REDMOND, Wash. , Oct. 15, 2003 —
— The life of a business diagram can be short and cold. Hours in the making, the diagram may serve only a meeting’s worth of usefulness before it is replaced the next week by a new diagram.
Yet it’s hard to deny the power of charts and diagrams to convey information in ways that tables, spreadsheets and emails can’t. Visual aids have long been used to make raw data clearer and more appealing. But as informative as well-made charts or diagrams can be, they share one important limitation, according to Jason Bunge, product manager for Microsoft Office Visio.
“After the meeting is over, sales figures change, customer data changes, organizations change,” says Bunge. “Someone must maintain the diagram regularly, or it will quickly become irrelevant.”
Paying someone to maintain a diagram may not be the most effective of investments, Bunge says, but access to dynamically updated information could be a tremendous advantage to a business. A new type of solution, called “smart clients,” can provide just such an advantage.
Instead of providing a static representation of data, a smart client connects with a company’s back-end data sources and applications, providing a moving picture of business information. Smart clients can be built on a range of applications, but according to Bunge, the Visio 2003 drawing and diagramming tool, part of the Microsoft Office System of business applications and services, provides a unique, graphical style that enhances the smart client approach.
“You have a two-dimensional diagram or chart, and then with a smart client, XML allows you to add that third dimension of seeing those numbers move through time,” says Bunge. “With Visio, that information can be translated into images that are easy to understand and act upon, or tied to more complex diagrams to facilitate analysis. It has the potential to bring a dramatic shift in the way many workers interact with business information.”
By taking advantage of Extensible Markup Language (XML) and ActiveX controls, Visio 2003 can now bring this functionality to the business world in a very accessible way. Since Visio 2003 is part of the Microsoft Office System, organizations can develop a new breed of customized, graphics-based business solution — using an application that many companies already have on their employees’ desktops. Instead of forcing users to manually go into the different databases where information resides, smart clients like Visio 2003 allow that data to automatically flow into a network diagram, organization chart, process diagram or other document already in use.
“Just like the dashboard gauges in a car might tell you how fast you’re going, whether your battery’s dead, or that the oil pressure goes up when you rev the engine, the smart client provides a digital dashboard that allows you to monitor and analyze just about any business process that generates electronic information,” Bunge says. “Imagine mapping out a complex production cycle in Visio, and then tying those Visio shapes back to expenditures by business unit, production volumes, cycle times, whatever you need to track or compare. A well-designed smart client solution can juxtapose images with information in a powerful way, and really bring the picture into focus.”
One company already working on an internal smart client solution is Luxembourg-based GE Fanuc Automation Europe S.A., a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Japanese manufacturing-automation vendor FANUC Ltd. The company develops control systems for automated manufacturing processes, and has long used Visio to map out the highly technical solutions for prospective customers.
Now, using the ActiveX control and Web services integration capabilities of Visio Professional 2003, GE Fanuc is creating a sales force automation tool to help its representatives quickly assemble technical drawings, confirm that the specifications are technically correct, and then automatically create a bill of materials with cost information.
“We are using a feature in Visio called SmartShapes, linked to a SQL database, to represent parts such as a motor or amplifier,” says Vincent de Franco, manager of CNC product marketing at GE Fanuc. “The database gives the shapes intelligence, so the user can see immediately whether a piece connects or doesn’t connect. This allows our representatives to verify whether the system they are proposing is technically correct.”
Once the diagram is verified as sound, the solution can then generate a report detailing the components and their related costs, automatically creating a bill of materials with pricing information. The result is a much leaner sales process, without as much back and forth between sales and technical personnel.
“With this tool, we gain some precious time in turning a quote around to our customers,” says de Franco. “We can react more quickly, while at the same time eliminating redundancies in the process and dramatically reducing errors.”
In the United Kingdom, Premier Computer Solutions, a developer of specialized business applications, has created a similar solution to help a European builder of digital television facilities design, price and explain complex new projects to its prospective customers. Premier has also used Visio Professional 2003 as an interface for solutions to address retail inventory management, manufacturing logistics, and even one of the U.K.’s burgeoning social issues: the scarcity of hospital beds.
“In the U.K. we have nurses physically going from ward to ward looking for available beds,” says James Price, director of Premier Computer Solutions.
According to Price, the lack of beds, coupled with a lack of good information, has led to patients being turned away, cancelled operations, or even egregious logistical problems such as one instance where a patient was taken by ambulance from the town of Surrey to Devon, nearly 300 miles away, while at the same time another patient was being transported from Devon to a hospital only 50 miles from Surrey.
“A lack of good information has led to a tremendous waste of resources,” Price says.
In response to this growing problem, Premier has created a solution based on Visio Professional 2003, called Ward Manager, that displays beds ward by ward, with color coding to indicate which ones are occupied and the status of each patient. The display uses an easy-to-understand, graphics-based Visio form embedded into the Ward Manager solution using the ActiveX control, and incorporates a touch-screen interface, both of which can help drive adoption among the U.K. medical community.
This Visio-based user interface then hooks into a SQL database or BizTalk Server through XML Web services. According to Price, this gives the application the potential to access information on not just beds, but patients too.
“The Web services architecture allows us to hook into information sources in the back end that can provide patient records, pharmaceutical information, MRIs or X-rays, even meals,” says Price. “We’re also developing bar-code functionality for this solution, which could allow organizations to quickly produce a full record of any patient visit for compliance with auditors and other purposes.”
Premier Computer Solutions has tackled other problems using Visio Professional 2003 as well. In addition to Ward Manager and the sales force automation tool, Premier has also developed a retail solution that allows store managers to track products by shelf placement, with color-coded warnings for inventory problems. They’ve even tied office floor plans to office-equipment inventory records.
“To us, this is one of the biggest advantages of using Visio — you can easily integrate it into any Microsoft Office or database application,” says Price. “You can create any type of object, and an object can contain just about any kind of information. That flexibility allows us to create a solution that is truly more than the sum of its individual parts.”
Many developers are already building solutions using Visio, and companies are already developing and deploying solutions based on smart client functionality. To help facilitate those efforts, Microsoft is providing resources to help these professionals build smart-client solutions. Visio 2003 will offer a new software development kit (SDK) to help developers create new shapes and shape behaviors.
“Through the SDK, Visio is now not only a great tool for diagramming, but also a great, extensible platform to meet the needs of business in accessing, analyzing and sharing information,” says Bunge. “As this idea has taken hold among our early adopters, we’re seeing more and more clever solutions built on Web services, using Visio as a front end to bring raw data to users in a very clear and understandable way.”
According to Bunge, the inherent flexibility of smart clients should lead to some interesting new applications in the near future. “Visio can be embedded on Web pages, tied to back-end databases, embedded via ActiveX into other custom applications, even tied to the information in Word or Excel documents,” he says. “That’s an awful lot of potential, and we’re excited to see what our partners and customers can do with it.”