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Task-Oriented Support for Your Department's Informal Processes — Without Calling on IT

by Alan Rickayzen | SAPinsider

April 1, 2006

by Alan Rickayzen, SAP AG SAPinsider - 2006 (Volume 7), April (Issue 2)
 

 



Alan Rickayzen,
SAP AG

Stringing together simple tasks shouldn't require complex production workflows. Like many departments in companies worldwide, your department probably has its own informal processes for anything from organizing new projects to coordinating vacation periods and handling ad hoc customer requests. But while the processes themselves are simple, establishing a protocol to automate and monitor the tasks within them can become a time-consuming workflow challenge, involving costly IT resources and extensive end-user training. This need not be the case.

Consider a familiar scenario — a colleague wants to attend an off-site conference. Your company likely has a formal approval process in place to make sure that employees aren't running off to attend conferences whenever they choose. You probably also have a workflow management system, configured to your company's needs, to handle standard travel arrangements — booking flights and reserving hotel rooms, for example — through a solution like SAP Travel Management.

But what about the more "local" aspects of securing permission to attend a conference? Perhaps your department policy requires employees to collect background information about the conference, discuss the event with managers and colleagues, and secure managerial backing before the formal workflow management process is even triggered.

To automate the tasks in informal processes like these, users can now turn to guided procedures, a simple tool to create automated processes — accessible directly through SAP NetWeaver Portal — that you can design and enable others in your department to execute. This article shows users, even those without a lot of technical expertise, how to set up guided procedures to automate local departmental processes and ensure they run smoothly, end to end. If you feel comfortable designing spreadsheets, word-processing templates, or Web pages, you have the technical background necessary to create guided procedures.

I'll walk you through the conference approval example step by step to arrive at a fully defined guided procedure. You'll see that with very little time and virtually no training, guided procedures can bring sizeable time savings and increased transparency to your department.

Note that while this article describes how to create guided procedures in a decentralized way, the procedures are one of the main building blocks of SAP's Composite Application Framework (CAF). This discussion, however, is out of the scope of this article.1

 

Key Characteristics of Guided Procedures

  • Offer a flexible process environment
  • Enable users to set up and execute collaborative business processes on their own
  • Work on top of companies' core functions
  • Provide reusable templates
  • Assist users with data proposal
  • Enable offline process execution via Interactive Forms and email
  • Provide a holistic process overview
  • Offer easy navigation and an intuitive UI
  • Are a key tool for creating composite applications

 

What You Need to Get Started with Guided Procedures

To use guided procedures, you'll need to have SAP NetWeaver release 2004s in place, including SAP NetWeaver Portal as the user interface and SAP NetWeaver Application Server to drive the tasks within processes.

 

Note!
IT teams will need to configure SAP NetWeaver so that more advanced features, such as Interactive Forms based on Adobe software, are also available. Also, if you want offline support for guided procedure tasks, you will need to configure the server software that supports Interactive Forms and ensure that Adobe Reader software is installed on the clients.

Keep in mind that while guided procedures won't have quite the same level of sophistication that's available in the workflow capabilities of SAP NetWeaver Exchange Infrastructure or SAP Business Workflow, you will enjoy a major advantage: Any department can define its own procedures without IT support. This means your department can automate many more processes than you could before, and you'll have the flexibility to change them yourself without relying on the IT department.

Outline the Phases of Your Process

To start, you'll need an idea of what you want your procedure to cover, and what specific steps make up this procedure. Let's say the conference approval procedure you want to define has three separate phases:

  1. Planning: The prospective conference attendee collects information about the event and submits a request to managers.

  2. Approval and final preparation: Managers decide if the employee can attend the event. If approval is granted, the attendee collaborates with colleagues to plan the best sessions to visit.

  3. Feedback: Upon returning from the conference, the employee fills out a trip report that is distributed to colleagues.

By modeling these three phases, you'll enable users to see where they are in the process at any time (see Figure 1). Note that to define a guided procedure, you must first be assigned the guided procedures development role.

 

Figure 1

Guided Procedures Show Your Location Within the Process

 

Note!
The modeling environment refers to each business process "phase" as a "block." Blocks are simply a modeling construct used to emphasize the structure of the procedure, and can contain other blocks.

Start Modeling by Creating a Work Folder

To avoid any unnecessary clutter or confusion in the development environment, create a work folder. You can then set up the complete procedure, including the definition of its phases, in this folder.

For the moment, these three phases are simply placeholders for actions that are yet to be defined.2 The only technical aspect you need to specify here is whether the phases contain actions (or other phases) that are performed in parallel, in a loop, or in sequence. In this example, you would specify phases as a sequence because the actions will be performed one after another.

Add Actions to the Guided Procedure

Now that your work folder is set up, you can introduce some detail to the guided procedure by adding actions. Actions are molecular: They are user-performed tasks that cannot be broken down into smaller units. In the first "planning" phase of the procedure, create three specific actions:

  1. Visit the conference Web site.

  2. Fill in a form with the conference details (dates, location, and travel proposal).

  3. Fill in the list of sessions that you would like to visit.

This last action is optional. If exercised, it would allow managers to circulate the list of sessions to colleagues during the approval phase, informing them of the expert knowledge the attendee will gain at the conference. Department members also have the chance to add suggestions or recommendations.

You can see all the actions at execution time on the vertical axis (as shown in Figure 1) — not only those actions that users have completed, but also those that have yet to be performed. The person modeling the process (you) and the colleagues who later use this guided procedure will have a consistent view.

Note that a user can only open and inspect the procedure if he has a work item for it in his Universal Worklist (UWL).3 As soon as the work item is completed, it disappears from the user's inbox. He can then only track the rest of the procedure from the procedure dashboard, which can be viewed from the administration role.

Create or Select Callable Objects

When it's time to execute the guided procedure, the actions will invoke callable objects, such as displaying an input form or calling a report in an iView. (Callable objects specify the what while actions provide the who and when.) You can either select from a list of callable objects or create your own objects, which is what we'll do here.

Guided procedures provide a variety of callable object types to choose from (see Figure 2) — for instance, you can define forms for input or display or enable decisions that will be made in the procedure's other phases. In this example, for instance, the forms object is used to collect venue details, gather the list of sessions, and finally fill in the trip report in the third phase.4

 

Figure 2

Choose From a List of Callable Object Types or Define Your Own

For now, start by defining a callable object that invokes the conference Web site URL. While the URL could also be invoked via a variable, meaning the user executing the procedure adds the URL when he starts the guided procedure, you can simply specify the URL when defining the callable object (see Figure 3). Once the callable object is defined, click the "Activate" button to insert it into an action, which is then likewise activated.

 

Figure 3

Declare a URL When Defining the Callable Object

Adapt Actions for Various Views of the Process

Before moving on, let's examine one more facet of actions. The URL mentioned above will launch when the prospective conference attendee executes the action. But you can also define what should be displayed when someone further downstream in the process, such as a colleague browsing the selected sessions, uses the navigation bar to click on this action again. This person is not re-executing this action, but simply wants to inspect the context of this step. You could display the same URL or create a new callable object to display a different, more direct URL — perhaps one that displays the conference agenda rather than conference venue details.

You can apply this same idea to the other actions, as well. When the attendee is executing the third action, for example, he should be able to type in a list of sessions. But you might decide that someone else viewing this action later in the process should simply see the sessions without being able to change them. You would therefore assign a different callable object to the display method of the action. Or you could even leave it out altogether, in which case nothing would happen.

Move Actions Into the Phases

After you create callable objects and actions for the first phase, insert them into the planning phase. Select all three actions, and arrange their order to reflect your specific process (see Figure 4). Now all that is left is to consolidate the roles.

 

Figure 4

Arrange the Order of Your Actions

Assign and Consolidate Roles

Three actions need to be performed during this phase. You can easily imagine a scenario where a different person performs each action, but in this case, the person visiting the Web site, filling in the conference venue form, and finally selecting the sessions is the same person.

So to consolidate the roles, select all three actions and enter a "Consolidate To" name (participant), as shown in Figure 5. You can do exactly the same thing with the data parameters in the guided procedure as well. For example, the parameter "venue location" could be reused throughout the procedure by consolidating different parameters (location, site, town, city, etc.) to one name. This technique is a form of data binding.

 

Figure 5

Consolidating Roles

Now that you've created the planning phase, simply continue on and define the approval and post-conference phases in the same way until you arrive at the fully defined process shown in Figure 6.

 

Figure 6

A Fully Defined Guided Procedure

 

Securing the Guided Procedure: Authorization Concepts

To lock down your work while you're setting up a guided procedure, you may want to consider implementing authorization concepts to:

  • Restrict behavior during the execution of the procedure (such as who can change the list of sessions)
  • Restrict who can access the development environment
  • Restrict who can use which callable object
  • Determine the different callable objects that can be picked (such as Interactive Forms using Adobe software)

Please visit http://service.sap.com/securityguide and download the complete SAP NetWeaver 2004s guide for more information on the authorization concepts that can be deployed with guided procedures.

Execute the Guided Procedure

Anyone with access to the guided procedure runtime can now launch the process. Users just click on the link created in the portal when the guided procedure is defined and fill in the initial details, such as the manager's name and the conference name, for future tracking. They will be guided through the phases and actions, and can skip any actions that have been marked as optional. Users can stop the action at any time (for example, to collect additional material or to break for lunch) and continue later from where they left off. The task will remain in the Universal Worklist as a work item until it is completed (or skipped, if it is optional).

Finally, when the procedure reaches the approval stage, the last task disappears from the user's task list and a new one appears in the manager's task list. While waiting for a response, the user can still access the procedure from the tracking list in the procedure dashboard to view its progress or to remind himself which sessions he is scheduled to visit.

Summary

Following this straightforward process, you have learned how to create a simple guided procedure that you and your colleagues can use when seeking approval to attend a conference. Users are guided through the procedure's tasks in an intuitive way; not only do they know what to do, but they also understand how others are involved in the process.

This short overview gives you a sense of what types of processes you can use guided procedures for, how easily they are deployed, and how they ensure the smooth flow of ad hoc processes. All that's left is to get started and improve those informal procedures. You'll save your colleagues — and your IT team — a great deal of time.

Additional Resources

Guided procedures are an example of the "Support for Offline Processes" variant within the IT scenario Business Task Management, which is part of SAP NetWeaver 2004s (http://service.sap.com/netweaver --> IT Scenarios -->Business Task Management). For more information about the use of IT scenarios to highlight the capabilities of SAP NetWeaver, see the article "IT Scenarios Provide a Guided, Business-Oriented Approach to Maximizing SAP NetWeaver Use" in the July-September 2005 issue of SAP Insider (www.SAPinsider.com).

For more information on how tasks are integrated into processes, please visit the Business Task Management section of the developers' guide for SAP NetWeaver 2004s, available at www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/devguide2004s.

You can also access the Tutorial Center for the SAP Composite Application Framework toolset, which includes guided procedures, at https://www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/developerareas/platform?rid=/webcontent/uuid/be8a25c6-0601-0010-a49c-afd1f2500f84.


1 See https://www.sdn.sap.com/irj/servlet/prt/portal/prtroot/docs/library/uuid/4277f37b-0601-0010-0597- 89e792177e2b for more information.

2 A guided procedure can be defined top-down, bottom-up, or even with a mixture of both methods, as we will do in this article. Since phases, actions, and even callable objects can be reused in different processes, you will likely start with a top-down approach but reuse elements you have already created for existing processes.

3 For more information on using the Universal Worklist, please see my article "Implement a Central Inbox for One-Stop Access to Work Items from Any Business Process" in the October-December 2003 issue

4 If you also want to enable offline access, create Interactive Form callable objects so that users can download the forms, process them offline, and upload them upon completion.


 

Alan Rickayzen has been with SAP since 1992 and in data processing since 1988. Since 1995, he has been performing development work as well as process technology consulting for various major US customers and, as a result, has amassed a good deal of technical knowledge in collaborative process technology. Alan Rickayzen is co-author of the book Practical Workflow for SAP, available at http://store.sapinsider.wispubs.com, and may be contacted at alan.rickayzen@sap.com.

 

 

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