Business Process Management (BPM) is very topical at the moment. This is particularly true in an economic climate where large capital investments in IT initiatives are possibly being put on a backburner and where IT organizations are being told to do more with less, people are being expected to find more imaginative ways to meet business objectives with more economical solutions.
BPM is of course nothing new, though it’s name may have changed over the years; finding imaginative new ways to achieve the same efficiency objectives have been the focus of many productivity theorists and practitioners for centuries.
One could argue that as far back as times when people started hunting and gathering it is likely that process management was being applied to daily living.
Someone was hunting, someone was gathering and it is unlikely that the same person was doing both unless they were wholly fending for themself.
A world of roles
Our world is largely dictated by modes of operation and the establishment of defined roles – stereotypical or not.
The notion of segregation of duties, the implementation of production lines with activity work centers and the creation of operational silos concentrating on repetitive tasks are all indicative of measures to improve productivity and performance. In fact, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company made massive progress in operational efficiency by implementing the modern assembly line using “optimally planned logistics to create a finished product much faster than with handcrafting-type methods”. Looking at how business use SAP should be viewed in a similar light.
For any SAP system to be utilized to maximum effect, BPM or efficiency optimization approaches need to be used. In the back and front office this means that SAP users need to organize their work logically and procedurally, moving from a scatter gun approach of data management to a structured systematic approach that is consistent and repeatable and more importantly, continuously accelerated. Any business process is by its very nature activity centered. A business process is after all no more than a collection of related activities, a chain.
Moving away from paper methods
In our SAP world that means that though we have high level business processes like Order-to-Cash; Procure-to-Pay and Hire-to-Retire, in reality these are translated at a system level into transactions. These transactions may be processes in and of themselves but more often than not they are simply activities or at best sub processes. Optimization management at a process level in a SAP-centric world is undoubtedly challenging however it is achievable in small measurable ways if we start from the bottom up.
A straightforward approach is of course to move from paper based sources of information to computerized inputs and the most obvious of these in high velocity organizations is leveraging tools like electronic workbooks and spreadsheets as the source for input data. Whether your company receives input data from the web, emails, walk ups or telephone calls shouldn’t ultimately matter the main point is to develop procedural activities that consistently and effectively support the process chain.
Order-to-Cash covers everything from quotations, through taking orders, creating that order in the system optionally based on the quotation, creation of the delivery, billing and settlement. Further within the chain, the sales order generation may perform a credit check for the customer which spawns a blocked sales documents handling activity. Availability checks may be done followed by product allocation and that may be assigned to production runs for certain periods.
There may be handling required for partial quantity deliveries if stock is available with cancellation of balances or scheduling for further deliveries when available. There may be specific service or shipping charges assigned manually in the sales order, based on the quantity of goods ordered. When customer payments are posted to clear the accounts receivable there may be many items open that require direct matching based on the remittance advice from the customer.
Clearly then, despite the fact that there are many forks in the activities underpinning the overall process there are many opportunities for standardization of the data gathering assignment and reconciliation activities. In the SAP system all these forks are handled by mandatory data fields, triggers, traps and conditions and these ‘controls’ need to be respected by those entering the data in order for the activity to be meaningful and effective. Controlled capture methods like paper forms still form a significant guide for many business’ and most of us will be familiar with the ‘For Office Use’ sections that post posting carry check marks, initials, dates, stamps etc.
Increasingly though, business uses desktop tools to create electronic ‘forms’ to guide this process and ensure that all the control requirements are met. These electronic artifacts associated with the activity can then be more easily manipulated into structured data for final system load. A step beyond this is direct loading utilities that allow seamless integration with your SAP system from the workbook or spreadsheet data in its native form.
These tools are able to provide real-time feedback and logging or support off peak scheduling without the need for ABAP programming or SAP system customization. Performance benefits are demonstrably multi-fold reducing the risk of duplicate entry, duplicated data capture, manual transcription or cumbersome navigation of complex and multi-functional dynpros designed for every possible business scenario and consequently saving hundreds of man days in data capture.
Moving data governance to the real data stewards
Using a data loading utility resident on the user’s desktop moves governance and control to the hands of the real data stewards – business users that use the SAP data every day. The shift in data governance is achieved without compromising on the SAP system security model or overall IT governance for the SAP application.
For businesses with higher levels of compliance or governance requirements this can be further enhanced with centralized application execution logging, in sheet data backups and pre-load data validation or ‘dry run’ testing of loadable data against the target system.
Evaluations of desktop-SAP integration tools in the field consistently demonstrate massive time and consequently resource savings for businesses that deploy them. In some instances where users engage in highly repetitive silo based activities, desktop-SAP integration tools even avoid the need for businesses to consider role based views of their data having to be rendered on intranets and system portals, thereby representing more development savings and mean-time to delivery of business solutions and consequently helping IT and business to do more with less.
Data loading for SAP has come a long way since the rudimentary data transfer workbench (SXDA) and CATT scripting which were never designed for end user use and even less for operational transaction data. Today business users can interact with their key SAP system of record, retrieving, updating and creating critical business operations data cocooned within the wrappers of desktop-SAP integration platforms like Microsoft Office Excel completely oblivious to the fact that they are in fact making a significant contribution to the efficient management of perhaps one, but often many, larger business processes.