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Pre-columbian stockade illustrations by George Bloodsworth, www.cahokiamounds.comI have had the pleasure of visiting a number of companies globally of varying sizes and in a broad range of industry segments recently. One of the great benefits of hearing the experience of companies using SAP is that even in their use of a relatively standardized application platform there is still the opportunity for these business to differentiate themselves from their competitors on more than just brand.

One of the ways that they’re achieving differentiation is by looking to supplementary technologies to enhance business processes. For the less sophisticated organizations this is done with paper based or extra-ERP solutions without any meaningful integration with SAP however for the larger organizations with higher transaction volumes and a broader operational footprint paper based processes are inadequate and some sort of automation and workflow capability is required.

The question is whether or not those enhancements should be undertaken in the full ERP stack or whether they should be done using technology approaches that can be easily redirected, adjusted and refined.

As a simple example consider the idea of business reporting. Business users that lean heavily on unstructured technologies like Microsoft Excel are often criticized for using Microsoft Excel as a data staging locale, or worse, using Excel as the actual business reporting technology. While I am not an advocate of using Excel for business reporting I get the reason that this happens. Some business reporting is evolving. In that evolution, the exact characteristics of how things should be reported may not be clearly understood or defined. This developing requirement is particularly true when businesses are rapidly growing and need to be able to adapt and redirect quickly. This agility in reporting becomes a major differentiation if the management leadership is examining a broad range of possibilities in terms of classification and organization. Statutory reporting likely remains unchanged and will continue to be aligned with the legal requirements of a given country, county and state but for the purposes of internal decision making the requirements are likely different. One company that I spoke to described how they use simple query tools to define the structures that they ultimately want to develop as BW/BI cubes. Using “what if” analysis with simple table, infoset and logical database queries against ERP data may not be efficient in the longer term but it does represent big advantages over BI/BW data cube based reporting when you are still working out what data makes significant sense in the reporting cycle.

90% of the SAP technology stack is very much oriented to the castle with a moat approach

This idea that you quickly build what you need to achieve a specific objective is what I call stockade based development. This is particularly true when you are  considering effort around governance and compliance related initiatives. Whether it be reporting, automated data collection, workflow and collaboration based data gathering or transaction processing automation like BDC’s, leveraging APIs or using LSMWs, the reality is that sometimes you cannot be sure how large your effort needs to be in relation to the benefits that the business will yield from a given process. The idea of building stockades to protect business functions and contain and align business practices is nothing unusual. The idea of mitigating controls is something familiar to auditors, accountants and folks in the finance function. The idea is that, under the environmental constraints that you have, it makes sense not to fully bake a process or institute programmatic controls if the process can be managed with oversight, manual reviews, people and process adjustments.

Sometimes though, you want something a little more robust. Something that will endure for a period of time but still supports agility and flexibility but which has sustainable structure and form for the mainstream. Custom ABAP development often doesn’t meet this requirement. The main reason that ABAP doesn’t align with the stockade approach is bound up in the classic waterfall approach that is used for most ABAP development. Additionally the practicalities of change management, the injection of instantaneous new requirements into a projects stream with agility and the overall change management approach required for good SAP system governance doesn’t align. Building solutions with ABAP and in fact probably 90% of the SAP technology stack is very much oriented to the castle with a moat approach. You survey the land, you level out the process kinks, you dig the moat, lay the foundations, build the defense line, build the towers and ramparts and have clearly defined ingress and egress channels through a heavily secured set of technologies. For the business this level of diligence is rarely appreciated and seems counter intuitive to the approaches offered by many other technologies.

When you’re looking to provide the business with agility, an adaptable approach to collaboration, workflow, remote enablement and automation my thoughts are that you need to consider just how important the castle is as opposed to the simple palisade. In classical times palisade defenses were often deployed to achieve a simple enough objective. Provide sufficient protection to and encampment until such time as a decision is taken to build something more robust. Palisade fencing often forms part of a larger stockade defense structure that would be used to encircle the construction on a longer term stone castle. This has to be considered as analogous to providing the  business with an interim solution that is elegant, functional and addresses the alignment goals of the business without the need to invest heavily. While this could be considered technology that might be discarded, it needs to be robust enough to align with the overall objectives, provide some level of resiliency and assure quality in the end to end process.

Most important, consider that, while your long term objective may be a stone castle, a wooden stockade may buy you time to get your house in order and prove out the business palate for certain new structures, business rules and alignment initiatives.

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