Companies of all sizes and in all industries use SAP software to handle their business and logistics processes, as well as production-related and customer-related processes - more than 444,000 companies worldwide. Around 80 percent of the Walldorf-based software manufacturer's customers are small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as 99 of the world's 100 largest companies (as of April 2023). In addition, in certain sectors such as the automotive industry, the use of SAP solutions has become virtually established as standard.
The core of an SAP system landscape is usually an ERP system with integrated functions. According to the 2023 Investment Report of the German-speaking SAP User Group (DSAG e. V.), 79 percent of companies from the DACH region are working with the somewhat aging SAP ERP/ECC 6.0 or SAP Business Suite 7, 41 percent are using the current ERP suite SAP S/4 Hana in on-premises operation, and 8 percent are using the public cloud version. Since mainstream maintenance for the old ERP system ends in 2027 and the more expensive extended maintenance ends three years later, in 2030, many companies urgently need to consider switching to the new ERP solution.
Those who are now switching to S/4 Hana want first and foremost to drive forward the digital transformation. Unfortunately, the progress made is often not satisfactory: 52 percent of companies do not see themselves as being very far along on this path yet, states the DSAG Investment Report 2023.
Process automation is one way to significantly support the digital transformation in a company. It can be used in sales, purchasing, service, manufacturing and logistics, or in finance and human resources. But the legal department can also benefit from data bank queries and legal research, and the IT organization from IT service management (ITSM) and the switch to S/4 Hana. Automating transactions and workflows using software robots is fundamentally changing the way processes are handled and work tasks are completed. It is therefore considered the final and crucial piece of the puzzle for a digital transformation.
Range of possibilities
The SAP environment in particular offers an enormous range of possible uses for automation. Just think of cognitive actions such as user logon to an SAP system or user input in the SAP GUI for Windows (WinGUI), extracting data from invoices or sales orders and processing them in the respective SAP software, forecasting financial results and financial reporting, or performing a zero check in the warehouse. Robots can also be used to automate HR processes in SAP SuccessFactors such as recruiting and onboarding, which require numerous manual steps. In onboarding, for example, the spectrum ranges from signing the contract, deactivating the job posting in the job portal, entering personnel data in SAP ERP or S/4 and SuccessFactors, to creating user IDs in various IT systems and procuring hardware for the new employee.
Software robots can also be used to integrate process relationships between SAP systems and (business-critical) non-SAP applications without APIs.
An example of such integration of SAP and non-SAP systems via automation is illustrated here using the order-to-cash process, i.e. order processing from the purchase order to the receipt of payment.
A company using ERP software from SAP handles its customer-related processes in the CRM solution of a third-party provider, be it Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics 365. As soon as a customer places an order or signs a contract, the process status of this sales opportunity is marked as "won" in the CRM and completed. The software robot then takes over the remaining steps, provided that a connector for the respective CRM and a Bapi integration between the ERP from SAP and the non-SAP CRM are available. Immediately after completion and completely automatically, it transfers the required data to the SAP system, creates the customer order there, and in turn updates the information in the CRM software.
Optimize testing and migration
The IT department, in turn, benefits from the use of test automation solutions in SAP testing (generation of test cases, test execution, reporting, requirements and defect management, CI/CD integration, exploratory testing, among other things) and in the migration to S/4 Hana.
Instead of performing their tests manually, as 72 percent of SAP customers still do, even though the method is proven to be expensive, inefficient and prone to errors, the SAP Basis team can easily and quickly create automated SAP test scenarios using test automation integrated into an automation platform. This is significantly more efficient and cost-effective, especially because the individual test components can be reused.
Integration with SAP Solution Manager (SolMan) extends the automation potential to test cases across the entire enterprise landscape, including SAP and non-SAP applications. SAP customers can run test cases, share complex test data, and also accurate reports in a consolidated view help track KPIs continuously.
Automation also helps to accelerate the changeover to S/4 and make it smooth, secure and compliant across all steps. This begins with the recording of SAP processes (process mining) and the design of the future S/4 landscape and extends to the mapping and migration of data and structures and finally to regression testing. The reusability of the robots and the test portfolio in future projects also protects the investments made.
All of this relieves the burden on IT, leaving more time for core tasks. At the same time, automation helps to cushion the prevailing shortage of IT specialists and, under certain circumstances, compensate for a lack of internal SAP expertise - another plus point of automation.
The right platform
From a technical perspective, a modern automation platform that works with AI and ML technologies is suitable for automating SAP processes. It should support common SAP interface technologies such as SAP WinGUI, WebGUI, Fiori and SAP Business Client and be compatible with on-premises and cloud solutions from SAP as well as with SAP interface technologies, for example Bapi, RFC, OData.
An additional plus is that the platform also provides out of the box predefined, ready-to-use RPA workflow packages for the most frequently used transactions and processes in SAP ERP and S/4. They enable fast and easy entry into cross-module automation of SAP processes as well as RPA-supported SAP Basis administration - at manageable costs. To ensure stable and performant automation, the packages should cover SAP WinGUI automation as well as native integration via SAP-Bapi.
Apart from that, an automation platform that -automates SAP processes with software robots must, of course, meet all legal and compliance requirements and withstand any audit.
Additional security is provided by Role Based Access Control (RBAC), complete encryption and Veracode certification, and recognized seals of approval such as the SAP Certified Solution and SAP Endorsed Apps certificates.
There's no doubt about it: automating SAP processes creates real added value. Employees are relieved of monotonous, repetitive activities, leaving them more time for their core tasks. Error-prone manual processes are replaced by automated processes. This creates a high level of security.
To derive the greatest possible benefit from automation, its use must be strategically planned. However, there is a need to catch up here. In many places, RPA projects in the SAP environment, but also in the non-SAP environment, are motivated more by tactics than strategy. Silo structures in which the individual business units operate can hardly be broken up in this way, but are rather cemented in place. This is one of a whole series of reasons why RPA projects get stuck halfway or even fail.
However, the existence of a vision and a strategy is the be-all and end-all for successful SAP automation across departmental boundaries. The starting point is an exact inventory of the current situation, which shows how automation stands in the company. This provides important starting points for the development of a strategy, on the basis of which automation can then be established step by step throughout the entire organization in a targeted manner.
However, process automation, and not only in the SAP environment, is not only an IT project, but also a business project that entails changes in process flows and the organizational structure. The latter in particular often proves to be a major danger point. According to the US market researcher Forrester Research, automation projects rarely fail because of the technology, but mostly because of silo thinking within the company and a lack of acceptance on the part of the employees.
This makes it all the more important to get the workforce on board right from the start and introduce them to the new conditions. Selected business users should be trained via tutorials and workshops.
be enabled to develop software robots themselves in accordance with the Citizen Developer concept.
At the same time, employees' worries about losing control or their jobs, caused by the breaking down of silo thinking and the loss of dominant knowledge, should be reduced right from the start through active change management, which is one of the sensitive tasks in an automation project. Last but not least, the success of process automation also stands and falls with the support of the management or the executive board.