REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 13, 2003 — The latest frontier in the quest to increase productivity is business process automation. The advent of line-of-business applications for enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM) and customer relationship management (CRM), combined with the emergence of the XML standard and other new technologies has enabled organizations to streamline the flow of data from system to system. The result for many businesses has been more speed and efficiency for a wide range of common business processes, including order processing, inventory management, payroll, contract management, and more.
Some processes can be automated more easily than others. For example, once you integrate systems and enable applications to share information seamlessly, taking the data contained in an order from a customer and moving it to inventory, manufacturing, shipping and billing is relatively straightforward.
But what happens when the goal of a business process is to gain a deeper understanding of your customers’ needs, rather than the movement of products or resources from one company — or one part of a company — to another? So far, less progress has been made for processes that involve business analysis or business decision making. How, for example, can you automate the generation of a sales proposal that requires real-time data about a customer’s past purchasing requirements, and must also be reviewed and approved by several departments in different offices?
Until recently, the effort required to create a solution that met those requirements would probably have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, requiring weeks of custom development. Today, with the new Microsoft Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System, such projects are dramatically easier. A new technology, Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System brings the power and productivity of Visual Studio .NET 2003 and the Microsoft .NET Framework to solutions built on the latest versions of Microsoft Office Word and Microsoft Office Excel. With Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System, developers can use Microsoft Visual Basic .NET and Microsoft Visual C# .NET to more easily create solutions for Word 2003 and Excel 2003 that connect seamlessly to data and processes. These solutions will enable information workers to automatically access data and trigger business processes from within the Microsoft Office programs they use every day.
More Custom Solutions, Less Custom Code
According to Robert Green, Visual Studio .NET lead product manager, Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System is an important leap forward for developers who want to create solutions that take advantage of the capabilities of the Microsoft Office System. Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System includes an improved integrated developer environment (IDE) that makes it easier for developers to utilize the features of Visual Studio .NET 2003, including the Server Explorer, Windows Forms, ADO.NET data access, Dynamic Help and more. In addition, Visual Studio Tools for Office provides developers with full access to the Word and Excel object models.
“Think of some of the things an information worker does with Word, like writing a letter based on their knowledge of a customer, creating a proposal or generating a contract,” says Green. “Visual Tools for the Microsoft Office System lets a developer write code behind the document that automatically gets the data, runs calculations and enforces business rules and business processes. The result is a more productive workforce and systems that are much faster to develop.”
How much less? Susan Warren, a senior software engineer for the Point Richmond, California, software development and consulting firm Vertigo Software, believes that Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System can dramatically reduce the time and expense required to develop custom solutions for Word 2003 and Excel 2003. Warren recently used Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System to develop a customized Word solution for salesforce.com, a leading provider of on-demand CRM solutions. In the past, she would have used Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and the project would have required her to write a substantial amount of custom code. Using Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System meant that the project involved a fraction of the custom code.
“Because it is built on the .NET Framework, Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System offers a lot of great pre-built functionality — for example, integration to Web Services,” she says. “The cost of ownership for any custom application is directly related to number of lines of code you write. I’d say that by using Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System, we wrote one-tenth the code that we would have with VBA.”
Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System offers developers a number of other significant benefits, including the ability to write managed code in either Visual Basic .NET or Visual C# .NET, the convenience of IntelliSense statement completion, and the ability to take advantage of the support in Visual Studio .NET for the latest XML Web services.
An Order of Magnitude Easier
The Word solution that Warren created with Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System was developed for salesforce.com. The solution enables sales reps to automate the process of generating and reviewing sales proposals for potential customers. With the solution, specific customer information is automatically collected from salesforce.com and merged into a Word proposal template. The sales rep creates a review loop in a custom dialog in the Word document, using contact data retrieved from salesforce.com via a Web Service. The document is then automatically routed enabling everyone involved in the review process to have instant access to the most current version of the document and to stay up-to-date on the status of the document in the review process.
The sales proposal solution is being released as a starter kit to provide more than 7,800 companies that utilize salesforce.com services with an example of how Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System can be used to create custom solutions for Word 2003 and Excel 2003.
“Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System enables developers to tie our on-demand Web services directly into the Office documents in which people are working,” says Peter Gassner, general manager of sforce, the salesforce.com client/server platform. “That ability is very compelling — it allows us to extend what we can do with Office and sforce Web services in a way that is orders of magnitude easier than it was in the past.”
A Great Deployment Story and Better Security
The benefits of Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System extend beyond speed of development and include more rapid deployment and simplified maintenance of custom applications built for Word 2003 and Excel 2003. Solutions created with Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System can be deployed using the No-Touch Deployment feature of the .NET Framework. When the solution is complete, the developer simply posts the code in the form of a dynamic-link library (DLL) to a central location. The first time a user opens the document, the solution is automatically downloaded to his or her computer.
Maintenance of the solution is just as simple. The No-Touch Deployment feature enables developers to modify the code by rebuilding the DLL and then reposting it to the original location. The next time the user opens the Word or Excel file, his computer detects that the DLL has been updated and the new code is automatically downloaded without any intervention by either the developer or the systems administrator.
“The installation story is great,” says Warren. “All we need to do is put the document and its associated code in the sforce controls library and it “just works” when the user needs it. To deploy an update, I simply copy a new DLL on top of the old one and let .NET take care of the versioning. The next time the user uses the document, Word will determine that there is a fresher copy and download it, and the user doesn’t ever really need to know.”
Improved security is also an important benefit of Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System. Because solutions written with Visual Studio Tools for Office use managed code, the built-in security features of the .NET Framework can be used on the end user’s computer to control whether the code is allowed to run.
“An administrator can set up a rule that says that only code that comes from a specific network share or from a specific intranet server is trusted to run in Word or Excel,” says Green. “This is important because it takes security out of the hands of the end user and gives control to the administrator.”
Hitting the High Point
Taken together, the combination of improved developer productivity, simplified administration and enhanced security means Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System can open the door to a wave of new custom solutions that extend the power of business process automation to information workers who use Word and Excel to understand trends, take advantage of opportunities and respond to changes in the business landscape.
According to Green, the salesforce.com starter kit is a perfect example of the power of Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System.
“If you are a salesforce.com customer, you’re managing your CRM data on the Web and you really need to be able to work with that information in Word and Excel,” says Green. “Wouldn’t it be great if instead of tracking down information and creating a proposal by hand, most of the process could be automated? Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System lets developers write code quickly and easily that assembles the data, generates the proposal and manages the approval process.”
“For us, Visual Studio Tools for the Microsoft Office System really hits the high point of the .NET Framework and Office 2003,” says Warren. “Because it makes it easier to customize Office documents that people use every day, I think the result will be that you’ll see the automation of a lot of tasks that used to require a lot of messy, manual labor. This is a new tool set we can really get excited about.”