Which #Workflow Inbox When? Pros and cons for SAP Business Workflow and SAP NetWeaver #BPM
FINAL UPDATE (seriously!): AT LAAAAAAAST… Yesterday 14th May 2013 at SAPPHIRE NOW the SAP Approve All mobile device & desktop inbox was released as part of the SAP Fiori group of related applications, that gives you both the request submission and approval task UIs to go with it, as well as easy extensibility options for custom workflows. The Fiori apps mark a significant change in direction for user experiences with SAP. They are *really* a very attractive – and the SAPUI5 guys are excited as well – Is this cool or what??? . For a little of the human perspective on these new apps try this blog – I am not a number. I am a person. If you want to see what all the fuss has been about, check them and the new SAP Approve All inbox out for yourself at https://experience.sap.com/fiori.
Latest Update: Ok so the secret is well and truly out… the official name of the new harmonized workflow inbox is SAP Approve All. We were hoping this would be released in Q1 but it’s been so popular with the initial customers that some more content has been requested in the initial offering, so expect further announcements in time for SAPPHIRE in May 2013. For those of you with ASUG membership (or ASUG friends) there’s a preview at the pre-conference seminar on the SAP Mobile Platform.
Once upon a time and not so long ago, answering the question of “which SAP workflow inbox should we use?” was simple… The stock answer was always: “You should use The Universal Worklist Inbox”. After all it’s in the name – Universal – covers everything you need to do or would ever want to do.
Now things are changing, and with the introduction of a few new inbox players I am finding the “which inbox should we use” and the “should we change to a different inbox” questions being raised at even long term workflow sites. So this is a little pros and cons summary of the major players when it comes to workflow inboxes and some brief recommendations on when to use which.
The most important thing to understand when choosing a workflow inbox for SAP Business Workflow and/or SAP NetWeaver BPM is that the choice is primarily a question of infrastructure rather than features. The main questions I ask these days are:
- What devices will be used to access the inbox?
- What infrastructure is available to support the inbox?
- What sorts of users (occasional, expert) will use the inbox, and what degree of change management are we expecting?
- What are the source systems for the inbox items?
- All from one system or do they come from multiple systems?
- Do we need to support both SAP Business Workflow work items and SAP NetWeaver BPM tasks now or in the foreseeable future?
- Do we have any non-SAP work that we want to include in the inbox?
Why do I need a workflow inbox at all? Can’t I just use email?
Email inboxes are not generally considered secure environments, and as a rule they don’t provide sufficient control options to adequately organize work. Not convinced? Consider this scenario…
- When a piece of work is sent to multiple people via a workflow inbox it is still one piece of work being viewed by multiple people. Everyone can see the current status of the work, and once the work is completed it is automatically removed from everyone’s inbox. The work can’t be deleted – it either has to be completed or cancelled if it’s no longer needed). Tracking who looked at the work and who actually completed it is straightforward.
- Contrast this with an email inbox – when you send an email to multiple people everyone gets their own copy. Some of them will action it, some will ignore it, and some will just delete it. Trying to work out who did what and whether the work has been done at all is a nightmare. Trying to get back the email once the work has been completed is usually unachievable.
That’s just one of the reasons why we usually only use email inboxes to remind people “work is waiting in their workflow inbox”. There are standard options for sending such reminders from both SAP Business Workflow and SAP NetWeaver BPM.
But if you really, really, really want to use the email inbox, then you are recommended to look at robust SAP accredited extensions such as Duet Enterprise for Microsoft Outlook, or Alloy for IBM Notes (previously called Lotus Notes).
Transaction SBWP – The original (if not the best)
So you are still using transaction SBWP? The original inbox we all used when SAP Business Workflow came out around about 1996 (ah the halcyon days of R/3 3.0C)? Awwww, bless! Soooo last century… but hey, so is my house and that still works, it’s just that when I want to add in the latest SmartHome technology that life starts to get a little awkward. In all seriousness, transaction SBWP is still successfully used by many customers and its fine… up to a point.
- Low infrastructure requirements
- All you need is SAPGUI for Windows and access to transaction SBWP
- Doesn’t support multiple systems (e.g. ECC, SRM, and CRM all to the one inbox)
- Doesn’t support SAP NetWeaver BPM tasks
- Few customization/personalization options – Unfortunately this inbox has some but not a lot of options for simplifying the inbox display.
- High Change Management Costs
- Since it was first released, SBWP has changed a little but not greatly, and many of the improvements have been something of a mixed blessing. It’s what we euphemistically call “feature-rich” – in other words has so many buttons and bells to use it all would take a good map, a compass with a precision sighting system, and one of those Nepali guides who take climbers up Mt Everest.
Use if all of the following apply:
- Your only SAP system is ECC
- Your only workflow users are expert users
- You don’t have any near term requirements to move your inbox to mobilize your inbox
For more info on the latest changes to the SBWP have a look at the SCN Workflow wiki.
The Universal Worklist Inbox – The one-stop shop
The Universal Worklist has been *THE* SAP workflow inbox just about since the SAP Enterprise Portal came into being. Its primary advantages are:
- Its “just out of the box” vanilla look and feel is simple and clean, and great for occasional users as well as regulars
- The amazing degree of flexibility and customization possible especially when you get down and dirty with the UWL XML
- It supports all SAP Business Workflow work items and SAP NetWeaver BPM tasks from as many different systems as you care to support all at the same time
- Supports alerts and notifications as well as traditional work
- It has a comprehensive API so that you can even support non-SAP work if you wish (and that has been done at a few sites)
Its primary disadvantages have been the requirement for the SAP Enterprise Portal, and a perennial challenge with performance issues – the downside of polling multiple systems – requiring some extraordinary measures to overcome these, such as the UWL Delta Pull option. If you are using the UWL over more than one system it really is essential to make sure you are using at least some of these measures to optimize the inbox.
It’s been over 10 years now since the Universal Worklist was introduced and it’s still the best of the bunch – for now – in terms of all round capability.
- Very high degree of customization and personalization possible – centrally through UWL Administration, and for each user via Personalize options
- Supports multiple systems – have all your work from ECC, SRM, CRM, etc. delivered to the one place
- Supports both SAP Business Workflow work items and SAP NetWeaver BPM tasks
- High infrastructure requirements – you must have a SAP Enterprise Portal to use it
- Not optimized to support mobile devices
Use if any of the following apply:
- You have a SAP Enterprise Portal (required)
- You want a one-stop shop
- You have a lot of occasional users
- You have multiple systems and want to feed them all to the same inbox (always a good idea to minimize support and change management costs)
- You have both SAP Business Workflow and SAP NetWeaver BPM
For more info try the chapter on Work Item Delivery in the book/ebook Practical Workflow for SAP (2nd edition)
Latest update: I hear tell from colleagues that the UWL may also be available as part of the mobilized portal – if you have invested heavily in UWL customization this is an option that might be right for you.
The POWL Worklist – Just enough, just where I need it
A relatively new player and a big step up from the old transaction SBWP inbox is the POWL Worklist for Workflow. This is something of a best of both worlds (UWL and SBWP) for sites without SAP Enterprise Portal or with expert users who primarily use SAPGUI. It’s designed to be used with the SAP NetWeaver Business Client (NWBC) but can also be used with the SAP Enterprise Portal if you wish. It’s based on the ABAP Personal Object Worklists concept which means it’s highly extensible with lots of customization and personalization options as well.
FYI – Minimum release requirement is SAP NetWeaver (SAP Business Suite Foundation) 7.02 – e.g. ECC 6.0 EHP5.
- Lightweight infrastructure – you just need the NWBC
- Runs as a ABAP WebDynpro app so can be called in a web browser as well
- Can even be run within the SAP Enterprise Portal
- Good for occasional users
- Can be extended to support multiple systems
- High degree of customization and personalization possible through the usual POWL options
- Doesn’t support SAP NetWeaver BPM Tasks
- Not optimized for mobile devices
Use if any of the following apply:
- You are ready for a better user experience than SBWP but don’t run an Enterprise Portal
- You want to add occasional users but want to give them a better user experience than SBWP
- You have implemented NWBC
The HTML5 BPM Inbox – Moving into Tablet Territory
The introduction of SAP NetWeaver BPM – both standalone and as part of SAP NetWeaver Process Orchestration – and the availability of a whole new range of UI technologies supporting all sorts of devices has prompted a bit of a rethink on workflow inbox design. The first of these was the release of a HTML5 based inbox for BPM as part of SAP NetWeaver Process Orchestration 7.3 EHP1 SP4 in June 2012.
While the primary aim here was an improved user experience and to move towards technologies that support multiple devices, internal benchmarking suggests there are some major performance advantages to be had as well.
While it doesn’t yet have the range of features of the Universal Worklist, most of the remaining major desirable features are in the roadmap for early 2013. Keep a lookout for announcements and make sure you check new release notes if this inbox is of interest to you.
- Supports SAP NetWeaver BPM Tasks
- Designed to work with on multiple devices such as tablets
- A whole lot faster than the Universal Worklist (based on our internal benchmarking)
- Doesn’t handle SAP Business Workflow tasks – yet
- Doesn’t handle multiple systems – yet
Use if any of the following apply:
- You have SAP NetWeaver Process Orchestration or SAP NetWeaver BPM 7.3 EHP1 SP4 or above and don’t want to run a SAP Enterprise Portal
- You want to run a BPM inbox on multiple devices
Find out more in Helmut Grimm’s TechEd 2012 presentation: PMC200 Making SAP NetWeaver Business Process Management Mobile
Hold on, we’re coming… harmonized SAP Workflow Inbox for Mobile, Desktop and On-Demand
Yes you read correctly… that’s harmonized SAP Workflow – not SUP Mobile Workflow. What was SUP Mobile Workflow … well that ‘s now called the Hybrid Web Container, because from an SAP point of view… well to mangle a Star Trek reference:
It’s workflow, Jim, but not as we know it.
So about now you might be thinking “Hey, what about an inbox that combines the best of the BPM HTML5 and the UWL … something that will cover all scenarios but also run well on most devices – not just laptops and tablets, but mini-tablets and phones?” and if so you are not alone.
SAP is currently working on a new harmonized workflow inbox … no final official date for this one yet (even the name itself is still being finalized) but watch out for further announcements in early 2013. The dream is to cover:
- Not just SAP Business Workflow and SAP NetWeaver BPM but extend to a broad range of A2A and B2B worklists
- Not just traditional work items and tasks but extend support to a broad range of providers across task types, event types, alerts, and notifications ( i.e. multi-provider enablement using Gateway techniques)
- Not just laptops and tablets but optimized for a range of devices including mobile phones, tablets, and desktops.
It’s ambitious and I’m really looking forward to seeing the end result (… if only so it gives me an excuse to make more of my BYOD iPhone).
What if I can’t wait… Creating your own custom Inbox
Here’s the good news… if you can’t wait for the new Unified Worklist inbox then both SAP Business Workflow and SAP NetWeaver BPM provide sufficient APIs for you to create your own custom inboxes using whatever technology you prefer.
- SAP Business Workflow provides a set of APIs as remote function modules with the prefix SAP_WAPI
- SAP NetWeaver BPM provides a set of Java APIs – for guidance on how to use these I recommend blog Customize Your SAP NetWeaver BPM through APIs
- Both SAP NetWeaver BPM and Java APIs for the UWL itself can be found at http://help.sap.com/javadocs/
Who’s doing this and what should you aim for? Well some partners have been doing some very interesting work in this space, for instance creating mobile inboxes with time and location based reminders. Helmut Grimm demonstrated 3 examples of these in his TechEd 2012 presentation:
But what about all those other inboxes…
Ok so at this point some of you are wondering about all those other application specific inboxes that you might have stumbled across in your SAP solution travels. A few examples are …
- Manager Self Service Worklist – actually this is a simple variant of the UWL using standard UWL configuration
- Supplier Relationship Management Worklist – this is an application specific worklist, but the same features can be supported and the same work items delivered via the UWL
- Customer Relationship Management Worklist – some of this is SAP Business Workflow and can be delivered by the UWL, some of this is related to a mysterious entity known as a CRM Activity and not relevant to workflow at all
- SAP Mobile app HRApprovals – this is a SAP native iPhone app that looks at certain HR approvals such as leave requests and timesheets
Latest update: BTW if HRApprovals interests you, you can check it out in the SAP Mobile Apps store.
Whenever a new application specific workflow inbox is proposed, ask yourself:
- Is <insert specific inbox application here> the only inbox certain users need to use?
- Does it provide a significant advantage (in features or convenience) over and above what can be achieved with other inboxes?
- Does the convenience of the application specific inbox outweigh the overhead of the additional support?
- How many more workflow inboxes are we prepared to support?
Sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not – it’s a judgement call.
Do I really have to choose? What if I want to use more than one inbox?
Actually lots of customers take advantage of multiple SAP inboxes – both to provide different inboxes for different users, and to provide multiple inboxes for the same user to suit different scenarios.
What motivates a multi-inbox strategy? For some it is to provide greater focus or special features for those who regularly work in a particular application;for others sometimes to provide access from specific devices or in specific locations; and for still others sometimes just for simple convenience.
In fact multiple inboxes is business-as-usual for a lot of us these days. I can reach my email from my laptop, over Citrix from a public machine or on my iPhone – so being able to reach my workflow inbox from multiple locations is not that big a stretch.
From a technology viewpoint, multiple inboxes are no problem – all of the SAP inboxes are consistent because they all draw the work from the same sources, and provide standard mechanisms for handling common exception situations such as attempting to complete work in one inbox, when it’s already been completed or cancelled in another.
For the rest it’s up to you – How many inboxes do you want to support? And what infrastructure do you have to support it?