes.
The MSApprovals app presents users with a modern experience that not only simplifies how pertinent approval information is displayed, but that also supports BYOD by enabling tasks to be completed anywhere on any device at any time (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. MSApprovals presents a clean and simple user experience based on the latest modern app principles.
Built using a modern application architecture that utilizes Azure to run services on top of legacy LOB systems, MSApprovals seamlessly integrates devices, LOB applications, and other enterprise systems. As illustrated in Figure 3, the Azure-based Approval Framework that resides within the modern application architecture forms the core of the service.
MSApprovals is built entirely on Azure, utilizing web roles, worker roles, service Bus, Microsoft ACS for authentication, Azure Table Storage, Azure Mobile Services, and enables a variety of UI platforms including the web, Windows 8, and Windows Phone 8.
Figure 3. MSApprovals system architecture.
How MSApprovals works
- The requestor submits a request on the line-of-business application (LOB).
- The request is sent from the LOB to the MSApprovals platform, and MSApprovals sends notification to the approver.
- The approver receives notification, sees the summary of the request on the landing page of their device, requests details, and takes action.
- Information is relayed between the MSApprovals platform and the LOB system to show detail info, update user actions, and acknowledge success/failure of user actions in LOB systems.
- The requestor sees the status of request in MSApprovals or in the LOB system as actions are completed. Workers can also use MSApprovals to review their history and to see all the completed approvals.
Microsoft IT is gaining the following benefits through its MSApprovals service:
- Alignment with the company’s vision and strategy. By offering a new streamlined and unified approval processing service that is based on modern app design, MSApprovals reflects the company’s transformation into a services and devices company. It empowers the IT leadership to reimagine productivity in terms of function instead of location or LOB. It also accelerates the decision-making processes, helping managers respond to critical business actions more quickly.
- Enhanced user experience. MSApprovals enables Microsoft IT to more fully embrace how employees work and how they want to leverage LOB systems in today’s devices-oriented world. No matter where they are in the global workforce, users now have a common portal where they manage all their approvals in a consistent manner, regardless of LOB system. Approvers can use their preferred devices to receive email alerts and toast notifications, and they can easily drill into detail pages for additional information. Furthermore, this cloud-based service enables access to this information at any time on virtually any mobile device wherever an Internet connection is available.
- Optimized business efficiency and IT resources. MSApprovals is a complementary service to many of the organization’s legacy LOB systems, including expenses, invoicing, wire request transfers, requisitions, and vacation request approvals. It reduces the maintenance that was required previously to support a number of siloed LOB apps and portals. The MSApprovals single point of access for all approvals optimizes both IT and business resources, providing a standardized, intuitive experience—which, in turn, translates to increased productivity and lowered costs. This is all achieved while controlling risk because the service is based on Azure: corporate security requirements are enforced and sensitive data is protected.
- Streamlined integration of additional approval processes. Microsoft IT designed the modern application architecture to be extensible. Developers in other teams who want to integrate their LOB environment with MSApprovals can utilize the architecture’s reusable code and services to onboard their LOB environment quickly. The shared API also enables developers to customize the interface to support a particular approval process while still presenting a unified modern experience.
Microsoft IT followed these best practices when implementing MSApprovals.
- Define success. Identify success metrics at the start of your envisioning, and have your team be wholly focused on working towards these goals. You should also regularly measure your progress and identify opportunities and approaches for improving your vision.
- Engage target users and understand their end-to-end scenarios. Ensure that the services and apps you develop meet your users’ needs. Microsoft IT developed the vision for MSApprovals by obtaining as much real user feedback as possible via focus groups and early demos of the application.
- Keep business readiness planning as a focus of application delivery. Ensure adoption and change management planning is not an afterthought. Coordinate and collaborate with all relevant service lines on development, training, and support plans. You should also carefully track user adoption. This guideline reflects Microsoft IT’s own lessons learned concerning the inefficiencies of running separate ad hoc work streams and the importance of communicating proactively with stakeholders.
- Assemble an inclusive team. Identify the right business stakeholders and real users to capture feedback during build, as well as to test the product before final deployment.
- Prioritize your feature set. Work closely with your stakeholders to prioritize your complete list of desired features and functions based on a combination of each items’ impact to the user and its business criticality.
- Incorporate feedback and gain consensus before moving forward. Microsoft IT held rigorous joint application design (JAD) review sessions with its target users. Customer feedback was captured and incorporated into the design before the team signed off on the plan.
- Iterate your design and incorporate feedback regularly. Microsoft IT implemented agile development approaches that enabled the team to demo features quickly and to incorporate feedback. Microsoft IT also ran user studies during the build phase to ensure that development kept advancing in the correct direction.
- Communicate with your users. Provide regular email updates or other forms of communication, and offer training to grow and support your user base. For Microsoft IT, this meant using direct email, collaboration tools such as Yammer, and posting notices to internal self-service sites. The team also provided in-person presentations at IT fairs and café roadshows, and held Lync-based online training sessions to ensure user readiness.
- Maintain your user community. Identify alternative approaches to talk directly to users outside of email and get meaningful feedback, such as through Yammer or other social networks.
MSApprovals is an excellent example of an enterprise IT organization identifying a business need and rearchitecting a system in order to deliver business value. It supports the Microsoft cloud first, mobile first strategy and reflects how Microsoft IT is enabling the business to be a better, more productive company. With the new MSApprovals service, Microsoft IT has created a methodology and an experience that not only standardizes how people work, but that also exposes business-critical details to decision-makers in a consistent, intuitive manner.
Microsoft IT continues to enhance the service by increasing service monitoring and analytics (for performance and usage reports, and operations management status), integrating additional LOB systems, expanding the approval platforms offerings to include Office integration, and by adding new features to the app such as expanding alert and notifications capabilities on mobile devices.
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