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The automated document Part 2 Advanced automated documents

This article appears in the issue January 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 1]

Active documents are evolving not only new programmability but also complex interactivity. The result is better productivity.

When most of us think of a document, we envision an electronic replica of printed material that's viewable, editable and routable. Furthermore, we think of the document as distinct from the application in which it resides. When data in a field of a form can automatically change via calls to a database, however, the document ceases to be a fixed artifact pregnant with the history of its revisions. It becomes animated, if you will, by the mini-application that it contains--the code that controls the operations of that field.

When you move from interactivity with a backend system to interactivity with the user, the distinction becomes even more obvious. When a mechanic is guided through a repair process by automated prompts that appear in response to his entries in an electronic maintenance manual, the armature of the application within the document becomes more visible. The document is no longer an artifact--it's a process--and it's no longer pregnant with its revisions--it's continually giving birth to them. Every time you interact with the document/application, it can be different.

These characteristics belong to a new class of documents known as "active documents" that contain the business rules by which at runtime their content and form is automatically changed. Some analysts maintain that the functionality they now display represents a disruptive technology that will eventually pervade all business applications, processes and workflows. Given the current capabilities of the most advanced types of active documents, such claims are certainly justified.

Complex forms

Most active documents are forms, and the more complex ones point to the richer interactive capabilities we can expect more universally in a few years. According to Joshua Duhl, research director of content management and rich media at IDC, Adobe and Microsoft represent the two extremes of active documents for forms processing. On the one hand, the functionality with which Adobe's Intelligent Document Platform invests active documents is fixed and unprogrammable. That doesn't mean it's not robust--just that the functionality that comes out of the box is all the user gets.

For instance, Duhl cites an example of an Adobe product manual developed for a cellular phone company that contained data on its wireless service plan as well as on the handset's features. The interesting interactive aspect of the document was that the user could order new services right from the manual. That action turned on the service, enabled the handset for the service and updated the manual with the appropriate documentation for that service. So the document, says Duhl, both enabled a transaction that changed the document's content as well as acted on an external device.

As ingenious as that is, the actions are carried out by fairly simple Web service calls. By contrast, Duhl says Microsoft's InfoPath product can perform more complex actions because it's tied to Microsoft Studio. Studio functionality lets users actually code the form's field, for example, to invoke multiple calls to databases or perform complex calculations. If one of those calls checked product inventory, the user could program the field to make sure the inventory is valid. So if the value the user entered in the field was "50" units but there were only 40 in inventory, the field would register the amount as invalid.

In a more complex scenario, says Duhl, the user might want to check the sum of an order entered on a form to see if it exceeded the customer's credit limit. In that case, the field would first total the order and then look up the customer's credit limit in his profile by linking into a backend process, for instance. Duhl adds that using InfoPath, sales managers might even want to do a report at the end of each day that would calculate how much their sales reps sold. Duhl explains that this would involve aggregating field values from multiple reps' sales forms in a series of SQL or ODBC calls (depending on where the data is stored) and calculating a total sales amount. So the manager would have both the individual rep's totals and the aggregate total for all reps--without doing any manual calculation.

Collaborative reviewing

What can be called advanced text editing applications offer other possibilities for active documents. Blast Radius offers a product called Critique that's an interactive, collaborative reviewing application for documents like those in a drug approval process that require input from numerous parties in a short period of time. Depending on their roles in reviewing the document, users get different interfaces and toolsets for annotating it. Once revisions are done, other users can see them in real time and respond with their reactions. However, the annotations are not like static, electronic sticky notes that, once created, cannot be edited. Instead, says Michael Fergusson, VP or product strategy, they are invoked at runtime as "live applications, and multiple people can manipulate them at the same time--so they become like little discussion forums attached to the document."

What's more, adds Fergusson, the "discussion forum" is always associated with the document, so it serves as an unalterable audit trail that tracks disagreements over product development and other issues that must be saved, according to Sarbanes-Oxley mandates. Rather than one author making revisions and sending the document to the next author, complicated documents get reviewed simultaneously which, Ferguson claims, can cut time to market by 50% to 90%.

Electronic maintenance manuals and more

Electronic maintenance manuals may push the envelope for active documents the furthest. Arbortext specializes in preparing the content of complicated electronic technical maintenance manuals commonly used by military and aerospace mechanics so that it can be more easily navigated. For example, aircraft repair manuals can run to more than 50,000 pages and have to be updated constantly, so if they are hard-copy, mechanics often spend more time finding and updating data that explains a repair process than doing the repair. However, the more time a plane spends on the ground, the less money it's making in the air. Arbortext authors content so that it can provide interactive prompts to the mechanic about, for example, the process of repairing a fuel pump and effectively walk the mechanic through the process.

Lisa Bisson, principal consultant at Arbortext, explains that the company offers the SF Editor Software to author the content so it provides prompts. It also offers the E3 Server engine, she adds, that is viewer software for actually accessing the repair process steps out of a database or content management system and rendering them at runtime. She says the accessed data would be in XML and contain all the metadata associated with a particular procedure.

Donna Wolkenstein, publication systems administrator at Standard Aero, an aircraft engine repair company that works mostly on Hercules helicopters, says her company uses Arbortext to XML tag all the content in its electronic maintenance manuals. That is done in what she calls "chunks," so that data about a component common to different aircraft models is authored only once, but is assembled at runtime into the appropriate section of the manual to speed access. Mechanics use a search engine to get to the part of the engine they need to repair, and a picture of the component appears with identifying text next to different sections of it. She says the mechanic clicks on the text to initiate a step-through process via a drop-down menu that first prompts the mechanic to enter the condition of the part, then offers probable causes for the malfunction and the corresponding corrective action that needs to be taken.

Enigma (enigma.com) offers similar, but much more comprehensive, functionality to help airplane mechanics spend more time turning wrenches and less time turning pages. In fact, information that mechanics need to repair planes is contained in many sources other than maintenance manuals. According to John Snow, VP of marketing and business development, it also can come from applications such as enterprise asset management systems where mechanics might look at key performance indicators to figure out what kind of predictive maintenance needs to be performed, or from document management systems that might actually store the maintenance manuals. Information might also come from various service bulletins indicating when engine components have been last serviced and will need service again, as well as parts catalogs in which mechanics find the information needed to order parts.

However, each application and data source has its own data model and makes no associations between thematically related documents in the different applications because the documents were authored by different people in different departments for different audiences. So even if a mechanic has an electronic technical manual, he or she still has to wade through all the related information in other systems to make the repair. As a result, mechanics "can spend up to 40% of their time looking for the right information," according to Snow. That not only keeps planes in the hangar longer, he says, but it also wastes the time of "the second biggest work force in the airlines behind flight attendants and increases the second largest cost behind fuel." So optimizing the productivity of those mechanics is critical to the profitability of an airline.

Enigma's 3C product helps mechanics access all that content, actually order parts from inside the application, and collaborate with other mechanics about tips or best practices for performing repairs. Enigma basically connects content in different systems so mechanics can easily get to it, no matter what application it's in, and make a diagnosis. It then helps them through the repair process via interactive prompts. Once mechanics know what's wrong, they can order the parts they need to fix it from right inside Enigma--which links to e-procurement systems that perform real-time transactions. That eliminates the possibility of misorders through faulty information transcription because the system appropriates the part number directly from the content and enters it in the requisition. If the part is out of stock, the system will tell the mechanic and even suggest alternate parts that could serve in its place. What's more, Enigma's collaboration capability lets the mechanic annotate sections with suggestions for other mechanics.

For KLM, the Dutch airlines, Enigma has linked 15 GB of data from both KLM and Boeing technical manuals and illustrated parts catalogs--including data in its Documentum content management system--into one integrated aircraft encyclopedia. As a result, the 3,500 engineers and mechanics in KLM's maintenance department at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam are 5% more productive in performing maintenance activities on its fleet of Boeing jets, a percentage that translates to serious savings in a billion-dollar company.

The future

Obviously, that kind of automated maintenance functionality speeds repairs in any industry dependent on hard-copy manuals, whether it involves ships, cars, tractors or tanks. Duhl sees the logical extension of this type of application as the B2B manufacturing arena where members of a supply chain have to integrate compound assemblies that require numerous parts. He expects to see active documents that facilitate building, ordering and inventory that ride with the vehicle right through the manufacturing process.

As to the vendors that will drive active documents, obviously Microsoft and Adobe are the majors most behind them now, though Duhl says IBM is shopping around for an acquisition or partner that will get it into the game quickly. That is not to discount the innovation coming out of smaller vendors like Sand Hill Systems, Groveware and Probaris--they just lack the captive customer base and marketing punch to widely seed the market. For that matter, says Duhl, both content management and XML players have shown serious interest in active documents. Those players do have the clout to widely proliferate active document functionality into mainstream vertical markets traditionally associated with document management, like banking and insurance.


John Harney is president of ASPWatch, a consultancy focusing on market, partner and technology strategy for ASPs, e-mail johnharney4@msn.com.


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