My eldest son says that I am ‘very judgemental’ – I don’t really have a defence and though I do tend to complain a lot about stuff, the truth is that there is a lot of stuff out there to complain about!
You can guess then where this post is going. It’s another rant about bad programming and poor applied thinking to technology. I’ll concede that things have changed immensely over the years since SAP was first let loose on the unsuspecting business community but you would be surprised how much new bad code crops up.
Yesterday I was posed the challenge of trying build automation around a multi-headed gorgon in the form of the SAP transaction MI10. It’s one of those peculiar transactions that shouldn’t be used that much but which surprisingly probably gets used quite a lot given the fact that inventory sometimes gets damaged, lost or mysteriously grows legs and walks out of the warehouse.
On face value, the transaction is probably not altogether terrible but it is when you discover that certain complex scenarios make it super difficult to work with.
Getting physical with your inventory
To automate any kind of process for more efficient use you need to look to repeatable patterns to reduce the amount of logic that is needed to stream the data. In this instance, if you are making use of serialized inventory and something needs to be said, stated or changed in relation to that, then you need to abide by your systems’ accounting rules and provide the write downs and write offs with as much information as possible in order to avoid an audit exception note.
With tight margins, efforts to constrain inventory and free up working capital, the physical inventory process is key to ensuring that you have in stock what your system says you have in stock, and if you have variances – account for them.
MI10 can be used as an umbrella transaction for the equivalent activities of taking and recording physical inventory and making adjustments. SAP supports you being able to break this process into three tasks streams but also allows you to unify them in MI10. All well and good. At the time of making the postings to adjust inventory you should know what the physical quantity of items is that you wish to adjust for. In MI10 this quantity value then dictates how many fields need to be populated with data by rendering a screen with as many field spaces for serial numbers as there are items to adjust for.
Since would be a fine approach except that this doesn’t make use of an ALV grid in the ABAP program but instead presents up to 19 fixed fields which are used to check against existing serial numbers. The screen is pretty dumb. When you have more than 19 items to enter you also have to scroll down to get to more fields.
For a human entering the data this is fine, for the most part, but transcription errors are easy to introduce and manual entry is terribly inefficient.
It’s unfortunate that this is such a difficult transaction to work with and it is unfortunate that serialization was apparently tackled as an after-thought in the way that the program was enhanced.
When I tried to automate this process using an alternative method, say with a BAPI, I found one – BAPI_MATPHYSINV_POSTDIFF , but unfortunately it doesn’t support the important serialization aspect. Weird, since BAPI_MATPHYSINV_COUNT does….
So it’s disappointing to say the very least. Looking out on SCN it seems the only way around this is to once again get an ABAPer to write something, something to fix an inherent defect in the thinking around this important business process.
How do you ensure that your employees have just the right level of understanding and skills to meet the demands of the job but keep them motivated and assure data quality.
Michael Management (MMC) , a specialist SAP eLearning company revealed some interesting characteristics about how SAP users feel about their training in general in their most recent survey.
Almost half of the respondents (44%) indicated that they preferred eLearning self paced online training and 43% indicated that they hadn’t received sufficient training to perform their job responsibilities adequately. Almost a third indicated that they should have received at least 41 hours or more training in the last year to do their jobs properly and yet hadn’t received that. MMC also revealed that one of the reasons that the training doesn’t happen is that for more than a quarter of the respondents, there isn’t enough budget for training and another quarter indicated that there was nothing particularly useful or appropriate on offer. With only a quarter indicating that there isn’t enough time for training what are the choices left?
On the job training
On the job training seems to be the most common approach used to getting new employees up to speed to be able to do their jobs adequately but with this being heavily dependent on how well processes and procedures are documented as well as the relative effectiveness of the person giving the OJT, it should be little suprise that employees are frustrated or demoralized. Larger, more sophisticated organizations have comprehensive and extensive training programs blending a combination of job shadowing, classroom instruction and eLearning but it can be a challenge keeping this content current and contemporary.
One of the ways to minimize the dependence on training programmes to assure data quality and business process efficiency, is to automate as many processes as possible or to reduce processes to simple procedures that can be easily understood and leave little to interpretation or discretionary decision making. Businesses don’t want to necessarily employ automatons but at the same time they do want to ensure that employees cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s in the execution of their job tasks.
Another survey by ON24, a webcasting and virtual communications solutions company indicated that more than half of entry level employees need explicit skills training and that the best trained industry segment is the medical and pharmaceutical industry where half of respondents indicate that they receive good training. While almost half of all the respondents reported that training is a top priority in their organizations more than three quarters also feel that training helps them do their jobs better, improving company performance and enhancing personal career goals.
SAP implementation projects
Training as part of a new SAP implementation is pretty commonplace, it is usually an integral part of the project delivery and it gets incorporated into the overall budget of the implementation but long after the project has ended and the consultants have moved on, how does your organization ensure that employees know what they are doing and why they do it to ensure data quality and proper business transaction processing?
Many of the companies that I interact with, indicate that the appropriate use of SAP is not something that represents a core focus of training existing or new hires. What they do indicate is that data quality and operational data processing challenges continue to plague the business. The challenges are so great that they are scurrying to implement more robust approaches to data gathering and data maintenance in core systems of record like SAP.
By implementing increased oversight and governance to the end to end data management process, particularly for master data and master records objects, they are obviating the need to expend extraordinary amounts on expensive training and education programs for employees.
Your own army of SAP consultants
It’s my opinion that spending money on training employees how to use an infinitely configurable ERP solution like SAP is a bit of a double edged sword. When you educate and teach your employees about ERP capability through formal classroom education programs that have certification processes at the conclusion, you are grooming some of your potentially best employees in how to ultimately become SAP consultants. If you’re a consulting company or have ambitious other ERP projects then fine.
If you can retain them and leverage that learning for future projects then that is all well and good, but invariably, those very classroom settings, expensive as they are, don’t teach your employees much about the way that you run your business and why certain processes and procedures exist. You’re better off investing in some very targeted eLearning and using that to explain concepts and principles that are relevant to your business and how it uses SAP. At Winshuttle this is further augmented by periodic webinars and online training courses and webcast content.
The difference in what you save on appropriate eLearning programs versus expensive proprietary training courses in classrooms is better spent on deploying lean data management approaches to automating and guiding processes and procedures.
Mechanisms such as automations with templates and workflows assure data quality, process governance and ensure compliant data management processes are in place and adhered to.
There are many options available for mass data maintenance in SAP and while third party applications that connect over RFC are not necessarily the ideal method for mass actions in SAP, the other options tend to be either very technical or very limited.
LSMW is quite frankly a sorely abused tool that auditors complain vociferously about. IT has no business messing with data in productive systems and business users have no business having access to LSMW.
The mass transactions and even BAPIs on offer in SAP natively, even the newer and revised ones, lag behind the capabilities of the configured or customized transactions in ERP itself and often never get configured or modified to align with what the business needs so they simply never catch up or align.
It might be proposed that business consider BODI/BODS but then this quickly falls into the realm of heavy technical lifting and architecting and configuring a complex solution with a long tail of deployment before the business can actually get going with the solution. Besides, BODS/BODI are often exclusively tools in the domain of IT or technically proficient users. If in the interceding period between selection and implementation of such a solution, the business pivots or changes direction, how quickly do these solutions re-align with the requirements of the business? My experience and that of others, suggests that they take a long time and maintaining them comes at a tremendous technical and operational expense.
In the absence of something better, business is back to an agile solution that can quickly connect to the configured transactions in SAP ERP (like MM01/MM02) calling them over RFC and filling the screen fields in the background (BDC) or interactively (GUI Scripting). Performance and throughput hinges heavily on several factors but not least of these is the way the application is positioned and the resources committed for the task.
Proximity is everything
The closer the client is to the SAP applications, the faster the throughput (you’re then not dealing with network latency as a degrading factor). Also consider running these sessions against a batch server rather than just any old application server on the front end. If the call of the transaction over RFC process has to compete with regular dialog users in daily work then someone or something is going to have a bad performance experience, the batch processor is more tolerant but the wet ware (people) tend not to be…
The selected scripted method also has a tremendous impact – if you use GUI scripting then this the process is going to be dog slow as each screen gets painted and each field filled – this classic screen scraping should be avoided as much as possible.
While BDC over RFC is not as high performance as LSMW you reap benefits in other ways, the user who owns the data gets to load the data ( not usually an option with LSMW) and the errors (if any) show up in the excel workbook or access database in line with the records you are trying to change or create – using other methods you often have to convert the data to CSV or text and load a text or CSV file and then try to reconcile the items to the log – not pretty and also pretty painful.
Finally I will add that abuse of these third party tools is also often a challenge seen in the field, consider where they are positioned.
Transaction recorders are not recommended for the millions of records data sets, do they get used for them? Sure, but should they – probably not.
My experience is that once you hit about 30,000 rows of data, the question becomes one of, how long are you prepared to wait for this job to run? With throughput of around 30 fully loaded materials per minute using a single BDC session on a small ECC box can you afford almost 1,000 minutes (16 – 17h) of load time?
Do you have thoughts on better ways than these?
The SAP press engine wheeled out a big gun this month with the announcement of S/4 HANA – pitched as the successor to SAP ERP – Hasso Plattner and Bill McDermott both made statements about the importance of the announcement. While there still seem a great many unanswered questions about how S/4 will work and run, one thing is clear, SAP has been preparing for this announcement for some time. While the specifics may still be very murky we know a few very specific things.
The first fact that we know is that S/4 HANA will run on the SAP HANA platform and the primary user experience will be delivered through the Fiori application layer. For some companies this will be a welcome announcement as they toss coins to decide whether to adopt, stay with or abandon SAP as an ERP platform provider. There can be little doubt that for companies that have made a significant investment in SAP’s flagship ERP product, this announcement holds the promise of a new lease of life on SAP’s aging applications.
The HANA platform was the first horse to be presented from the new SAP stable around 2010 with the SAP Fiori UX being formally released a short time later and now boasting some 400+ role based apps SAP ‘solutions’ providing a personalized responsive and simple user experience.
Certainly customers that I speak to are all over the place in terms of their hopes and aspirations for HANA, some are great advocates, having already moved off of a dependency on one of the traditional RDMS for the underlying database but few or none talk about their own applications that they have developed on the HANA platform. Internally we have played around with the standard APIs and demonstrated an ability to directly write to the tables with but without clear use cases it seems a little premature to put too much more effort into this.
What does hold promise, is the announcement in that SAP S/4 HANA will be offered in the cloud, on-premise and as a hybrid deployment to provide maximum choice to customers. The SAP Simple Finance solution was the first SAP S/4 HANA solution to be offered and was announced in June 2014. While the specifics of the next generation solutions seems a little vague I did reach out to some of the more prominent advocates of HANA to determine just how exactly customers could transition to an S/4 HANA experience today even with only Simple Finance 1.0 on offer.
An important component that has to be considered is the SAP Landscape Transformation Replication Server, which you can learn more about through the Application Operations Guide targeted for customer consumption at help.sap.com.
SAP Landscape Transformation (SAP LT) Replication Server is technology that allows you to load and replicate data in real-time from ABAP or non-ABAP source systems to SAP HANA environments. LT Replication Server uses a trigger-based replication approach to pass data from the source system to the target system.
The Replication Server can be installed either as a separate SAP system, or if you have enough iron, on any ABAP source system.
The following graphic outlines the basic concept and the typical landscape (for an ABAP source system) using the trigger-based data replication approach of the SAP LT Replication Server.
In order to replicate data the Replication Server needs to be configured to load and replicate data from one source system to up to four target database schema of HANA systems. Data can by replicated either in real-time, or by schedule. When using trigger-based data replication table-based retrieval of data occurs from application tables in the source system (or source systems). Transformation rules can also be defined for the data replication process.
As you can see, the approach from the application tables to the Replication Engine is to integrate by way of RFC but between the Replication Server and a HANA target system the connection is achieved using a DB connection and so is likely to perform well.
Typically on ERP systems each time a connection is established, logon data and other system parameters, such as character code pages, are exchanged which causes a system load of approximately 2.5 – 3 KB on the network each time a user logs on to the SAP System, for example when you use a BDC session with Winshuttle Transaction to send data from Excel, the initial logon tends to take some time.
The largest amount of overhead for an RFC transmission occurs when making the connection (or calling a function like a transaction). The size of the data blocks is configurable but there is a whole art to choosing optimal block size depending on the payload that you intend to exchange over RFC – you often need to make a compromise between the size of the data block and the manageability of the data. SAP’s own tests have shown that for data of approximately 100 KB and greater, the overhead when making the connection or calling the function is negligible.
SAP says large amounts of data only produce additional improvements in performance when ‘very good data compression programs’ are used, one can only assume that the mechanisms used for the LT replication fall into this category.
Certainly returning to the considerations of finance, if your intent is to continue with the status quo of running your financials on ERP and you plan to do more analytics and reconciliation on an S/4 system today then you will need to set up replication between BSEG, BKPF, BSIS and BSAS and the S/4 system as a minimum. Certainly if you have big data in these tables the replication may not perform very well unless perhaps you are running on a HANA database.
I have been told that in Simple Finance 1.0 the standard Accounting interface BAPI’s are used but in 2.0 there are dedicated posting programs so for existing SAP customers, trying out S/4 today on Simple Finance 1.0 may not be as difficult as one thinks. You can read more about the possibilities for integrating ERP finance with S/4 by way of the blog post by Jens Krueger and you can read more on how to optimize RFC also at help.sap.com
Over the years I have gone to great pains to explain how businesses can save time and money with automation of business processes in systems of record like SAP but despite this, there are some who doubt that real time and money savings can be obtained through automation of things like transactions.
The power of preparation
The approach is actually quite straightforward, if you already have your data in a spreadsheet then the next question is how you get that data into the system.
Many respected experts, industry productivity gurus in particular, will argue that the data should never be in a spreadsheet and should never have found its way to a spreadsheet. This statement is made on that assumption that data processing tasks are all very hygienic and straightforward.
As any business user will tell you, placing orders, doing adjustments, mass changing data is anything but straightforward and a spreadsheet is often the most straight forward way of collating and compiling data before taking any action.
If you’re taking the output of the spreadsheet and either copying and pasting the data into entry screens or manually transcribing then consider how much time you are spending on that task? In fact, if you are even converting it into comma separated values for loading through some tool, consider the amount of time you spend on that, the frequency and relative reliability of that approach.
Injecting data into systems is a prescription for improved productivity
Every minute you spend on transcription, copy and paste, reformat, checking and rechecking, could be precious moments that you will never recover.
If you eliminate those steps, accelerate the data injection into the system of record and avoid the likelihood of duplicate entries, omissions and transcription faults then you will reap the reward of time savings.
Multiply the time saved by the value of your time and that’s a part of your ROI. You can test this out with any ROI calculator that allows you to define a given process.
The great thing about using a standardized method for interfacing with your system of record is that it can be used for small quantities and big quantities of data and depending on the nature of the tool that you use to create the automation, you may have many automation scenarios for different tasks that you need to perform.
While continuing to use spreadsheets to stage data may seem old fashioned to some users, the reality is that this is one of the most powerful and most flexible ways available for preparing data and while automation doesn’t necessarily save you time in the preparation stage it will save you time when you finally have to apply the prepared data to your system of record.
I recently attended a webinar by SAP and SuccessFactors that attempted to argue the merits of cloud solutions as primarily being able to meet and address the lowered sustainment costs associated with using SaaS by eliminating the opportunity for customers to customize their cloud application – what SAP mentor Chris Paine promotes is the idea of enhancing functionality through extensions – using vendor guaranteed APIs.
On the one hand it was argued that SaaS solutions aren’t customizable but are extensible but the specific nuances of the difference between these two concepts get very blurry very quickly.
As the speaker rightly pointed out, some organizations really do differentiate themselves from their competitors by virtue of the fact that they have unique business processes and unique business process solution requirements.
This opportunity of SaaS cloud solutions unfortunately does seem unattainable to those organizations that already have a solution that addresses their needs but for which they pay a heavy price not only in maintenance but also in terms of flexibility.
Creating safe connections
What SAP is now pushing therefore is the notion that you can augment your cloud based solutions by making use of the SAP HANA cloud platform. For those who have been tracking HANA for some time, this is all little or no surprise. Where the HANA seems to really differentiate itself or appears to be trying to differentiate itself is in terms of the methods that it uses to allow safe and secure integration between your SaaS solution and any applications you might develop as custom functionality in the cloud.
At Winshuttle I have seen similar challenges for years with clients at the desktop but it has also started to become a challenge at the web form level with low code solutions with an increasing number of companies wanting to enable collaboration with their business partners either as suppliers, vendors or joint ventures. The idea of cross collaboration between companies is nothing new, it of course helps to reduce business friction and accelerate the speed with which transaction processing can be completed but it comes with a cost.
Aside from the tax associated with customizing ERP there is an additional cost which is most often manifest in the need for the business to create an access path in the suit of armour that it presents to the outside world to facilitate collaboration.
Sending email outside of your business is one thing but exposing your ERP and file systems is something entirely different especially if you are considering doing something mobile.
Systems of record exposed to the world
Interface bus and message based systems get the business down this path very effectively; are made robust with encryption and password and user identification but tend to be inflexible and rigid. If the requirements change, the interface needs to be changed and the message structure changed and this takes time. Backwards and forwards compatibility may also represent a challenge, especially if you are dealing with many business partners.
While the new promise of the HANA Cloud platform will not solve all the difficulties and resolve all the anxieties of companies pushing to open systems and the cloud, it seems to represent a good option for companies that are committed to a heavy investment in redeveloping existing custom solutions or embarking on a new way of thinking how they use cloud applications and extend them with unique business differentiating features.
For those watching the budget it seems that the pricing model is heavily dependent on the physical number of extensions that a company decides it needs. Extension packages are offered as Standard, Enterprise and Supplemental editions based on the size of the usage profile per named user. It is conceivable that the cost can become significant therefore, when you have a large number of users.
I have been going through an exercise with colleagues evaluating stories around Business Process Automation solutions and where they fit into the classic data movement challenge with SAP. For some years now we have taken the position that there are three areas of interaction with ERP systems like SAP. At the lowest level there is the grunt work associated with manual entry.
You take data from a form or a phone call, enter the ERP data entry screen and enter the leave request, material definition, the purchase requisition, the sales order or the manual journal. This approach to manual entry works perfectly well for probably up to a dozen or so entries of low to moderate complexity.
The manual entry process gets a little hairier when the entry requires multiple levels of data entry and goes beyond a few simple entry screens and in some instances we find that companies preferred a template based approach even on single records when the number of fields go beyond about twenty to thirty. The rationale for using a template even on a single record is all about the data quality issue.
By using a template they are able to positively influence the data quality metric by being able to define certain characteristics as mandatory or bound by certain rules even when the SAP system itself doesn’t have rules around certain fields.
This is a classic business process automation sweet-spot for Business User Application Development. As is inevitable in such circumstances, the question that then arises, is what does one do with exceedingly large volumes of data or terribly complex scenarios where a template based approach is simply not good enough.
What we have noticed is that for relatively stable end-to-end processes where say purchase orders, sales orders or similar activities occur with particular regularity in high volumes, that a more IT delivered system-based approach to data capture is preferable.
Minimizing human interaction
Often there is a requirement for a solution where as little human interaction as possible, is preferred. Examples of this might be the integration of a Warehouse Management System, a shopping cart solution or a point-of-sale system.
Where these are in use, the application of IDOCS, EDI or something like PI/XI or an integration server are by far the most preferred approach. The reason for this is largely about scale but sometimes it is also about the asynchronous way in which many of these kinds of solutions acceptably work.
The challenge then is in addressing that mid-range of data movement challenges, the one where you have enough data to create or maintain that manual entry is awkward or a nuisance or doesn’t justify the building of a formal IT ‘big solution’.
Part of the issue with this area of ERP use is that IT is nowadays expected to do much more with less and as a consequence their budgets are not being allocated to the smaller business process improvement initiatives such as keystroke minimization, UI simplification or transcription avoidance. If the business wants these attended to then the business needs to find the funding of such initiatives as a project from operational budgets.
Where IT will step into the fray with a large solution for the business is on extending accessibility to the ERP platform via mobile devices. The thinking behind this, is more broad brush than specifically addressing individual use cases or providing point solutions.
Solutions like SAP Personas and SAP Fiori speak to making the functionality and data within SAP ERP accessible to a larger community in a more digestible way. Mobile solutions in particular, are an interesting area for business process improvement not only because they provide access but also because they accelerate the end-to-end process by enabling participants in an end-to-end process to be more responsive but doesn’t address the challenge of working with a number of records simultaneously.
Additionally, mobile isn’t very useful for dealing with large quantities of discrete data entry even when dealing only with a single record. While I could see a sales person for example entering a one line sales order into a mobile a device the idea that they might enter a fifty line sales order seems a little less likely.
If this challenge with using a mobile device is well understood for a sales order then extending the challenge further to the creation of a material master that may have as many as a 100+ fields the use of a mobile device to do this, seems even less acceptable.
When considering mobile solutions it should be clear then that while a mobile application does often bring improved usability, the challenge that the business has, may not be only related to usability it may also be related to data volumes and a mobile solution may not adequately address that challenge.
The forty something company SAP has changed it’s branding logo and now it is all gold.
Just the like the messages that are coming from CEO Bill McDermott and User Experience labs in the form of products like Fiori and Personas, everything is much simpler and changing the way the brand is presented seems to be a part of that.
Part of it seems to be intent on tugging at emotions if the Forbes post by Ryan Somers of SAP is to be believed. Even Dennis Howlett opined that customers may actually care about the new branding, after-all SAP is not the only major software vendor engaged in brand transformations, Salesforce recently changed theirs too.
A few days ago we heard that Apple was readying a push out of brands like Bose that might compete with Beats and today we hear that Microsoft will retain the Lumia brand and discard the Nokia brand as part of the integration of the Windows phone division.
The iconic blue Trapezium that SAP employees, consultants and customers have been familiar with since the 1970’s has now been replaced with the bold, bright ‘gold’ letters S, A and P.
angular lines are old news
It seemed only yesterday that the navy blue of the trapezoid was changed to light blue but actually it was three years ago – my how time flies.
The new gold colour is not a new one in the SAP palette. Gold or that orangey yellow has been used on numerous occasions with SAP content like the partner network of which companies like Winshuttle is a member, the Business Objects ( BOBJ ) product line, SAP baby product Business One ( B1 ) and the seemingly failed cloud ERP Business by Design ( Byd). The colour is most commonly found associated with the analytics side of the branding house.
While the loss of the trapezium and comforting blue will likely cause a brief stir among the dyed-in-the-wool SAP fans, the only ones who are likely to have severe regret may be those with tattoos but hopefully there aren’t too many of those around. I think too, that despite the news of the new alliance between SAP and IBM on hosting, the rebranding really does demonstrate the final departure from the original root that inspired the SAP product – IBM.
While the significance of the letters has morphed over the years the message of what SAP is all about hasn’t really changed, there are a lot more hounds in the kennels but the objective and mission largely remains the same. What has really changed though is the technical components that now make up the offerings.
Over the coming months and years we will likely see more convergence of the technology and efforts to make the experience and look and feel of how users work with the applications more consistent and seamless.
There’s an acknowledgment that getting more business advocacy means appealing not just to the back office paper shufflers but also to the front of house and the executive and the best way to do that is to put an easy to access and usable face on what is undeniably the boldest player in the ERP market irrespective of what colour it chooses to brand itself.
Perhaps a new era of SAP user experience and the cloud along with this new branding will genuinely come with a little bit of a Midas touch for everyone.
‘Dirty Data’ is a business problem, not an IT Problem, says analyst firm Gartner. More than 25% of critical data in leading companies has defects but if you’re relying on IT to solve the problem you may have it all wrong…
As you can imagine, with possible data growth rates of anything between 10 and 50% year-on-year, roughly a quarter of all the new data will be faulty in some way and unless you address matters, your ratio of bad data may remain constant but the physical number of items will grow just as fast as your data.
Organizations have two ways that they can tackle the challenge. They can deal with the data quality issue passively or actively – relying on IT to ‘fix’ the data will likely never get your data to a level of quality that satisfies the needs of the business.
Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted
Passive data governance means addressing data issues through identification and remediation after the records have already been created.
This is an approach that is pretty commonplace especially when you are relying on IT and it is generally accepted as a traditional way to improve data quality and clean up faulty data in systems.
This approach typically batches the data hygiene activity and involves data extraction, profiling, transformation and update.
There are many products on the market that offer this capability with varying degrees of automation – you can also handle this issue manually and simply throw bodies at cleaning up the data but in many instances if you already have the faulty data in your system and are not able to prevent more faulty data from being created, you’re continually in ‘catch-up’ mode.
Corral your data
A second approach is a little more systematic in the data creation and maintenance process and is typically considered as an Active Data Governance approach.
In active data governance, systems are configured in such a way that data cannot physically be entered into a system if it does not conform to a basic set of rules. The rules could be based on a rules engine or the configuration of a given application. Depending on whether the data is of a transactional, referential or master record nature determines the kinds of data validation that one might establish. For example. The entering of sales orders into a system may only accept sales orders where inventory is available for dispatch or where an existing customer identifier is provided.
Other kinds of order entry systems might allow you to create the order right up to the point where you define the delivery address and the contents of the order but which allow anonymous sales or sales that are tied to your email address. In such instances there is no existing requirement for a customer account.
How you choose to configure your systems really hinges on the nature of your business and your business rules but if you have loose rules and light configuration the risks of faulty data getting into your systems is greater.
Embedded rules and tribal knowledge
The characteristics of your rules for your systems are often implicitly embedded in the very systems that you use to capture the data and this is one of the reasons why you may be struggling to get on top of that pile of faulty data and not able to easily prevent additional faulty data being gathered. Changing the rules may be difficult or impractical and sometimes you simply have to work around them or live with their inadequacies. Things may be further exacerbated by the fact that no single person actually knows what all the rules are or where they are maintained or held.
In my conversations with SAP customers for example, I often hear that the reason bad data is gathered and entered is because often the roles of the people in the data management process are defined but without good consideration given to the actual capabilities of the individuals who fulfil those roles.
As a consequence inventory masters for example, may be created with data attributes like storage Location = TBD (To be determined) or a gross weight of 1 gram instead of the actual weight of the inventory item. There’s actually a rule here, but the rule is, if you don’t know the answer use TDB or 1 gram depending on the field. These data management rules are therefore tribal knowledge and probably oblivious to the rest of the business.
The only way this data will be corrected is if you pick it up in a passive data governance pass after the fact. An approach where you extract all items with storage location equal to ‘TBD’ for example and then sit down and assign storage locations and update the records accordingly. This may be quite an acceptable approach if you have the resources and discipline and can afford the time delay.
When there’s no urgency or real concern about this data then this approach may be acceptable but in the longer term it needs to be recognized that slow reaction to poor data simply means more bad data gets added to a growing pile.
ConAgra Foods an American packaged foods company that makes and sells supermarkets, restaurant and food service brands chose active data governance over passive data governance as the preferred approach to data management in their SAP system of record and this approach included improved handling of hundreds of rules and fields to get products to market faster.
Understanding whether your way of dealing with data management is a passive or an active one is something you should get a clear understanding of.
Working out where your business rules are, and how you assign roles and responsibilities in terms of data management is another – sales people for example, often don’t care about logistics data or even accounting data unless it impacts them personally. Similarly, accounting folks typically don’t care about the purchasing contact within a customer but they do care about the accounts payable contact when the account becomes overdue.
Only when you have a clear understanding of what your current data management approach is and what your data quality is like can you really apply appropriate energy to improving it. You need to be able to understand whether you need additional tools or data management reorganization in order to manage your data better but these won’t miraculously change the state of your data.
Getting your organization right is often a first step but it’s not the only one – start by recognizing data quality as a serious problem. Measure it, report it and determine how you want it to look in the future then choose a path that is most appropriate to your business needs.
The Twittersphere, LinkedIN and the wires have been ablaze with the news of SAP’s plan to purchase Concur for $129 per share, or $8.3 billion. Although it is alleged that dialog has been going on for some time it seems SAP was the only real suitor.
Of course the media fallout quickly began and Safra Catz, recently announced CEO of Oracle was among the first to lay into the announcement saying SAP basically paid too much. NO comment was made about whether or not this was a smart move to add to the SAP litter or not, it seems that may have been unnecessary.
How much is enough ultimately? In reality SAP still labours under a mantle of usability challenges – FIORI will address some of thse but that’s a long term vision. Concur becomes yet another example of how SAP is trying to address that balance between usability, functionality and executive advocacy. In reality usability and adoption matters immensely, they are application traits that sing to the hearts and minds of the middle tier of corporate management and the personal assistants of executives has a very special place in solution advocacy.
In many respects, the Concur acquisition will be not dissimilar to Successfactors except that it closes the loop on an even larger audience of organizational players. All organizations that have personnel who incur expenses will be interested in a solution that provides a simple, easy to use interface and an available everywhere, anywhere on anything experience.
My first brush with Concur
My first brush with Concur was back in around 2005/2006 when we adopted Concur for expense reimbursement during my work at one of the mobile carriers in the US. The Concur implementation was well managed internally, piloted and then rolled out and for the most part went off without a hitch. On the SAP, side the integration steps were rapidly put in place and accounting quickly adopted and accelerated the deployment. It was a resounding success despite the fact that the whole user experience involved little or no SAP interaction. You filled up a web template, printed it, scanned receipts, faxed them to a number, or attached scans of your receipts or scanned everything into a PDF and sent that to an email address. The whole experience was so simple. No internal envelopes with paperwork to get lost, minimal delays in processing, a simple workflow and bam! Your were reimbursed for out of pocket expenses
When I moved to working for SAP, expense submissions were excruciating. They involved entering your expenses into a browser based NetWeaver session and then having to do a posting simulation printing a hardcopy of the simulation and sending that to accounting for reimbursement. Not only were thousands of SAP employees adding to the mountain of filed paper, we were also contributing to the incredibly expensive environmental costs associated with using paper. It was such an incredible step backwards that I think I was somewhat dumbfounded but of course if you’re relatively low down the totem pole you don’t rock the boat unnecessarily. While the process was pretty well oiled, the turnaround time on expense reimbursement was about two weeks but this may have had more to do with ludicrous batching of accounting cycles but who really knows. Working with SAP involved anything except simplicity.
Roll around 2014 and my employer Winshuttle has been using Concur for probably around a year or more now and the end-to-end process is so incredibly simple. I may have thought my first brush with Concur was relatively painless but it is even more so today. Receipts are captured with my mobile phone, there’s an app for Windows and IOS and undoubtedly for Android too. There’s the web interface and attachments that are supported include PDF’s and the usual image files. We use a basic workflow and once I have submitted my claim I get notifications about its status.
There are some things that I don’t like about the way we specifically handle it processing but that’s a different matter. The reality is that the process is painless for me and certainly for accounting, they really do applaud the decision to choose Concur over the previous method we used with spreadsheets and attached receipts. We don’t use SAP for our back end accounting but I know our corporate cards are linked to Concur so when an expense appears of the corporate credit card it shows up as an un-expensed charge in your inbox.
At Winshuttle we really appreciate the way that the application works because screams usability and it really makes this whole data management activity straightforward for everyone. It improves data quality, posting accuracy and promotes data capture at the source.
Again, I want to emphasize that when you consider this acquisition, the curiosity for some may seem to be that SAP already had an expense and travel management solution of its own, just as it had a full-blown full-faceted HCM solution before the acquisition of SuccessFactors but if you’re thinking that all this is an alternative lipstick on the pig and a lazy way to do what SAP is doing with solutions like FIORI then you’re missing important aspects to the direction SAP is going – this acquisition was seemingly well considered.
Cool, adaptable and functional.
SAP battles on multiple fronts. The high end ERP’s have saturated the big corporates and all that is left is a few holding out with their custom systems or legacy solutions that they remain addicted to. Eventually those systems may get displaced but those are long sell cycles and career changers. There’ll be a view upgrades from middle tier ERP users to SAP along the way too.
On another front, there’s the proverbial trench wars that are going on between Oracle and SAP where customers with deep pockets and a radical palate for change will rip and replace as part of renewal or transformation initiatives. At the time of the centenary of the WWI it is easy to see strong similarities in the high end ERP market and the dig in mentality of opposing forces in France and Belgium in 1914.
The front that the system integrators only now seem to have realized is where the real new money may exist is in the SMB market. SAP knows this is a burgeoning and under serviced market – it is positioned for the small ERP customers along with the likes of SAGE and others with solutions like B1 but this is a market where keenly priced full function ERP solutions that position for aspirational growth can be incredibly successful, something where B1 is akin to DUPLO (clumsy and basic) and the ERP suite is the CREATOR (old school but infinitely flexible) series. Continuing this LEGO analog, Concur and Successfactors may be the MIXELS – cool and adaptable. Customers want what’s cool and adaptable as well functional.
For these prospects though, a crappy UI is not going to get you the attention and advocacy that you want and desperately need. When you’re signing a seven or eight figure deal for a new system it has to sing to your heart – Concur and Successfactors will do that!
SAP seems to have come to the realization that it can buy faster than it can build. The real questions is what next?