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How to tie SAP mobile apps to business processes

Companies shouldn't build an SAP mobile app just to build one. Experts suggest how to identify the right mobile app for your business.

In a world where multiple lines of business are clamoring for mobile applications, how can an enterprise determine which SAP mobile apps to deliver? How can they make the effort manageable in a way that makes sense to stakeholders? And better yet, how can an enterprise ensure that its mobility projects succeed?

It might seem as if a fantastic and intuitive user interface is the most important part of a great app, but the path to a successful enterprise app starts well before the design stage. Mobility starts with the mundane but oh-so-important business process.

Plenty of early-generation mobile apps were built for reporting -- executive dashboards aimed at decision makers -- but some of today's best enterprise apps increasingly are being designed for end users, focusing on the processes that power a business.

"We're seeing companies that are very traditional, that are non-high tech -- like furniture, distribution or chemical companies -- all wanting to understand how they can leverage mobile and switch to a digital workplace. A lot of companies have invested in mobile device management to secure their devices, and now they are looking for the payback on that," said Jason Wong, principal research analyst in the mobile and client computing group for Gartner. "They now know they can't realize a payback until they actually deploy applications that make them more productive."

Identify 'mobile moments' that address business needs

Because identifying good use cases for mobile is still a challenge for many companies, Gartner recommends that enterprises look for what it calls "mobile moments" that can be addressed by mobility apps.

"So you're not just extending data from one PC screen to a mobile screen, you need to identify opportunities that arise in the field, away from a computer, in a warehouse, in a taxi," Wong said. Plus, understanding a mobile moment is recognizing that you might not get data from only one system; you might need to manage data from multiple systems.

"So in a particular mobile moment, an employee might need to access a service management tool, then record and update inventory, then log customer information into a CRM solution, then do expense reporting -- employees need to touch multiple systems," Wong explained. As an enterprise works through these mobile moments, it will be able to build a picture of how mobility can serve a business process.

Another key to understanding mobile moments is considering personas -- the types of employees that will put an SAP mobile app to work, Wong said. "For example, this is not about taking an SAP asset management app and deciding to make it mobile -- you need to think about things like where your field inspectors are, and who has to do a series of steps?"

Of course, with today's mobile devices, Wong said, you can take mobile moments even further by considering how you can use mobile device features for things like photos or video, voice input, or even utilize mobile sensors to capture data. By tapping into the power of a mobile device, it's possible to make a business process more efficient or accurate.

For SAP mobile apps, examine the business process

According to Greg Palesano, executive vice president and global head of application services for HCL Technologies, the most common misconception is that mobility alone will solve all your business problems. Consequently, Palesano recommends that the deployment of mobility apps should be done in conjunction with the evaluation and refinement of your business processes.

"If the process is broken or inefficient," he explained, "just mobilizing the same broken process will typically not yield the desired results." 

So how might examining a business process play out in terms of mobile success and ROI?

"There are two types of processes that typically lead to the best ROI," Palesano said. "First, mobilizing processes that have multiple touch points by different users typically brings the best ROI if some of the user touches can be eliminated. Second, processes that have delays or wait points in the execution -- because a user must take action -- can also bring significant ROI because the time to execute the process can be reduced, creating more business efficiency."

Serve your mobile workforce first

If employees are already "mobile," an enterprise should look at its mobile workforce in detail -- this seems intuitive but it's often overlooked.

"For example, if a field technician's work is billed on a time and material basis, the process can be hugely improved if the technician can enter all relevant information while with the customer," said Daniel Bauer, senior developer of mobile solutions for PIKON International Consulting Group. "The customer could even sign off on the work electronically. This data is then directly transferred to the ERP system and not only speeds up the billing process, it also helps to avoid errors and disputes."

Still, understanding your business processes and knowing how a process can be improved with an SAP mobile app doesn't always justify the cost and effort to deploy it.

"In that case there needs to be a comparison between the benefit for the business process versus the added cost for the administration of the mobile solution," Bauer warned. "This requires that the customer truly looks into the topic of mobile solutions and critically evaluates their requirements. For example, does the solution really need to be able to work offline? Is a middleware server required? Who will do the maintenance of the middleware?"

SAP Fiori to the rescue?

SAP's new user experience (UX) for SAP software, SAP Fiori, applies modern design principles to deliver a simple, role-based interface to various SAP mobile apps -- no matter which device an employee is using. Consequently, enterprises that use SAP Fiori have the ability to let many workers tap into Fiori-enabled apps through their mobile device. According to the SAP Fiori apps reference library, SAP now offers more than 500 such apps.

"Basically, SAP Fiori is a good example where SAP has taken these big monolithic apps and broken them down into individual transactions," said John Wargo, a principal mobility analyst for Forrester Research. "When you give users the ability to do one thing really well, really easily and really quickly, then it becomes powerful," he added, noting that Fiori apps also let you connect discrete processes together, extending their abilities.

"The more recent generations of Fiori apps have an awareness of each other so you can hop from one to another instead of having to navigate around," he said.

So is Fiori a good mobile strategy for an SAP-focused enterprise? Is there enough value through Fiori-based mobile interfaces to mobilize key business processes?

Sometimes, but not always. For starters, SAP Fiori apps typically are targeted at the more broadly used SAP functions, so they may not be focused enough to solve a mobility opportunity. Similarly, some organizations have customized their SAP systems in the background, so Fiori apps don't necessarily work for them. Plus, SAP-focused enterprises themselves often have business processes that need to communicate with non-SAP applications.

But that doesn't mean using Fiori is off the table. "You can use the Fiori design paradigm to access SAP data but also build your own apps from other data sources," Wargo noted, adding that Fiori is more of an application UX strategy because it typically is used to build an application one way to give users a consistent experience across desktop environments as well as mobile environments. Still, Wargo said, "Fiori is no panacea -- there is no single solution that solves everybody's problems."

To that end, Gartner is seeing a rise in enterprise, employee-facing mobile applications built with hybrid, cross-platform tools. "Mobile device processors are more powerful, and as a result, the hybrid apps now offer good capabilities to solve a lot of use cases for enterprises. At the same time, they can offer lower maintenance and support costs -- you have one code set to manage for many platforms," Wong explained. "We're seeing apps built with Xamarin, Titanium, Embarcadero, but it really boils down to the use case."

The larger point here is that -- although companies still underestimate the cost of building mobile solutions -- mobile development tools are no longer the limiting factor for SAP-based organizations.

"I think SAP recognizes that there is diversity in the need for different types of front-end mobile development tools and architectures so they have become more open to supporting other tools, in addition to what SAP offers," Wong said. "They've really opened up, which allows for more flexibility and lets enterprises deliver broader solutions."

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