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Your SAP Systems Are Just a Phone Call Away! Talk to Your Enterprise Systems with SAP NetWeaver

by Will Gardella | SAPinsider

January 1, 2007

by Will Gardella, SAP Labs, and Gerlinde Zibulski, SAP Labs SAPinsider - 2007 (Volume 8), January (Issue 1)
 

Extending enterprise applications to employee desktops can reap tremendous cost savings and boost user productivity, but this approach contains a glaring flaw: Users have to be sitting at a desk to use these applications. What about those critical employees who don't spend their days pointing and clicking within a browser? Consider a truck driver delayed in traffic with a critical shipment and only his cell phone handy — what if he could just call into the SCM system and tell it he'll be late? What if that call could also trigger alerts to the retailer, the customer, or anyone else affected by the delay?

Phone applications extend the reach of enterprise systems to the telephone in much the same way that Web browsers and HTML extend functionality to desktops. And just as Web browsers have become more powerful interfaces through techniques such as mashups,1 phone applications can now combine elements from many different enterprise systems, such as CRM, SCM, and ERP. With the telephone itself acting as the user interface, phone applications use speech recognition and keypads to receive data and recorded or computer-generated speech (i.e., text-to-speech) to deliver a response.

Thanks to recent technical advances, phone applications can handle more and more of the same tasks their desktop-bound counterparts do. VoiceXML is an open standard that enables data to pass between voice gateways2 and the relevant enterprise systems. Combined with phone applications built on top of a standardized platform like SAP NetWeaver, VoiceXML flexibly and inexpensively automates data exchange.

In nearly all cases, phone applications can provide system access via telephone to anyone, at anytime, anywhere in the world; employees will no longer have to depend on mobile computing devices or supposedly widespread, but often spotty, Internet access to use enterprise applications. With phone applications, you can automate routine business processes (see sidebar), simplify others (such as expense reporting and setting up payment plans) and render still more obsolete (especially many paper-based transactions).

To simplify and accelerate the development of these applications, SAP created SAP NetWeaver Voice, a complete set of model-driven tools that leverages SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer and VoiceXML to help users compose phone applications — all without touching any code. We'll show you how SAP NetWeaver Voice works and how you can use it to rapidly create the voice applications you need.

Which Tasks Would Benefit Most from Phone-Enabling?

Phone applications hold great promise for automating remote tasks, including:

  • Customers checking on the status of an order, calling for support, or supplying address or billing information

  • Employees executing simple self-services, such as signing up for benefits or resetting passwords

  • Field technicians or other employees on the road calling to report a malfunction, a fix, or a location update

While some of these tasks have always been performed by phone — often using human operators as the interface between users and the relevant systems — the costs to deploy and maintain these one-off solutions have traditionally been prohibitive.

SAP NetWeaver Voice Extends Your Enterprise

SAP NetWeaver Voice represents the unified phone application solution that's been missing from the market until now. A single, standards-based platform, it extends the functionality of mySAP ERP and mySAP Business Suite to your phone handset, enabling organizations to flexibly deploy current and future enterprise applications to the widest possible user base at the lowest possible cost.

With phone applications, employees will no longer have to depend on mobile devices or unreliable Internet access to use enterprise applications.

SAP NetWeaver Voice builds on SAP NetWeaver's application server and portal capabilities to create the critical link between third-party voice gateways — such as those from Genesys, Cisco, and Intervoice — and your enterprise systems (see Figure 1). The SAP NetWeaver Voice platform will ship fully integrated with SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment, a streamlined development environment designed to place business process modeling tools in the hands of business analysts. SAP NetWeaver Voice will be able to seamlessly link voice access to business transactions via any number of standards including enterprise services, remote function calls (RFCs), and BAPIs.

Figure 1
Applications built with SAP NetWeaver Voice receive VoiceXML messages from a gateway and process requests to mySAP Business Suite

Developers will find all the tools they need to compose and model applications in a graphic, streamlined environment without needing a deep understanding of the underlying voice technologies. SAP NetWeaver Voice will also contain a complete set of lifecycle tools for administration, deployment, logging, and monitoring, and it will harness SAP NetWeaver's business intelligence capabilities for the detailed reporting of voice-enabled transactions.

SAP NetWeaver Voice is another example of how you can benefit from an enterprise SOA strategy. You can use SAP NetWeaver Voice and Web services to build automated applications on top of your existing enterprise systems — for example, you can now allow customers to place and track orders over the phone without modifying your backend applications or writing new middleware.

A Lightweight Alternative to SAP NetWeaver: Introducing SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment

Designed as a quick-to-install download that is tailored to run front ends created with SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer, SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment is a lightweight, lower TCO alternative to a full-featured SAP NetWeaver deployment. SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment builds on tools and technologies already familiar to many SAP developers, including:

  • The SAP Composite Application Framework (CAF) tool for service composition

  • The Web Dynpro development environment with its guided procedures for composite processes

  • SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer for building and adapting the composite views used by business process experts

SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment enables partners and customers to build and run composite applications for mySAP ERP 2005, SAP NetWeaver 2004s, and non-SAP applications and systems.3

How to Create Efficient Phone Applications with SAP NetWeaver Voice

Using SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer, part of SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment (see sidebar on the next page), partners and SAP customers will be able to quickly create the front ends of new voice applications using only the basic features of the SAP NetWeaver environment.

As part of SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment's modeling capabilities, SAP NetWeaver Voice is equipped with a phone application-specific collection of patterns, templates, and object palettes. As shown in Figure 2, the SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer environment renders voice applications as process flows, with each step representing a process action. For example, a welcome message to the caller is step one, asking for the caller's account number and listening for the response is step two, and assigning a value to that response and executing a task with it (looking up that account number in the CRM system, for example) is the third step in a long chain of interactive, phone-based events.

Figure 2
SAP NetWeaver Voice uses SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer to create applications as simple process flows

SAP NetWeaver Voice draws upon the inherent connectivity of SAP NetWeaver's portal capabilities to link voice process steps to enterprise services or BAPI messages, and to locate system interfaces — all of which are represented as drag-and-drop icons —that can be included in the application. And because SAP NetWeaver Voice uses VoiceXML as its standard to communicate with third-party voice gateways, every voice application created within that framework can be shipped without knowing the particular details of a customer's gateway;4 integration is as simple as associating the application's URL with a telephone number that is managed by your VoiceXML gateway.

With VoiceXML, you can "future-proof" your investment against the challenges associated with systems upgrades and vendor lock-in.

SAP NetWeaver Voice Applications in Action

Let's revisit our hypothetical truck driver stuck in traffic. What if he could use a phone application to report his delay? In this scenario, he calls his company's voice gateway, and the phone application, hosted by SAP NetWeaver Voice, prompts him to enter his multi-digit delivery number, which he does. The system then prompts him for his status — he's looking at a two-hour delay — and creates a VoiceXML message that is passed to the phone application and then passed again as a red flag to the firm's SCM system. Another message is passed to the company's CRM system, which triggers an alert that calls the customer to inform her that her order will be delayed. A second voice application at the Delivery Tracking Center will then prompt that customer for her shipment number, match that number to the red flag, and inform the customer that the shipment will be two hours late.

Mobile devices and wireless networks are everywhere, but they will never have the global reach of a simple dial tone.

Success Stories: How Your Counterparts Are Using SAP NetWeaver Voice to Empower Their End Users

Here's a just glimpse at how SAP customers have already taken advantage of SAP NetWeaver Voice:

  • A customer call center handling 12,000 account-related calls daily increased the number of callers using only self-services to enroll in delayed payment programs by 60%

  • An expense-reporting-by-phone application deployed for 2,000 traveling associates reduced time-to-pay to 24 hours

  • A benefit-enrollment-by-phone application, used by more than 10,000 employees, enabled those employees who don't use computers to access the benefit enrollment system

  • A job bidding/employment verification system that provides phone access to more than 650,000 employees enabled an extremely mobile workforce to connect directly to the HCM system without PCs or mobile devices

Conclusion

Mobile devices and wireless networks are everywhere, but they will never have the global reach of a simple dial tone. Building phone applications to create automated business processes, or retrofitting existing processes to automate them through phone access, promises to simplify business transactions and extend your SAP enterprise systems to all your employees — even the truck driver stuck in traffic. This, in turn, will increase your ROI on those systems while lowering the total cost of operating them.

With the visual, pattern-based, reusable modeling capabilities that SAP NetWeaver Voice provides, voice-enabling your business processes is only slightly more involved than picking up the phone. Look for SAP NetWeaver Voice to arrive as part of SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment in 2007.


1 Wikipedia defines a mashup as "a Web site or Web 2.0 application that uses content from more than one source to create a completely new service." See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_(web_application_ hybrid) for more information.

2 A voice gateway is technology that translates high-level instructions (in VoiceXML) into low-level actions — causing, for example, an author-specified block of text to be read aloud over the phone by a text-to-speech engine.

3 For more information on SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment, please visit www.sap.com/company/press/press.epx?pressID=6705.

4 Once the user models the phone application's process flow in SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer and clicks "Deploy," an SAP compiler turns that metadata description of the application into another metadata language. At run time, this compiled version is changed into VoiceXML without the user ever having to look at it.


Additional Resources

SAP NetWeaver Voice IDE, a white paper available at www.sdn.sap.com

Standards-Based SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment Improves Developer Productivity, Lean Consumption at www.sap.com/company/press/press.epx?pressID=6705

 

Will Gardella has implemented enterprise voice solutions at a number of SAP customer sites. Based at the SAP Labs Voice Center, Will is a member of the W3C Voice Browser Working Group and an expert in dialog design and implementation. Before joining SAP, he developed Onstar's Virtual Advisor, a hands-free, in-vehicle voice application. He can be reached at william.gardella@sap.com.

Gerlinde Zibulski is a Voice and Security Product Manager for SAP Labs. She has been with SAP since January 1999. After more than two years in the International HR Consulting Department, Gerlinde moved into Technology Product Management, where she specialized in voice and security technology. Gerlinde holds a master's degree in economics from the Private University Witten/Herdecke. She can be reached at gerlinde.zibulski@sap.com.

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