Smart Skin and Office 2007

One of my favorite blogs is Sviokla’s Context. The author, former Harvard professor John Sviokla, has a unique perspective on technology-related business issues. His interesting posts often turn conventional wisdom upside-down, and he illustrates his points with real-world examples. No theoretical pontificating, just acute observation of what’s really going on in business these days.

There’s a new post on John’s blog today entitled “How Smart is Your Skin? Information as an Organizational Problem.” In it, he discusses the benefits of pushing information out to the “skin” of an organization instead of storing it all in a monolithic centralized application. He acknowledges the value that centralization can deliver, but notes “When an organization can allocate its decision rights to the edge of the organization … all sorts of interesting things start to happen.”

He also has a great analogy between mercury and information that supports his “smart skin” premise, but I won’t try to summarize that here: you should really read the post.

When I read it, I couldn’t help thinking of the new emphasis on Office as a development platform that’s at the heart of Office 2007. It’s now possible for users to stay in the software they already use all day — Microsoft Office — and be connected to monolithic back-end business systems. This opens up possibilities for the sorts of “interesting things” Sviokla writes about, by empowering the workers who actually have contact with the customers. As he says:

In an information world, it is tempting to centralize more and more, because it is technically possible. However, resist this natural urge, for when things are overly centralized, the organization will reroute around the control. Trust is cheaper than oversight — use it whenever possible. It is also technically possible to decentralize more than ever before because customer status, problem solving heuristics, and service recovery options are more easily shared with today’s information systems than ever before.

Office 2007 takes this concept to new heights. It’s now possible to merge the words of data and documents like never before, through customization of the Office UI, interoperability with the Office Open XML file formats, integrated workflow, and other features of MOSS 2007 including the Business Data Catalog and Excel Services.

Shai Agassi, the CEO of SAP, recently said that their application — the largest business application ever written — only automates a small fraction of the business processes in a typical organization. Those are the processes at the core. The rest of those processes, the ones out on the skin, are often handled in an ad-hoc manner by Office users, and the integration options in the 2007 Office System give developers an opportunity to deliver value to those processes like never before.

To learn more, check out the Microsoft Office Developer Center.