28 April, 2010

Qualifying business scenarios for Duet Enterprise

Further unveiling the potential of Duet Enterprise, the next step is to explore what business scenarios qualify for the platform. The Duet Enterprise product itself will provide a foundation of core capabilities upon which scenarios can be implemented to meet specific business requirements. The success of Duet Enterprise will ultimately depend on the value realised by the solutions built on top of the platform.

The actual product release is still some time away and only limited details about the features have made it to the public domain. But given the conceptual architecture and what we know about the core capabilities, it is worth trying to identify the characteristics of business scenarios that would be a natural fit for Duet Enterprise.

Many are calling out Duet Enterprise as a way of addressing usability issues with SAP. But I would argue it is not necessarily all about usability issues in the existing user base. The biggest opportunity is the potential to reach people that are not currently using SAP at all by giving these people direct access to SAP in the environment they are already comfortable in, i.e. SharePoint and Office.

I would also like to encourage everyone to consider the platform from a much broader perspective than HCM, which seems to be an area that always comes up when discussing SAP/SharePoint solutions. No doubt, there is a lot of potential here and it makes perfect sense if your user base is already using SharePoint. But the idea of empowering a new group of users “further out” to access information and perform transactions directly on the system can be applied to most functional areas, not just HCM.

Assuming your business runs on SAP, SharePoint is your horizontal collaboration platform and you have a well-defined business problem, what are some of the questions you should be asking to qualify a problem as a scenario that can be addressed with a Duet Enterprise solution? At the very least, ask the questions below. The more yes answers, the more suitable your scenario is for Duet Enterprise.

Are non-SAP users involved?

Are the users you are trying to reach not currently using SAP? Do they spend the majority of their day in other tools such as SharePoint and Office?

The current base of SAP power users are generally satisfied with the SAP GUI and a number of new innovations including the Business Client will further serve this user base. I acknowledge that there can be user adoption issues even amongst the core users, but the general overhaul of the UI that SAP is doing with all the new redesigned Web Dynpro interfaces will address this in due course. The point is, you don’t want to simply be redeveloping SAP’s UI as is. Leave that to SAP.

The opportunity with Duet Enterprise is to go beyond the traditional SAP users. These users are often referred to as casual or occasional users of SAP. If the process being considered involves people that are not currently SAP users and these users are already using SharePoint, then Duet Enterprise can bring SAP to them rather than the other way around.

If you are targeting people that are not currently using SAP, then there will obviously be licensing implications. We’re still waiting for more details on this, so there is not much point in speculating about licensing at this stage. But if SAP really wants to reach 1 billion users by 2014, then the licensing model obviously needs to facilitate this.

Is there currently a reliance on SAP power users?

Are users requesting information from SAP users in order to carry out their work tasks? Are they producing or capturing information which ultimately ends up with SAP users who enter the data in the system through the SAP GUI?

A reliance on power users is often streamlined with paper-based forms. The vast majority of paper-based forms are really just a workaround interface to a system that the user does not have access to. The humble paper-based leave form falls into this category. Because the staff member does not have a direct interface to the HR system, a form is filled in which ultimately ends up with an SAP power user in the HR department who will manually key the data into the system. Think about other functional areas where there are scenarios similar to this.

SharePoint, with its forms rendering capabilities and underlying workflow engine, can be utilised as a platform for automating some of these paper-based processed. With External Content Types provided by Duet Enterprise these interfaces can expose data directly from the SAP system. The Federated Search capability of Duet Enterprise is another great way of minimising reliance on power users by opening up access to SAP data to a larger user base, still respecting security.

Does the scenario involve collaborative activities?

Is input required from many people? Is it an iterative feedback process where an artefact circles through the same steps many times? Is the collaborative part of the process evolving and as a result required to be tweaked on an ongoing basis?

SharePoint's core strength is around collaboration, so it makes sense to manage the more collaborative part of a business process within SharePoint. It’s a case of using the best tool for purpose, which organisations are already doing. But there is typically a complete disconnect between the transactional and collaborative activities. Duet Enterprise will open up an opportunity to bridge that gap.

The Enterprise Collaboration core capability of Duet Enterprise empowers users to create collaboration sites around SAP business data entities and the Contextual Workflow capability allows SAP workflows to be extended within SharePoint to cover the collaborative part of an end-to-end business process.

Is there manipulation of unstructured data (i.e. documents)?

Does the business process include editing one or more Office documents? Would the users be more productive using tools like Word or OneNote to collate data for the business transaction? Are document artefacts being produced as part of the process?

SharePoint is tightly integrated with the Office client tools providing a seamless experience for working with and collaborating on documents. With a Duet Enterprise solution you can give document authors easier access to business information in SAP from within the authoring tools (e.g. Word, etc.), eliminating the need to switch to another interface or request the information from someone else.

Duet Enterprise also makes it possible to create sites with 360 degree views of SAP business data entities. On these sites you can mix structured data from SAP with unstructured content managed in SharePoint. You can view and create unstructured data without losing the context of the core business process.

Are role-specific interfaces required?

Should information be presented in different ways to different users? Would the interface be more logical to the users if it was targeted at their specific roles?

Leveraging the audience targeting features, most objects in SharePoint can be targeted at specific groups of users. Views of data can be customised to what a specific role requires and whole blocks of functionality (web parts) can be shown or hidden depending on the audience. With Duet Enterprise, these audiences can be defined based on SAP roles.

Role-specific interfaces are a result of an outside-in approach as opposed to an inside-out approach. Applications are designed around the needs of the business role rather than from the perspective of one single system.

There is also an opportunity to empower business users to assemble interfaces for other users. The web part framework is SharePoint provides a highly flexible UI which is easily configurable by the end user. A savvy business user can add or remove web parts, lay out the screens and change basic configuration settings.

Is the business data sourced from SAP as well as from other databases?

Is the scenario touching data that resides in line-of-business systems other than SAP? Are you aggregating information from multiple sources? Are parts of the captured data required to be stored in non-SAP databases?

SharePoint is an agnostic platform that can potentially connect to any back-end system. This makes it ideal as a platform for mashing up content from various sources. SharePoint’s BCS which play a fundamental part of Duet Enterprise is designed to work generically with almost any data source.

In all its essence, it is about providing a better alternative for the “swivel chair users” so they no longer have to turn from system to system to system to gather what data they need to complete a business task.

A Duet Enterprise solution would provide the SAP piece of the puzzle. SharePoint web parts exposing SAP data can be designed to connect easily with other web parts on the same page. We are then using SharePoint as a platform for enterprise mash-ups aggregating information from various data sources.

Is business data accessed or updated offline?

Will the users be taking the business data with them to access it outside of network connectivity? Will they be updating the data while they are on the road? Do you currently have to use other products for storing this data offline?

Offline scenarios are currently hard to cover with standard SAP technologies alone. The problem is usually solved either by cumbersome paper-based processes or by deploying third-products that includes a standalone database. This introduces overheads in the form of comprehensive manual data entry or integration challenges with third-party applications.

Baked into the SharePoint and Office platform (2010) is a comprehensive framework for managing data offline and synchronising it with the system of origin. This means that SAP data surfaced through Duet Enterprise can be taken offline with either Outlook or SharePoint Workspace and even be updated while disconnected. The framework will automatically manage the synchronisation with the SAP back-end whenever there is connectivity.

I hope the questions above have provided you with some guidelines for qualifying scenarios for Duet Enterprise. It will be interesting to follow in the years to come. I expect we will see some innovative solutions that will boost the ROI of SAP, which is the ultimate goal. I would be keen to hear from you if you have been exploring what business processes can be improved with a Duet Enterprise solution.

26 April, 2010

Slide deck from SharePoint Saturday India

I had the pleasure of delivering a session at SharePoint Saturday India on the weekend, an online event featuring speakers from all over the world. Kudos to Rajendra Shekhawat for taking the initiative to bring this popular community-driven concept to India. It was definitely a success and well-attended.

Last Saturday was only the first of many SharePoint Saturdays coming to India. There is already another one planned for the 8th of May 2010 which you can sign up for here. Don’t miss this opportunity for lots of free SharePoint goodness.

My session was about SAP/SharePoint interoperability. I discussed some of the motivations behind surfacing SAP through SharePoint and provided an overview of how it can be achieved with SharePoint 2007 and SharePoint 2010 as well as the upcoming Duet Enterprise platform.

19 April, 2010

How is Duet Enterprise an improvement to previous versions of Duet?

A vast majority of large enterprises have a heterogeneous solution stack with substantial investments in both SAP and Microsoft products. For those companies, the concept of surfacing SAP through the broadly deployed Microsoft UIs resonates very well. In that context, the initial release of Duet got many of these companies excited. However, it is fair to say that Duet 1.0 and 1.5 have never become the huge success that many had hoped for. After all, it was the first attempt to unite two completely different worlds, both technically and culturally.

The upcoming release of Duet Enterprise has the potential to change this. It is a complete revamp of the technical architecture from the ground up which has some significant improvements to previous versions of Duet. The focus has also shifted away from delivering specific vertical scenarios to providing a platform of base capabilities. The following three improvement areas will all contribute to a renewed interest in Duet Enterprise.

Rationalised architecture based on standard components

Currently, Duet is reliant on a proprietary Duet Server for handling the communication back to the SAP system. Apart from installing additional bits on the SAP NetWeaver Web Application Server, an additional server is required to host the Duet Server.

Duet Enterprise will no longer have an additional server component and will purely be based on the SAP NetWeaver stack and the SharePoint platform. With the Business Connectivity Services (BCS) in SharePoint 2010, new and improved capabilities for accessing business data have been baked into the SharePoint platform itself, providing Duet Enterprise with what it needs to communicate with SAP.

Not only will no additional infrastructure be required, the ongoing maintenance will leverage the existing mechanisms of both NetWeaver and SharePoint for managing upgrades and other maintenance tasks. With a landscape of standard components, the total cost of ownership is significantly reduced.

No additional client footprint

Duet 1.5 requires comprehensive configuration of all end user PCs. The required client components include the client runtime, SQL Server Express, Visual Studio Tools for Office and Office 2003 Web Components. This is another contributor to a relatively high cost of ownership.

The majority of the functionality in Duet Enterprise will be accessible through SharePoint, only requiring a browser on the client side. In other words, Office is no longer a necessary prerequisite for deploying Duet Enterprise. It is only required to cover offline scenarios.

Thanks to the symmetric architecture of the SharePoint BCS on the client side in Office 2010, the optional offline capabilities for Duet Enterprise will ship as part of Office 2010 itself, effectively meaning that having Office installed is enough to enable the offline scenarios. Furthermore any custom code required by the clients is managed and deployed through SharePoint Server.

Foundation capabilities and tools

In the current version of Duet, the pre-canned scenarios cannot be customised or extended. In contrast, the emphasis in Duet Enterprise is on providing a foundation of core capabilities upon which organisations can build their own business scenarios as required. The technical interoperability is provided out-of-the-box and companies can concentrate on delivering the business functionality following the principles and guidelines of a supported framework and using the existing development tools in the respective technology stacks.

This is a very important improvement for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it allows organisations to build and customise solutions to meet their specific business requirements. Particularly in the big end of town, this is going to make Duet Enterprise vastly more attractive than its predecessors. Secondly, this foundation will provide an opportunity for partners to develop vertical solutions in specific industries. A healthy eco-system of partners will foster the ongoing innovation required to make the platform a success on the long term.