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Implement a Central Inbox for One-Stop Access to Work Items from Any Business Process

by Alan Rickayzen | SAPinsider

October 1, 2003

by Alan Rickayzen, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2003 (Volume 4), October (Issue 4)
 

 

The work-item inbox is the watering hole where users access their workflow “to-do” lists. Work items that appear in these inboxes can span a range of business activities, from administrative processes like a vacation request to more in-depth processes like the evaluation of a sales opportunity.

A work-item inbox must be simple enough for an employee who periodically uses it to, say, approve a vacation request. But your specialist users have very different needs: their inboxes must be able to handle perhaps 100 work items a day for a particular business process. They need advanced capabilities, like viewing the process audit trail (showing who did what, and when), creating attachments (explaining why a particular decision was made), or adding information for participants downstream. Sorting, resubmitting, and grouping work items also helps in prioritizing processes for faster information flow.

For each business process, you could deploy different inboxes for these different types of users. But when you consider the number of processes that casual users might participate in, this could mean a proliferation of inboxes, each requiring training and support. So how can you reduce the number of inbox types (and training for those inboxes) without cramping the user’s style or compromising the supplemental information the specialist requires?

One successful strategy is to continue to provide specialized inboxes — those inboxes that specialists use for their advanced features — while also offering a central inbox for non-specialized tasks. This central inbox will be the one place where the user can retrieve any number of work items, irrespective of the component in which the workflow is running. Not only does this reduce the types of user interfaces your IT team needs to support, but each user will have a single, easy access point for most of his or her work items (including those they have forgotten!).

A good central inbox is a critical success factor for enabling continuous change in your company.

It is worth spending some time considering the pros and cons for such an inbox strategy in your organization. This article concentrates on the best choices for a central inbox and the implications for your business process strategies.

For a General, Central Inbox, Use the Universal Worklist

When it comes to SAP workflows, the basic options for generic inboxes are:

Universal Worklist — This iView runs in the SAP Enterprise Portal and supports backend processes as far back as Release 4.6.

Business Workplace1 — This Windows GUI-based inbox is a WebFlow offering available from R/3 Release 4.6.

EasyWeb inbox — This is the ITS inbox, a WebFlow offering which runs in an Internet browser.

Although each of these has its uses, the Universal Worklist is the ideal choice for creating a central inbox for workflow processes.

First, the Universal Worklist runs on the SAP Enterprise Portal as an iView, and was designed, right from the start, to act as a centralized inbox and display work items from different backend systems in a single list (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
   The Universal Worklist Inbox

In line with the SAP Enterprise Portal philosophy, tremendous design effort2 was invested in making the Universal Worklist intuitive to use in order, minimizing training and making it instantly available to occasional users.

However, the main reason for using the Universal Worklist is its flexibility when it comes to the underlying technologies that support any business process.

Note!

Generic inboxes are different, of course, from specialized inboxes such as the SAP Supplier Relationship Management procurement inbox — which uses an enhanced template based on the EasyWeb inbox — or the SAP Customer Relationship Management inbox for Customer Interaction Center (CIC) employees.

You can think of these specialized inboxes as worklists because they contain embedded application logic in the inbox itself. For example, the CIC inbox allows a call center representative to hop from one activity to another and return again to where he or she left off — a crucial feature for handling calls from a customer who expects an immediate response.

Consider that the user interface (UI) technology of business applications can change from release to release, and a central inbox will have to adjust right along with it. Although Business Workplace is very good at handling tasks based on Windows GUI transactions, it cannot handle EasyWeb transactions. And as the number of UI technologies grows — Business Server Pages (BSP), Web Dynpro, and iViews, to name but a few — it makes sense to concentrate the efforts in order to support a wide range of UIs. So SAP has committed to making the Universal Worklist the central inbox that can launch tasks based on the different UI technologies. This fits in well with SAP’s long-term strategy of aligning all UIs with the SAP Enterprise Portal, a key part of SAP NetWeaver.

FAQ on Integrating a Central Inbox with Third-Party Groupware

How Do I Integrate a Central Inbox with Microsoft Outlook?

In the past, integration between WebFlow inboxes and Microsoft Outlook has been based on the MAPI Service Provider;3 however, support for this approach is being phased out by SAP. For example, Microsoft Outlook 2002 is the last Outlook version to be supported by this technique (as described in OSS note 627397).

Instead, this approach to integration has been replaced by automatic email notifications4 (see more on this below). This has proven increasingly popular, mainly due to the ease of installation; it is server-based, not client-based. It is also worth bearing in mind that the MAPI-based software only supports SAP Windows GUI tasks and not the newer generation of Web-based UIs, which makes MAPI unsuitable as a central inbox.

For customers that require a tight linkage between Outlook and WebFlow, it may be worth looking into third-party software (typically based on WebFlow APIs).

How Do I Integrate with Lotus Notes?

Even though the software on which this integration is based is different from that used in the Microsoft Outlook integration, the answer is identical — SAP support for integrating Lotus Notes with WebFlow processes is being phased out. It is worth mentioning, however, that software provider Chorus IT, which was involved in the development of the software for the Lotus/WebFlow integration, is continuing to work closely with SAP in this area.

How Do I Integrate with Other Groupware Products?

Automatic email notification is by far the best option to integrate WebFlow with all groupware products, not just Notes and Outlook.

How Long Does It Take to Set Up Automatic Email Notification?

Depending on whether the SAP system is email-enabled (using SAPconnect or the communication capabilities of the SAP Web Application Server), and depending on whether or not email addresses have been maintained in the system, configuration time is in the order of ½ to 3 days.

Does the Integration Affect SAPforms?

Because SAPforms relies on the Outlook/Notes workflow-integration part of the SAP GUI for Windows, the SAPforms mechanism for the integration of electronic forms will also become obsolete. Instead, workflow APIs can be used to create a new launch mechanism for SAPforms-based implementations.

However, in order to avoid installing client software, you may find it easier to use a browser-based implementation, such as WebFlow services,#notes which can also be invoked from the Universal Worklist or from simple forms as described in the July-September 2003 SAP Insider.

Also, as an iView, the Universal Worklist is a “lightweight” component that remains independent of your backend systems or mySAP Business Suite solutions, so your inbox stays up-to-date even when backend systems are frozen. This also means the central inbox is open to adjustments and improvements from SAP, making it easy to automate more and more processes (involving more and more people) along the way, rather than being limited to a “big-bang” approach to implementation or upgrades.

There are other benefits, too. Ad hoc workflow capabilities allow users to create “mini-workflows” based on any work item in the Universal Worklist. This is just what you need to consult with other team members or search for specialized information. Of course, you could also obtain this information by email or phone, but by creating a mini-workflow (wizards make this as easy as writing email), you can keep an eye on the status of your request throughout the process. Then, with a central inbox, users can easily access incoming, ad hoc work items via a familiar user interface. As a result, even those not directly involved in the primary process can respond easily to a work item request.

Finally, the Universal Worklist is also supported by the automatic email notification feature running on the backend, an easy way to integrate workflow into groupware such as Notes or Outlook. However, be sure to review the FAQ above, since implementing a central inbox may have some implications for your current integration strategies.

Looking Ahead to New Developments and Even Greater Flexibility with Universal Worklist

Development is underway to enhance automatic email notifications, making them even easier to deploy. This feature is being developed in stages, but expect significant enhancements in the last quarter of 2003.

Look for a much-enhanced version of the Universal Worklist in the next version of SAP Enterprise Portal, Release 6.0, with more flexibility for use as both a general and a specialized inbox. For example, SAP Master Data Management (MDM) will be one of the first components to use this iView as its specialized inbox. However, you will still have the option of configuring the Universal Worklist so that it can be used as a central inbox for occasional users as well.

Other developments are sure to come. With the shorter development life cycle of Enterprise Portal iViews, keep your eyes open for enhanced intermediate versions of the Universal Worklist iView that will make adding new features and users to your workflows easier on both your IT teams and your users.

For more information on the Universal Worklist iView, see www.iviewstudio.com and follow the link to the Business Package for Portal Users. Additional information about workflow at SAP can be found at http://service.sap.com/bpms.



1 Not to be confused with the Workplace, which was the forerunner of SAP Enterprise Portal.

2 Many thanks to the participants in the usability testing of Universal Worklist in Enterprise Portal 6.0 at ASUG in May 2003.

3 The Microsoft MAPI Service Provider interface is a more sophisticated version of the Microsoft MAPI Interface. 4 This has been available since R/3 Release 3.1. See the July-September 2003 SAP Insider for more details.

5 For details on WebFlow services, see my article “Accessing External Web Services from SAP WebFlow” in SAP Insider, January-March 2002.


Alan Rickayzen has been with SAP since 1992 and in data processing since 1988. Since 1995, he has been performing development work as well as process technology consulting for various major US customers and, as a result, has amassed a good deal of technical knowledge in collaborative process technology. Alan Rickayzen is co-author of the book Practical Workflow for SAP, available at http://store.sapinsider.wispubs.com, and may be contacted at alan.rickayzen@sap.com.

 

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