The Smart Knowledge Worker

A hundred years ago, most workers used simple hand tools: a hammer, a spade, scissors. Their 21st-century brethren are juggling phones, typing on keyboards, overseeing complex machines. This is especially true in technology companies, where information and knowledge are priceless assets and there are no “simple employees,” but sophisticated knowledge workers. Through their accumulating knowledge, these workers gain more and more power. The emergence of new technologies – blogs, wikis, the semantic Web – help them process information in new ways, and make better use of it too.

For the past couple of years, SAP Research, the research arm of SAP, has been looking into ways to help users define and customize what they get from their SAP solutions – for example, offering them capabilities to configure and personalize additional composition, including service and data integration.

This way, SAP Research answers demands from SAP customers and also follows a trend in current R&D to open up software systems to users. In practice, users can directly access data and services they need, composing them personally, then formatting, visualizing, and analyzing results as they prefer. They also get better results based on the experience and advice of others. SAP Research’s projects in this field explore mash-ups, semantic analysis, social Web, and collective intelligence.

Lightweight composition – turning users into composers

Over the past 18 months, SAP Research has been intensively investigating lightweight-composition technologies that enable information workers to compose the information they need for their day-to-day activities. Lightweight composition refers to a new way of combining data from various sources, including SAP systems, third-party systems, and sources on the Internet. It targets the end-user, who can systematically combine pieces of data into an interacting whole, creating a new quality of information.

Lightweight-composition tools must be highly intuitive, and the user must not be confronted with any sort of development work. Lightweight composition is a content-oriented way of composing information by abstracting from technical details. The user must like the experience of composing information, and the primary tool must be the mouse.

Developed at SAP Research in Brisbane, Australia, the Rooftop prototype is a Web application based on AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML). Users create mash-up widgets – the name derives from “window” and “gadget” – from SAP’s enterprise services and external Web services, without any programming. It can run within an SAP portal or as a stand-alone Web application. The technology was first used in a collaborative project in which SAP Research and SAP development groups built an SAP Business ByDesign portal application for renegotiating purchasing contracts.

The Rooftop lightweight-composition platform is internally available to all SAP employees without installation. Even without an official announcement, it has attracted over 500 users, who have created nearly 1,000 widgets . Widgets are client-side components encapsulating server functionality and interaction, significantly improving user experience and performance. The platform is under consideration for becoming a product. Several scenarios implemented with it are running productively at SAP, such as the SAPcon widget within IT Management. The SAPCon widget – short for Situation Conditions for Systems, Applications, Processes – highlights the severity of an incident within the SAP IT infrastructure and how this situation should be resolved.

“I find widgets particularly useful for providing highly aggregated information or alerts,” says SAP CIO Uwe Herold. “We have been piloting the SAP Research SAPcon widget for some time. It gives SAP IT employees up-to-date information on the overall system status at SAP and improves our responsiveness in critical situations.”

IcMAP, a project of SAP INSPIRE – the SAP unit responsible for implementing selected employees’ ideas – complements the investment of SAP Research in lightweight composition. It enables users to compose information from SAP internal and external sources within Mindjet’s mapping tool MindManager. It also provides a sophisticated middleware so that a technical user can, without programming, plug in any Web or enterprise service.

Toward “Enterprise 2.0”

The Enterprise Web Widgets Framework (EWWF), built by the Advanced Web Technologies group at SAP Research in Palo Alto, California, enables the rapid creation of ad-hoc mash-up applications, using communicating widgets running in a browser or on the desktop. EWWF offers IT workers an easy-to-use, secure, event-driven, widget-composition framework. This frees time for developers to create applications and increase their productivity. This approach points toward “Enterprise 2.0,” a term developed by Andrew McAfee, professor at Harvard Business School. It involves the use of Web 2.0 technology – like wikis or widgets – in business software. EWWF is not yet part of any SAP solution, but should be in the near future.

The connection of wikis with SAP’s back-end infrastructure is another example of employee-empowerment research. Open-collaboration research in Palo Alto is bringing the ease-of-use of wikis to SAP business objects. A current prototype lets power users easily pull SAP business objects into their favorite wiki. Dynamic queries ensure that each time a wiki page is displayed, it shows the most current SAP data.

Once inside the wiki, users can work with the objects wiki-style. Business users can pull in live data and make static copies that they discuss in a team, for example, to resolve issues in a sales channel or handle over-budget accounts. Wiki-style collaboration becomes particularly important when a team is distributed and works across time-zones.

COIN – managing employees’ innovation at SAP

COIN (collaboration innovation) is a new platform for managing ideas developed at SAP INSPIRE. Based on an open-source content-management system, COIN encompasses the whole process: idea submission, collaborative work on idea documents, comments, ratings, forums for discussion of ideas – even blogs. The platform can be used for any innovation process throughout the company. All SAP employees can submit ideas, form teams around them, and edit the ideas in collaboration with colleagues. Through a system of idea ratings and recommendations, SAP INSPIRE and other departments can find the best employee ideas for their area. Interested parties might serve as sponsors for ideas to enable further development.

With functionalities like tagging, blogging, or social bookmarking, the COIN platform makes the best use of Web 2.0 technology and moves toward creating communities of employees. Clearly, the results of such projects will influence the next generation of SAP software solutions. They will also help shape how employees who use them manage information and knowledge, and how they perform their tasks. No doubt they will increase workplace effectiveness and productiveness.