Automating SAP® Processes: 5 Top Trends
Manual, error-prone SAP data processes simply don’t cut it anymore.
Companies that realize this and make changes at scale will be the ones that remain adaptable and competitive, and ultimately achieve digital transformation.
What does that change look like? Automation.
Automating the processes that create and maintain the vast amounts of interdependent data that support your SAP ERP business processes is key to gaining agility, speed, and improved data quality and integrity.
Recent research conducted by Precisely and the Americas SAP Users Group (ASUG) shows that while the need for and benefits of SAP process automation are understood, driving successful automation initiatives is easier said than done.
We asked more than 150 IT stakeholders and business users of SAP ERP systems and processes about their specific challenges and opportunities related to adopting and implementing an automation strategy. What did they have to say?
Let’s explore five key takeaways from The 2023 State of SAP Automation Report: A Comprehensive Survey of Business and IT Leaders.
Takeaway #1: Automating SAP Processes Is Important to Digital Transformation
Competitive advantage is a business imperative for organizations across industries. To gain that edge, three primary digital transformation outcomes are needed:
- Improved data quality and integrity
Our survey showed that respondents see the value in automation for knocking down barriers and achieving these goals, but automation maturity levels are still relatively low across the board. Here are some of the top findings:
- More than 85% of respondents say they recognize the value in automating their SAP business processes and associated data to reach digital transformation
- 74% agree that automation reduces manual work and improves efficiency …
- … but less than half (47%) report a “medium” level of automation maturity, with just 5% reporting a “high” or “very high” level of maturity
The discrepancy between the high level of value recognition and low to medium maturity and adoption levels points to broader business challenges and granular obstacles that need to be resolved before automation and transformation can begin.
That brings us to the next top takeaway.
Takeaway #2: Complexity Is the Top Challenge to Automating SAP Processes
If you work with SAP processes, this takeaway shouldn’t come as a shock.
Complexity, lack of skills and time, and poor data quality are all leading challenges to automating SAP processes.
Our research found that there are multiple dimensions to that complexity: within the business processes themselves and the data associated with each SAP record. The complexities within each area are growing rapidly – which makes analyzing and reengineering the processes difficult.
While it may not be surprising that complexity is the biggest barrier to the broader adoption of automation, when we look deeper at the numbers we can see some more nuanced trends:
- 50% of respondents are challenged by the complexity of business processes
- 45% of respondents are challenged by the complexity and volume of SAP master data
It’s worth noting that when drilling down further, we find that process complexity is cited as a challenge for:
- 64% of companies where enterprise architecture teams lead automation efforts
- 29% of companies where dedicated digital transformation or center of excellence teams lead automation efforts
That’s quite a gap, and it tells us that process automation implementation may be better led by teams closer to SAP ERP and the business processes themselves, rather than those focused on underlying infrastructure and the chosen automation technology.
When we focus on challenges associated with master data, they align with the complexities of managing, changing, or automating SAP master data and related processes. Managing master data across multiple systems of record usually means the automated solution will include a multi-domain system and possibly require coordinating with other, enterprise-wide systems like Salesforce.
Despite these challenges, the good news is that we’ve found that, in most cases, they can be overcome with a dedicated effort to analyze and reengineer the processes currently in place for creating and managing SAP data. With this in place, it can be relatively easy to parse the processes into related components that can be the starting point for automation.
Read our Report
Working with the Americas SAP Users Group (ASUG), Precisely conducted a research study to identify the importance, challenges and opportunities that automating complex, data intensive SAP processes presents for enterprises.
Takeaway #3: Automation Yields Business Benefits
Automation reduces manual, low-tier work and increases efficiency.
Survey respondents who reported using automation at “medium,” “high”, or “very high” maturity levels are seeing broad and diverse value across their organizations, which break down into two primary categories of benefits for:
- employees and their work
- the overall enterprise
According to our respondents, the top two benefits of using process automation are efficiency and reductions in manual, low-tier work (at 74% each), followed by faster responsiveness to the needs of the business (52%).
While 45% of all respondents said automating SAP processes eliminates manual/low-tier work, that number rose to 57% of all respondents in organizations where citizen development is important.
These benefits in turn can lead to better performance in today’s competitive marketplace as well as happier employees performing higher-value work.
Takeaway #4: Complexity, Customization, and Data Management are Barriers to Process Optimization and Redesign
As mentioned in top takeaway #2, complexity is a common theme throughout our research, and the optimization and redesign of business processes for automation aren’t exempt from that trend. This is made clear in the top three responses to our question about the barriers faced in these areas:
- Too many customizations/inconsistencies across systems (60%)
- Master data maintenance & governance concerns (58%)
- Lack of clear process documentation (51%)
Factors like custom t-codes and processes used to create and manage SAP data have often been in place for years, making it difficult to understand how and why the processes were created. And a lack of documentation around processes that may have been developed for a specific use case at one point in time enhances that struggle.
We also touched on the complexity challenge around master data records and their associated processes. Automating update and maintenance processes is hard, and many companies focus on initial data quality – but data errors are often introduced during updates and maintenance, particularly when governance is lacking.
In line with that, common barriers (though less critical) to redesigning processes include:
- managing data outside SAP in Excel (29%)
- manual data management (23%)
- security and data protection (20%)
This drives home the need to align the processes for creating and maintaining your master data records in order to be successful in redesign and optimization initiatives.
On the organizational side, two common struggles came out on top in our research:
- Competing priorities (61%)
- Budget constraints (42%)
While these obstacles can be overcome by effectively demonstrating the expected value of automation, the fact remains that digital transformation and automation programs typically have long implementation cycles – making them harder to pitch among more immediate business needs.
Ultimately, when it comes to both process and organizational challenges, there are ways to overcome barriers and achieve digital transformation goals without compromising or significantly disrupting your businesses.
Business process optimization and redesign become less challenging as companies learn by doing and grow their automation maturity. In other words, the more you complete projects to automate SAP processes, acquire tools, and develop skills, the easier it is to continue building on that success.
Takeaway #5: Finance Is the Business Line with the Most Potential for Improvement
Sixty-six percent of survey respondents ranked finance as the business line with the most potential to improve – more than any other category.
Business-critical finance processes involve both transactional and SAP master data and need to maintain the highest quality and integrity possible, which makes them natural fits for automation solutions that can deliver higher data quality and auditable governance.
Next in line for areas with the most potential for improvement included:
- SAP master data management (43%)
- Supply chain management (40%)
- Procurement (37%)
SAP master data management has significant ROI potential because acquired skills, tools, and practices can be applied to SAP automation across multiple business lines.
And with agility, speed, and flexibility more important than ever in procurement and supply chain, it’s no surprise to see these two responses rounding out the top four. Maintaining governance and high data quality in the face of business disruptions like we’ve seen in recent years is critical for creating and maintaining a competitive advantage.
These results show that if you’re seeking to build a business case and gain funding support for SAP process automation projects, these lines of business should provide a strong foundation.
What’s Next for Your Journey to Automate SAP Processes?
What’s your approach to automation and how would you rate your automation maturity level? Are your initiatives supporting your desired digital transformation outcomes – like speed, agility, data quality, and integrity?
If you’re feeling inspired after reading these takeaways, there’s even more to be found in our full report. Download your copy of The 2023 State of SAP Automation Report to help guide your unique path to automation and transformation success.