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Long a standard, SAP Workflow has its fans

Despite a few criticisms along the way, countless businesses have come to rely on SAP Workflow to facilitate and automate a wide range of approval processes.

Efficiency -- the kind that SAP’s Business Workflow functions provide, at least -- comes at a cost.

“I think that the strongest part of Workflow -- and in some ways it’s a curse -- is that it highlights bottlenecks in the process,” explained Alon Raskin, an IT consultant with Houston, Texas-based 3i Solutions, Inc. “Sometimes that causes political issues.”

It’s a problem that countless businesses are happy to have in order to facilitate and automate business approval processes.  The goal is simple: Make sure the right people get the right information at the right time for a range of human resource, financial or order management processes, to name a few.

Some employees dislike the module because it can highlight who’s taking too long for a certain task or who’s taking too long to approve a particular request, Raskin said. One union reportedly fought against having Workflow implemented, he said, because the information could be used against those employees.

Nonetheless, it’s a well-developed technology that’s matured to a point that it’s become “super stable,” said Raskin.  As a result, companies that have invested in Workflow will continue to use the tool for the foreseeable future. 

However, as Raskin and others note, setting up those workflows properly can be complicated.  Companies should seek out an experienced Workflow consultant when deploying those tools within their organizations. 

If they don’t, they could end up creating time-consuming headaches for themselves, Raskin said.

In one instance, an Australian utility company meant to generate a workflow for following up on every customer who called to complain about a bill. Instead, the process inadvertently created a workflow every time someone called -- even to start or terminate service.

“It was a huge load, an unnecessary load, on the SAP server, Raskin said.

In other cases, workflows that were created when a customer failed to pay a bill where not removed from the system even after the bill was paid.  “It can be self-defeating,” said Raskin.  “It actually creates work.”

Once SAP Workflow is up and running, businesses should designate someone as an administrator, according to Steve Bogner, a consultant and managing partner of Insight Consulting Partners in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“You kind of need someone to monitor things and to make sure that certain items aren’t getting abandoned.  Or, when a position goes vacant, [someone needs] to make sure there aren’t some workflows waiting for that person to approve,” said Bogner, whose clients use SAP’s Human Capital Management workflows for things like pay changes, leave requests and travel expenditures. 

Despite the praise for Workflow, the module has a few shortcomings.  Some clients complained that the standardized reports were too limited and didn’t include much more than the status of the item, according to Bogner.   “The clients we’ve worked with on Workflow, we’ve always had to develop some custom reports for them to use because they didn’t feel like they could get by with the standard ones,” he said.

However, that problem has been solved in newer versions of the business suite, according to Sanjay Chikarmane, senior vice president for solution management at SAP AG.

That’s because SAP has embedded certain Business Objects capabilities within SAP applications that allow users to create whatever workflow reports and dashboards they need, Chikarmane said.

“We provide certain out-of-the box reports, but now we also have some pretty rich capabilities for customers to create their own reports based on what they uniquely want to see,” he said. “I believe that problem doesn’t exist anymore.” 

There are also limitations on how much a user can customize the standard workflows that come provided within the tool, according to consultants.  However, Chikarmane said those seeking more flexibility in customizing those workflows --including extending them to non-SAP systems -- should consider a separate license for NetWeaver Business Process Management (BPM).

Indeed, future enhancements to Workflow are unlikely, given the amount of time and resources SAP has put into BPM. As Raskin put it, “Workflow continues to be supported, but not enhanced.”

Those enhancements include making the current BPM 7.2 release easier to use for business users, Chikarmane said.  For one, it now caters to users who may not have a technical background.

“It’s now business user-friendly. Unlike other products that are more developer-friendly, this product is more business user oriented,” he said.  “Business analysts, for example, can use this product to define their own, unique customized version of order management. “

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