New MS Office feature criticized

Microsoft Corp. has unveiled a new feature for Microsoft Office 2000 Developer aimed at designing and building Web-based workflow and tracking solutions.

Access Workflow Designer (AWD) – formerly code-named ‘Grizzly’ – is the software giant’s first developer tool optimized for building workflow solutions and automating business processes.

“It’s a tool for building Web-based workflow tracking,” said Rochelle Coleman, SQL Server marketing manager for Microsoft Canada. “It has call centre activity in that any business program that exists across a department or even across the country, a developer has the ability to track and modify the program…there is a back end transparency for the consumer of that process.”

AWD is designed to aid developers designing and building solutions that automate a series of tasks or actions, the order in which they must be performed, and the permissions defining who can perform them. These solutions, consisting of Web pages, data and workflow, can be taken off-line for users not connected to the corporate network.

“This program makes the entire process ten times easier for the developer, what we had before was the ability to build business rules but not in a Web-based environment,” Coleman said. “It has a browser-based interface when making updating a process across a department…you can go into the browser where the problem exists and build a new process.”

During an off-line design, AWD combines a browser interface with data and workflow rules for use with a step-by-step wizard. Another time-saving feature is the program’s replication of individual user scenarios based on user permissions and selected preference. This enables the solutions to work seamlessly when disconnected from the network, while enforcing business rules and processes and replicating only the appropriate and approved data, she said.

AWD simplifies designing the basic linear workflow process with a wizard-driven interface that automatically generates the business rules for the workflow process, potentially saving weeks or months of development time, according to Microsoft.

It also makes it easier to automate any action as part of the workflow process by attaching script to actions displayed in the workflow diagram. AWD will also allow the user to create reusable templates when creating new SQL Server tracking and workflow solutions. These templates can be customized and they can include the database schema, permissions, and associated Web files.

“Another key feature is the amount of wizards that take the developer through,” she said. “The wizards are standardized, it’s a part of the whole knowledge management solution Microsoft is trying to espouse,” Coleman said.

But Nathaniel Palmer, an analyst with the Boston-based Delphi Consulting Group, criticized Microsoft’s workflow feature as a counter-measure to rival offerings by Lotus Development Corp.

“It’s not totally uncharacteristic of Microsoft’s style – it’s an overall confusing offering,” Palmer charged. “Microsoft has always courted, but has been a real tease with the workflow community…to make a go at a tool like that – it’s not just branding that’s needed, but a real evangelistic campaign,” Palmer said.

Access Workflow Designer ( is available free of charge to all licensed users of Microsoft Office 2000 Developer.

Microsoft Canada Co. in Mississauga, Ont., is at (905) 568-0434.