Office 11, Forms, and Unstructured Data


I've been trying to get a hold of a beta version of Office 11, the new version of Office from Microsoft.  As I wrote before, I believe it is the first version of Office worth upgrading for since Office 97.  Indeed many people still run Office 97 and do just fine.  I think that's about to change.

Two areas of considerable attention in the enterprise today are workflow for internal processes (think forms) and unstructured data.  Office 11 could play a role in both of those areas.  As far as I know, there's no workflow engine for Office 11...yet.  Still, Office 11's ability to handle form data and create structured documents is a boon.  I've looked at workflow and form processing tools for a few years now because they are the infrastructure for building automated business processes.  Imagine how much a large organization spends processing travel forms, for example.  In Utah, its still a department by department activity with lots of hands touching lots of forms until a check finally gets cut.  A workflow engine with a good form tool can turn that into a paperless, uniform process across the entire organization, making employees happier and freeing everyone from the hassle of travel forms.  The problem is that you have a tough time finding the ROI in a single project, but once you've got the tool, there are hundreds of uses.  Office 11 will be part of the desktop anyway, reducing the need for a separate ROI.

Unstructured data is another area where large organizations have a great amount to gain, but the ROI is difficult to find in any single project.  With the right planning Office 11 can manipulate XML to create structure in many of the documents we currently handle as just text.  Jon Udell. quoting my blog, writes in InfoWorld:

"Got a question?" writes Phil Windley, CIO of the State of Utah, on his Weblog. "Somewhere, on some government computer, the information you need is probably available. Information you paid for and the government would gladly share with you -- if only they could find it." Upgrading the word processors and spreadsheets on those government computers to versions that not only can read and write XML, but, more crucially, can enforce rules about datatypes and structures, is part of the solution. Assuming, of course, that such rules can be written, deployed, and unobtrusively applied and maintained over time. "Therein," observes Windley, "lies the rub."

That, indeed, is the issue at hand.  Can the enterprise adapt so that the power of XML documents is used effectively.  Not only does it require that people creating documents take the time to structure their data, but it also requires that everyone use compatible software and store documents in a reasonable place and in a reasonable way (i.e. not on direct attached disks).  This requires some discipline and a plan.