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On a recent trip to the post office I discovered that form 2976 has taken on a facelift and then I discovered something even more interesting, that I can actually complete the form online! What are the implications of forms and form design in business process optimization I wondered?  

SCM2010 in Orlando reaffirmed the interest of business in guided procedures that were a simplification of the standard and customized capability offered by regular SAP transactions.  Studies undertaken by guided procedure software powerhouses and independent consulting and industry analysis groups have also found that significant savings can be gained for corporations that move from paper based form filling (a historical guided procedure) to system based guided procedures. As most analysts and business users are aware, SAP transactions are themselves guided procedures for the creation and maintenance of master and transactional data in the SAP system of record. Invariably SAP transactions are however complex, difficult to navigate and confusing for both experienced and new users and for no real fault of the SAP application itself.  

The reason for the complexity of course emanates from the fact that the standard SAP system can be purposed to perform an infinite number of industry specific procedural or operational combinations. VA01 is a seemingly simple transaction for Order Creation. A sub-process of the Order-to-Cash process can have many tabs with many associated fields and depending on the nature of the business model and the types of goods, services or materials being offered for sale, the various combinations may also spawn a wide number of configuration options and complexity in the overall transaction.  For many customers with relatively simple needs and high volumes of small repetitive activities, the available options seem daunting and push them towards simplification of SAP transaction based views to more appropriate business user centric views of processing screens that  activities, the available options seem daunting and push them towards simplification of SAP transaction based views to more appropriate business user centric views of processing screens that may be created in the SAP portal, developed in Internet Sales Applications or provided through custom developed Adobe Smart forms  or Z transactions. While these approaches often successfully deliver the desired effect of simplifying the guided procedure to show the user the minimum amount of fields and options to effectively complete the sub-process, these approaches come with a significant cost.

There is of course, no replacement for good, well designed SAP configuration. No amount of guided procedure simplification through custom form or dynpro development (web based or otherwise) will counteract the downstream effects of poor configuration and malformed process and sub processes but often configuration is the first place that the business should start when evaluating the notion of process or sub process improvement. It is not uncommon for some installations to have to be reconfigured to realign the system configuration to be more appropriate to the needs and wants of business but this often proves even more onerous and expensive than the idea of simply developing some forms to leverage existing transaction capabilities or BAPIs. In some instances the base install of an SAP transaction cannot avoid the revealing of many more data elements and fields than a user needs and of course this presents great opportunities for solutions like GUIXT to simplify the presentation of ABAP dynpros in particular.

These are all programmatic or developer oriented ways of simplifying the UI experience of the average user and the lifecycle for analysis, development and implementation with testing can also be onerous, time consuming and resource sapping when it comes to pushing the burden of their creation onto the shoulders of business IT. Frequently I hear that these kinds of guided procedure simplifications are relegated to the development or support backlog of business It simply because there are a limited number of business IT resources and there are more pressing or value adding enhancements of development initiatives that business needs addressing.

Business users are always looking for imaginative ways to improve the efficacy of their work efforts and save time to engage in other business activities and of course this drive towards operational efficiency improvements has seen the implementation of such methods to support Quality Improvement Processes (QIP). In the finance area in particular, MS Excel savvy accountants and financial analysts have developed some impressive guided procedures and data cleansing and quality management approaches using MS Excel form based guided procedures with protected sheets, macros and VB scripts.

Given the wide availability of desktop tools like MS Office and MS Excel in particular, it makes sense to leverage these to maximum advantage to eliminate redundant rekeying of data. Frugal business operations managers with pressing business needs for simplification and improved guided procedures are not just interested in reducing their total cost of ownership of IT solutions; they are also interested in being able to work faster and more efficiently and with a higher degree of accuracy.

Consider the idea of a customer service representative (CSR) tasked with visiting customers in the field, evaluating the customer sales forecast and then placing orders in the SAP system of record for that customer. In an ideal world where the costs of training those same CSR’s and providing them with elegant remote access solutions to their order entry systems are insignificant or where business affords IT a limitless budget the CSR’s are provided with a multitude of methods for accessing the backend system and almost instantaneously given the ability to leverage intuitive and facile technologies to do what they do best, evaluate the needs of the customer and quickly translate those needs into orders in the system of record.

The reality is however a little more disappointing. Businesses with shallow pockets of IT budget invariably rely on the relationships between people in the business in terms of roles and responsibilities to get orders in the system as quickly and as accurately as possible. The process often involves laborious transcription of needs onto ruled pads or on paper forms which are then collated and manually entered into the system at the end of the day either by the CSR using a remote connection the order entry system or some back office worker with SAP access or order entry system access. Other scenarios may involve ‘empowered’ CSR’s leveraging PC technologies like MS Excel spreadsheets which if they are lucky, they manage to fill out while at the customer facility and then either attaching these to emails and sending them to a back office person or from which they themselves then transcribe the contents into the order entry screens. Not only are these approaches inefficient, they are prone to transcription errors, they also lend themselves to job frustration and pressure, particularly at month or  quarter ends when targets needs to be achieved and when success at meeting targets is often measured by actual orders in the system. In sedentary business operations perhaps these approaches are adequate and no further discussion is merited however few industries are sedentary and if they are, they are often ailing and probably benefit from accelerated and improved guided procedures.

Consider an alternative approach that detracts not one jot from the status quo but in fact accelerates the overall process, constitutes a robust guided procedure and one which can be quickly deployed by business users without IT intervention. All of this is furthermore achieved without compromising on data or procedural quality, system security or IT standards, surely a win-win situation for business and IT.

The approach involves the initial creation of MS excel based forms that mimic perhaps paper forms and provide guidance on the minimum and optional additional fields required to successfully create transactions in the SAP system of record. The immense capabilities of MS Excel forms supports the ideas of real-time data validation, limited or guided input criteria, structured or formatted data and perhaps more importantly provide users with replicable processes that don’t depend on wildcard variables like the legibility of handwriting. Augment the process tool further by embedding capabilities that support the direct feeding of the contents of the workbook based guided procedure  directly into SAP  via transactional RFC, just as you would with a BDC recording and you immediately have an attractive repeatable process that can be quickly tweaked or adjusted to meet the fluid needs of the business.

Returning to that humble USPS form I discovered in the Post Office and online, consider the simplicity of what you are trying to do, in the end, if it is not simple, perhaps it really isn’t right. The process of good business solution design has to be an iterative one, one that involves evaluating the efficacy of the solution and striving for continual improvement. Using form based solutions to replace traditional application screens is just one way to improve the overall user experience. 

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  1. Christopher Solomon
    It’s a fine balance there. On the one side, as you point out, over-complicated UI which presents the user with “every field under the sun” may in fact make the process (length) shorter. On the other, several “simplified” steps/UI might be easier for the users to handle but make the overall process (length) longer and the process flow more complicated. It’s a tricky one! Thanks for the blog.
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