Microsoft Releases A Bear of a Workflow Designer

Microsoft has released what is arguably its first tool in the knowledge-management realm. Access Workflow Designer for SQL Server, formerly code-named Grizzly, is available for free to licensed users of Office 2000 Developer. According to Microsoft white papers, Access Workflow Designer is designed to ”create and enforce business rules for your Microsoft Access 2000 data projects.” Workflow Designer “simplifies designing the basic linear workflow process with a wizard-driven interface that automatically generates the business rules for the workflow process, saving weeks or months of development time.” In other words, Access Workflow Designer lets a developer create and map a workflow process. For example, imagine that your company has a standard business procedure, such as expense report checking. Mr. Blue is on a business trip to Sweden to attend a networking conference. Mr. Blue generates an expense report each week, which he typically routes to his manager, Mr. Small, for approval. However, company policy states that if Mr. Blue’s weekly expense report tops $20,000, he must forward it to the department head, Mr. Big, for approval. In either case, the expense report ends up in accounting. By using Access Workflow Designer, a developer can map this workflow process and store company policy as a set of logical rules. Concretely, this design begins with a drag-and-drop process, resulting in a flowchart-style diagram of the workflow process that looks and feels like Visio, as Screen 1 shows. The developer can then build logic into the diagram with rules like, “If X’s expense report is less than amount C (where C is a dollar amount that you determine by looking at X’s expense rating on some chart), send the expense report to X’s manager. Else send the expense report to X’s manager’s manager.” Access Workflow Designer creates a linear workflow process within Access. The product then generates a SQL Server database back end. The developer then creates a front end using Data Access, Visual Basic (VB), or Access Workflow Designer’s Web-interface features. The end result is a custom-built application that automates business processes for employees and management. Mr. Blue simply uploads his expense report, and the software automatically forwards the report to Mr. Small or Mr. Big. Once the supervisor approves the expense report, the software forwards the report to accounting. Benzi Ronen, product manager of Microsoft developer tools, described Access Workflow Designer as Microsoft’s first attempt to provide a tool for knowledge management. He characterized the product as fitting in with Microsoft’s general knowledge-management strategy: Taking business rules that are tacitly spread throughout personnel, making them explicit, and building them into automated systems. The next product from this Microsoft team will be a similar workflow tool that will use Exchange 2000 Server (formerly code-named Platinum) on the back end, instead of SQL Server. Ronen said that the decision to release the SQL Server workflow designer came in response to consumer requests. For general information about Access Workflow Designer, as well as ordering information, visit Microsoft's Web site. You can also visit Microsoft's Web site for a walkthrough of the workflow design process.

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