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SAP and Microsoft's "Duet" that debuted 18 months ago, is picking up pace, big time.

The joint offering, which allows users to access SAP business processes from within a Microsoft Office environment, appears to be gaining popularity with companies and knowledge workers. The product already has more than 250 customers, with 400,000 licences sold worldwide, according to Thomas Grassl, director of solution marketing for Duet at SAP.

That's a pretty good track record for a product launched just last year.

As Forrester Research principal analyst Rob Koplowitz notes, "there are enough licences out there to make this a significant product for both organisations."

Koplowitz attributes Duet's growing popularity to the many ways it makes life easier for knowledge workers, allowing them easy access to common SAP data and processes from within Microsoft Office. "There are a lot of knowledge workers who are living in that environment anyway."

Among other things, the Forrester analyst tracks the emerging trend of using Microsoft Office as a front end for line of business information and processes.

He says it's the ability to seamlessly link tasks performed in an Office application with the SAP backend that's the chief value proposition of Duet.

Swifter, simpler processes

The Forrester analyst cites an example of someone in a professional services environment entering time into their Outlook calendar that would be billed back to a client at some later date.

Typically, Koplowitz said, this would be done by first putting the information in the calendar, and then later re-entering the same information in different ERP time-reporting system. Using Duet "Time Management" this task is significantly simplified and speeded up.

"Simple and innocuous controls pop up on the right side [of your screen], and as you enter the time into your calendar you can actually tag it as being billable to a particular project or client code. And as you do that the cross-application client sheet on the backend for SAP is automatically updated."

The big benefit, says Koplowitz, is you no longer have to switch between two applications.

Knowledge workers can extend the native calendaring experience in Outlook to "data and processes on the backend that run across the application timesheet system within SAP."

And not just time management, but other common processes done in the Microsoft Outlook calendar can be linked to the SAP backend.

You can do the same thing with vacation requests, using Duet's 'Leave Management' capability, says Koplowitz. "You start by marking something as vacation in your Outlook calendar, and then have the workflow from SAP invoked on the backend."

Duet repertoire

While just a limited number of such "business processes" were available when Duet initially shipped, SAP and Microsoft have added additional ones over the past 18 months.

For instance, in addition to Time Management and Leave Management outlined above, SAP's Grassl says Duet enables 10 other business processes, suitable for employees, managers or both.

  1. Budget monitoring Managers can access financial data they need to fulfil cost and budget responsibilities.
  2. Organisation management Employees and managers can access organisational information through the contacts feature in Microsoft Outlook. In addition, employees can access HR-related tasks from Outlook.
  3. Recruitment management Managers and HR professionals can collaboratively schedule interviews with job candidates, capture feedback about each candidate, and generate rankings to automate the selection of the best-qualified person for a position.
  4. Recruitment management Managers and HR professionals can collaboratively schedule interviews with job candidates, capture feedback about each candidate, and generate rankings to automate the selection of the best-qualified person for a position.
  5. Travel management Employees can request trip approvals and book flights, hotel rooms, and car rentals directly through Microsoft Outlook, reducing the cost of complying with corporate travel policies.
  6. Reports and analytics Employees use Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Excel to access reports and analytical data from SAP Business Suite applications.
  7. Sales management Sales executives can use Microsoft Outlook to manage accounts and contacts, record sales activities, obtain price approvals, and access sales analytics information from the SAP CRM (customer relationship management) application.
  8. Demand planning Product and supply planners can use Microsoft Excel to access the SAP SCM (supply chain management) application to populate planning sheets as well as to analyse and manage their demand plans.
  9. Purchasing management Procurement professionals can use Microsoft Office to approve purchase requests, understand spending patterns, and analyse supplier performance invoking the SAP supplier relationship management (SRM) application.
  10. Contract lifecycle management Legal professionals can create and share contracts using Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook, then manage the legal contracts with SAP SRM.
  11. Meeting planning knowledge workers can plan meetings through Microsoft Outlook calendar, including request meeting rooms, order special services and equipment with full authorisation, and transparent ordering and cost control.

Deciding about Duet

How does a company decide if Duet is right for them? Koplowitz offers certain pointers.

The first step, he said, is to look at the "scenarios" that are currently shipping, as well as additional ones that are coming down the line.

"If none of those fulfil a business need the decision is simple. Either this won't work for you, or it won't work until additional scenarios are added in."

The good news, he notes, is these "scenarios" (Duet prebuilt processes supported end to end by SAP and Microsoft) are growing.

Assuming the current Duet scenarios meet their need companies still need to ensure they are running the proper versions of the applications, Koplowitz notes. "You have to ask whether you're running a version of SAP that they're supporting, (which is mySAP 2004 or 2005). You're going to need Microsoft Office 2003 or Office 2007."

In other words, says Koplowitz, your decision a decision about Duet would be "very closely tied to your upgrade path around SAP and Microsoft."

In addition to the SAP and Microsoft products there's a third piece that would need to be installed, a Duet server software that architecturally sits between mySAP 2004/2005 and Microsoft Office 2006/2007 and brokers transactions between the two.

This dedicated Duet server was supposed to be replaced by a SharePoint server that would handle core system capabilities, including metadata management, security and transactional capabilities.

According to SAP's Grassl, however, the integration to SharePoint has been moved to Duet 3.0, the next version of Duet. This, he said, was done "in response to customer demand for fewer major product versions and to ensure optimal alignment opportunities between Microsoft and SAP development."

Duet 3.0, the SAP exec said, will be released with the next version of Microsoft Office apps and SharePoint server.