Against the backdrop of the ever growing interest in RPA, one application stands out: SAP. What makes this combination so suitable, and how far does the synergy go?
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a technology used to automate repetitive processes quite easily. That proposition seems to appeal particularly to organizations with SAP implementations. Surveys of the SAP insider community show that 76.5% use some form of automation, 48% opt for RPA from an external party, and 19 % use the capabilities offered by SAP itself. Where does this enthusiasm come from?
“The SAP user interface can be very complex,” says Tanja Breitling-Zboril, Senior Manager Partner & Alliance Management at UiPath, who is in the know. “Users will soon have to complete a few similar fields that may nonetheless have minor differences between them, and at a high frequency. Repetitive workloads often come in high volumes after all.”
This reality is heavenly for RPA, which excels at automating repetitive tasks regardless of their complexity. Automation always saves time, but in the case of SAP, the impact of an automated workflow can be colossal. In the challenging conditions in which businesses operate today, it is all the more important to use employees for what they can do best and relieve them from repetitive work.
That is not the only advantage of RPA combined with SAP, however. Breitling-Zboril: “It is just as often a challenge to get data beyond the boundaries of a SAP system. A link to another solution such as Salesforce is perhaps needed, or organizations might wish to span the gap between different SAP systems.”
SAP implementations are usually complex, and integration with other services is not always plain sailing. Companies that want to link their ERP system with Workday or Salesforce, for instance, are looking for a simple solution. “Many integrations already exist ‘out of the box,'” Breitling-Zboril says knowingly, “but IT often lags behind the needs of the business. And sometimes integrations are simply not possible, when legacy software are involved, for instance. RPA can be the glue in such cases.”
That glue is becoming increasingly more important. SAP has a broad offering, but is particularly popular as an ERP specialist. For other tasks such as CRM or HR, organizations opt for other best-of-breed solutions, which ideally speak to each other. Now throw in some legacy infrastructure and you can see how RPA can prevent a lot of copying from one system to another.
UiPath sees the synergy with SAP and is homing in on it. In a previous article, we explained how anyone can in essence create simple RPA applications. A low code approach makes it possible for business users to automate tasks through the user interface and that is perfectly feasible in SAP, which also offers a simple RPA alternative that can handle such automations.
Breitling-Zboril: “We also foresee integrations between SAP and other services via APIs.” In the case of UiPath, the RPA offer is extended via connectors with parties such as Salesforce or ServiceNow. This makes integration possible not only through the front-end but also through the back-end, which is important, in her view.
RPA bots have no problem automating large volumes through the user interface. When the bot foresees integration with an external party, however, a bottleneck can arise. For example, we see scenarios where SAP’s integration with an external cloud service causes performance or capacity issues and therefore delays on the cloud side. That said, the problem can be solved by sending that integration along a back-end connector.”
UI or API?
Integrations of SAP based on RPA actually exceed the ability of the business user, Breitling-Zboril admits. “The implementation requires IT knowledge, but thanks to the RPA approach you can rely on general specialists and you do not need niche expertise.” The addition of an RPA layer on top of SAP in order to integrate the ERP system with both modern cloud services and legacy infrastructure creates powerful opportunities. “RPA helps organizations catch up, even when legacy makes digital transformation difficult,” Breitling-Zboril says.
She goes briefly over the difference between UI and API automation. “RPA through the user interface can ensure rapid development and implementation. You can just record a user’s actions and then automate them. Development is a little more complex through the API, but the RPA app is more robust. Furthermore, the applications are more scalable and you don’t run the risk of having to adapt an app when the user interface changes significantly.”
What to automate first?
So what are the most common SAP-related workloads that are automated? Breitling-Zboril sees a lot of implementations, but some things always come back. “In Finance, there are always workflows that are similar and occur at a high volume.” The automatic entry of invoices is a case in point. “We also see a lot of automation in procurement and supply. This includes things like PO management, vendor data updating or shipment processing.”
The numbers support this analysis. The afore-cited survey shows that finance is the most popular field in which to apply RPA, as 56% of users are takers. Supply chain follows with 43%.”
Finally, the RPA specialist singles out HR as an interesting department on which to let RPA loose, although it doesn’t score as high. “HR is a fragmented landscape where a lot of different software are used, but integration with SAP is convenient every time. RPA is a good solution here, although most organizations tend to deploy the available budget to other departments at the outset.”
RPA as a migration tool
RPA plays another role in addition to the automation of pure SAP tasks and integration to external systems. Breitling-Zboril: “RPA also helps with the migration of SAP customers to S/4HANA. A lot of data have to be cleaned up in preparation to that end. You can thus sometimes choose between five days of manual work, or two days of development time for a script that can then perform the task automatically.” 39% of those surveyed are already using some form of RPA to that end in fact.
Although Breitling-Zboril is convinced that RPA is useful for migrations, she does not recommend that companies start with it. “You automate some tasks but you don’t have a benchmark for comparison. So you can’t always see at a glance exactly what the benefit of RPA has been. A migration is always an extensive process that takes a lot of time. We therefore recommend RPA particularly for organizations that are already familiar with the technology and have a good understanding of the benefits.”
The nub of the matter is ultimately that SAP is a very popular, capable but also complex software companies rely on for critical tasks. All these factors create a lot of room for automation to show its mettle and yield a quick return on investment.
Combine that with the fact that SAP implementations are never really standard and that many companies want to strike a balance between legacy and modern cloud applications on their ERP foundation, and you can see where the popularity comes from.
Author: Michaël Aussems, previously published on ITDaily