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SAP Workflow offers potential for automating SAP ERP Financials

Long a standard for SAP systems, SAP Workflow helps companies manage and automate their financial approvals as well as create a record of those approvals for future audits.

SAP Workflow provides structure to that complicated mix of financial forms and approvals that are the underpinning of any company. 

With SAP Workflow, organizations can automate the routing of document approvals and create processes that make sure certain requests that fall outside of a designated boundary or threshold are considered. An SAP Workflow report of any approval process or workflow can later be used for auditing purposes.

The goal is simple: Make sure the right people get the right information at the right time for a range of financial approvals and processes.

“There’s just a million transactional episodes in the day of a finance system that someone has to take a look at something to say this is OK,” said Craig Himmelberger, director of solution marketing for SAP ERP Financials.  

Faster credit decisions ‘so that business isn’t lost’

While Himmelberger cited purchase orders and accounts payable invoices as two of the most common approval scenarios, SAP Workflow can also enable companies to simplify the decisions surrounding whether to grant another company credit for a specific purchase. 

“If somebody calls up and says ‘I’d like to order a thousand widgets,’ you have to ship those widgets under the expectation that you’re going to get paid for them,” Himmelberger said. “There’s a whole process of evaluating the credit rating of some customers that very often happens at the time of order. You want to route the credit management decisions to the right people, and also in a timely manner [so that business isn’t lost].”   

Making people part of the process

One of the key attributes of SAP Workflow is that it allows companies to bring employees and executives who may not typically deal with the SAP system into the approval process, according to Himmelberger.  Having everyone on the same page allows the workflow to proceed as quickly, easily and consistently as possible, he said.  

“A lot of people who are not interacting with business software on a daily basis are nonetheless part of that process, like an executive who’s required for approval for amounts over a certain threshold,” Himmelberger said.

SAP Workflow tasks such as approvals and notifications can take place in whichever way is convenient for employees, managers and executives. This could be through worklists or through email or text message alerts, without employees having to go into the financial system itself.

With notifications and approval requests outside of the ERP, sensitive information should not be included in the workflow notice, Himmelberger said.  Concerns for sensitive information and corporate security should always take precedence over convenience, he said. 

Companies need to make sure that only the necessary people are included in the workflow, he said.  “Engage too few, and there are potential problems with lack of oversight and control. Engage too many, and things can bog down with unnecessary steps and delays while all parties catch up.”  

Getting the ball rolling

Companies contemplating whether to use SAP Workflow for their financial and accounting operations first need to take a hard look at their mission-critical processes and decide which ones are costing the company the most money, according to Susan Keohan an SAP Mentor and workflow expert.

“Perhaps it’s invoice approval, because the company is missing an early payment discount. Or perhaps it is on the customer side of things and your customers are not paying you on time,” Keohan said. 

“So, depending on your point of view, you’ve got to identify where the processes are that are costing you money. And then you can start identifying which SAP workflow applications are going to give you the most bang for your buck,” she said.

SAP provides workflow templates that help customers get started with minimal customization, Himmelberger said, although many companies choose to refine and customize those processes in order to match pre-existing internal policies. 

If intercompany transfers have to be approved by both the group comptroller as well as the executive vice president of each unit, for example, then additional steps and roles can be added to the “canned” workflow to suit each customer and situation, according to Himmelberger. Typically, this would be sketched out as part of the system design phase before implementations begins, and then agreed to among the business units before those processes are formalized and put into place. During implementation, those rules and processes can be tested and further tweaked to make sure they’re working as intended, he said.

Basic modifications to the templates are something that companies should be able to do on their own, he said. However, companies want to further customize their workflow, such as including additional steps or connections to other non-SAP systems that they want to be part of the process. In situations like those, companies may want to send employees out for additional training or hire a consultant who can help train employees so that they can perform those skills in the future. 

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