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“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today.  Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”— anonymous Chinese proverb

We’re all familiar with this proverb or at least a derivative of it and in these days of constrained IT budgets, heavily scrutinized capital projects and limited in-house SAP savvy analytical resources there is even more pressure on the office of the CIO to empower the business to deal with its data retrieval and maintenance tasks without IT intervention.

I was in a discussion with a customer today around an interesting challenge that they deal with frequently; namely the frequency of reporting for legal, compliance and operational efficiency. Businesses consider themselves agile players in their market and are constantly having to reinvent themselves, install new control points and consider new key performance indicators (KPIs)in order to evaluate efficiency, improve operational cost control and ultimately deliver bigger margins to the bottom line and ultimately higher profits to their shareholders.

To met these demands for more control points and KPI’s they may need to use their SAP systems to measure and data elements that they never recorded or reported on before. The standard SAP system comes with tens of thousands of data entry screens and over 4,000 standard reports on modules from AR to WM however as is often the case, the business either doesn’t know about these reports or they can’t leverage them to maximum effect because their system configuration is not wholly aligned with the objectives or deliverables of the standard report. Native SAP tools like SQVI, SE16 and SQ01 take reporting to a slightly more customizable level but these tools are notoriously unpopular with external auditors and in fact the IT organization as a whole because they are largely difficult to use, they may present system security holes on exposing sensitive data and worse, badly or malformed queries can bring poorly managed or untuned systems to their knees impacting a much wider user community.

The business has options…

Custom ABAP reports, datamarts, Bobj and BW repositories of course bring the promise of being able to alleviate the pressure of reporting but even these mechanisms have issues, primarily around requirements development, change control and the actual time to completion  – the duration between identifying the need and delivering the solution. By the time the appropriate analysis has been done, the prototype developed, the business signed off and the change request instituted, the requirement may have been superceded by something else that the business needs to work on.

So how can a business get around the problems associated with inadequate standard reports, tools that are frowned upon and long delivery times on technically sophisticated solutions? An attractive and popular option is the use of desktop integration tools that can be used by any business user with an understanding of the concepts of data dictionaries, data fields and tables. Basic dekstop database tools like MS Access have often been used by people in the business to create small databases and sometimes gigantic databases to do various store and retrieve activities. In finance, there is often a proliferation of electronic workbooks and spreadsheets in use to store all kinds of information that may be represented in a slightly different format to that held in the SAP system of record. The challenge comes with harmonising the data between these two sources whilst not  compromising on business system’s efficiency and effectiveness and simultaneously not undermining the security and controls that internal audit, IT and the external auditors may have established to preserve the integrity of the systems that the majority of SAP system users rely on.

Reporting too little, too late

The customer I was talking to was a business unit responsible for the internal maintenance of critical business data that they alone understand. As custodians of this data they are called upon to frequently dissect it in order to present views of the state of business activities. This dissection is not so much enumerated in financial terms as statistical. The ability to identify simple attributes like what bills of materials (BOMs) contain element X or rely on item Y as part of a recipe is key to meeting the demands of other legal, quality or regulatory compliance groups. Whilst some of the reporting is available in the SAP system natively and they can look up this information on a per transaction or record basis the reality is that sometimes they need to simply pull a global list quickly that tells them about a rough order of magnitude or lists all the points in their production or assembly processes that this material, equipment or activity. When they approach their internal IT support specialists for this information it is supplied but often takes some time to be turned around by an IT specialist . Sometimes this takes so long that the need has passed or the business has found some other way to get the answer. Not only is this approach inefficient, it is frustrating and expensive.

In an ideal world there is only one answer for every question however as we all know, there are often many answers to a question. Depending on the view of the person asking the question, some questions lead to more questions and some people aren’t even very good at articulating, or on the receiving/delivery side – understanding the question.  This need for accelerated responses or the resulting complexity in the nature of the answers drives home the need for those who own and use the business data and can perform some sort of sanity check on the results of reporting, to be more closely responsible for the production of the reporting. Business users need to be able to slice and dice, plot, manipulate, trend and massage their own data according to their understanding of their data. This requires more than an understanding of the structure of tables, the descriptors of fields and the mappings between logical structures and native table data. 

Beyond the proverb

The recent advent of enhanced desktop inquiry and update tools, what I refer to as desktop integration tools has started to see a much greater degree of adoption in business circles. Business has used electronic workbooks and spreadsheets for almost two decades now and business users are, for the most part, very comfortable working in this environment. Just a few years ago the integration of these office automation tools with SAP were either designed with point solutions in mind or with such unfriendly and cumbersome interface and design elements that no self respecting IT resource would dream of considering these tools for use by the business without guidance. Improved user interface elements as well as tight integration with the Microsoft Office suite has led to exponential benefits within the business in the realm of mass data inquiry, create and maintain functions all from the comfort of products like Microsoft Excel without the need to launch the SAP GUI.

Whilst users still require SAP credentials to ensure integrity of the overall business transaction and appropriate security authorization, now users can simply retrieve data into Excel, that they are appropriately authorized to maintain, manipulate that same data and then update the SAP system of record directly from Excel while never leaving the MS Office suite. These extraordinary advances in the operational efficiency of mundane and routine data maintenance in SAP yield critical operational savings to the business and reduce the overall dependency on IT thereby allowing the business to feed its demand for responsiveness to changes in the volatile business environment. 

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