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A Vision for Analytics and Reporting Tailored for Smaller Enterprises: A Centralized, Intuitive Environment for Creating, Distributing, and Consuming Analytics and Reports

by Thomas Fleckenstein | SAPinsider

July 1, 2006

The analytics and reporting requirements of SMEs are wholly different from those of their larger counterparts. To provide a solution that meets those unique needs, the SAP Design Services Team and SAP Solution Management closely observed end users at 49 small and medium-sized businesses to identify the optimal analytics environment for such companies. This article details what they found.
 

When it comes to the performance of analytics solutions and on-demand access to information, the needs of small enterprises are not necessarily all that different from those of large ones. The data security, integrity, and consistency requirements of SMEs — characterized as companies having between 100 and 2,500 employees or annual revenue of $50 million to $1 billion — are equivalent to those of their larger counterparts. However, SMEs have very different considerations when selecting an analytics solution that will work for their users and their business. For SMEs:

  • Low TCO is paramount. TCO is an important consideration in every organization, but for SMEs, it's especially critical. Short implementation times, an intuitive UI that embeds analytics into an operational context, and an easy-to-use modeling environment that empowers the end user and doesn't rely on external consultants — these are all keys to success.

  • Employees typically have broader ranges of responsibility and manage a larger portion of a process than their counterparts in larger organizations. For example, an accountant at a midsized enterprise might be responsible for the entire cash-to-cash cycle — invoice production, cash management, accounts receivable, and quarterly reporting — whereas larger organizations spread these duties across various employees. The information used for decision making must reflect this and must be easily consolidated into effective operational and management reports. At the same time, these broader roles cannot be an excuse for an increased number of reports.

  • Quickly creating new reports is often an everyday task of many employees rather than a small group of IT professionals. The people who will act on this information are also the ones who will author these required reports, and they will use the tools they know to create them. Therefore, the best modeling environment for reporting and analytics is one the end user already knows.

  • Small companies are often big ones in their teenage years, so the ability to quickly adapt the business model and flexibly react to growth and changing conditions is critical. An ideal analytics solution provides simple access to analytics content and allows end users to make changes to existing data and report structures as their reporting needs change.

All this likely sounds familiar to a small or midsized enterprise. But even when these business needs are clear, how do companies ensure user acceptance and a high level of usability in their BI solutions? What exactly do users find intuitive and highly efficient in their daily work? What could a solution offer that would give SMEs just the BI solutions they need, and not bog them down with unnecessary features?

Answering these questions requires more than just understanding SMEs' business model and IT requirements. It requires sitting down with users and taking a close look at their reporting tasks and behaviors to arrive at a solution that meets their expressed needs — as well as those hidden requirements that may only emerge from observing users' reporting activities. The SAP Design Services Team and SAP Solution Management have done this in an effort to discover the optimal analytics authoring, publishing, and consuming environment for end users working in SMEs (see sidebar). The results may surprise even SMEs themselves.

What We Set Out to Do

The SAP Design Services Team and SAP Solution Management partnered to discover the optimal analytics authoring, publishing, and consuming environment for end users working in SMEs. With dozens of pureplay Business Intelligence offerings on the market today, we decided to differentiate this development approach for SMEs by adopting a User Centered Design (UCD) process. Fundamentally, UCD is designed to ensure the final product meets users' expressed as well as unexpressed needs, with an upfront investment in understanding end-user behavior.

Understanding the SME User

We focused our research efforts on US manufacturing and services (primarily financials and IT support services) companies with between 100 and 1,000 employees. None of these companies are current SAP customers, which gave us a fresh perspective on the analytics workflow. In total we interviewed end users from 49 companies, and whenever possible we sat with them in their working environments. We observed how end users work with authoring tools and consume and publish analytic content. This in-context research enabled our team to differentiate between what end users say and how they actually behave.

Starting the Prototyping Process

Then began our prototyping process for an analytics environment that would meet these end users' needs. As part of the process, we evaluated existing SAP analytics tools and how they could benefit SMEs. Our initial prototypes were simple paper wireframe drawings. The most important aspect of prototyping is to fail quickly and to fail inexpensively. A few "metrics" to illustrate this point:

# of days spent brainstorming and prototyping: 35
# of Post-It Notes used: 16 pads
# of 4' x 8' foam core panels covered with drawings: 7
# of 8" x 11" wireframe drawings: 18
# of 2½' x 2' wireframe drawings: 26
# of colors of pens for these drawings: everything from black to pink

To validate our wireframe prototypes, we created written test scenarios and shared them with eight of the end users we interviewed. The results of the validations were remarkable, and clearly illustrated where we failed and where we succeeded in our initial prototypes. This quick prototyping and iteration process is critical since it ensures our design failures are identified and corrected early in the product development life cycle. Based on these validation sessions, we further refined our prototypes and created a series of highesr-fidelity, presentation-quality wireframes.

Ongoing Development Efforts

Our findings are fueling further innovations specifically for small and midsized companies. These solutions will build on the close integration between SAP and Microsoft with Duet software (formerly known as Project Mendocino), as well as on current SAP NetWeaver BI offerings (see the section "Delivering on the Design Themes: Vision of a Future Analytics Workflow"). The introduction of a task pane in the BEx Analyzer, which we discuss in this article, came directly out of this SME evaluation and is just one example of the shape of analytics to come for SAP users at SMEs.

SAP is using these findings to create a vision for future analytics solutions, a vision based on the special characteristics of analytics workflow and user behavior at SMEs. Small and midsized companies should consider these characteristics as they look at where and how their analytics processes can be improved, both now and in the future.

What Observing SMEs Reveals About Their Analytics Workflow

Even with the diversity of SMEs in our sampling, the SAP project team was surprised to discover a common analytics authoring and consuming process across all companies, regardless of industry and size (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
A Typical SME Analytics Process

Within this process, we found that end users inside of SMEs are simultaneously information producers and consumers. This means that an ideal solution would enable a single end user to follow each step from searching to consuming — everything from finding data sources to choosing the right queries to sharing a report with their colleagues — all from a central environment. Less surprisingly, we also confirmed a suspicion: Microsoft Excel is the predominant tool for creating and distributing analytic content, even in companies that have investments in centralized BI tools.

Challenges of the Analytics Workflow

From our work with SMEs and end users, the primary pain points we identified focused on two areas: the information producer's needs for report authoring and the information consumer's needs for report publishing.

In the authoring process, end users did not have a consistent, meaningful means of discovering and making sense of data sources. In other words, they knew what information they wanted, but weren't sure where to find it. Oftentimes locating the right reports and data sources requires a time-consuming manual process that is cumbersome to repeat.

In the publishing process, end users also found it difficult to share reports with other users. And when Excel is the primary reporting tool — and in most cases, it is — users can find it difficult to manage loose files, versions, and interdependencies.

Where Users Don't Want Change

Despite the challenges of using Excel, many users and companies are unwilling to part with it for four reasons:

  1. Using Excel makes end users self-sufficient, and it is a transferable skill.

  2. End users do not have the time or the patience to learn new tools.

  3. Data from best-of-breed BI tools eventually gets dumped into Excel for further formatting and ad hoc analysis.

  4. To a business user, Excel is the Swiss Army knife that can manage all reporting, simulation, and planning activities.

Many SMEs will recognize these concerns. Looking ahead, how can these enterprises balance user behavior and the need for a flexible, familiar reporting tool with the search for greater reporting efficiencies? SAP gathered these insights from SMEs and began to work on what such a solution might look like.

How These Findings Are Shaping Future SAP Analytics Environments

With a clear idea of SMEs' analytics process and its associated pain points, we formalized a set of design themes. These themes served as the basis for prototyping a reporting environment solution that would meet the needs of SMEs, and at the same time would be streamlined and not bogged down in unnecessary features.

The four themes that emerged were:

WYSIWYG — End users expect WYSIWYG tools, and Excel is the predominant tool for data analysis. Data analysis is an iterative process of discovery, and WYSIWYG tools support a nonlinear, tactile authoring process. An analytic solution should leverage Excel as a complete end-to-end authoring, publishing, and consuming environment.

Search/Integration — The solution should provide a powerful, business-language search tool to discover data sources. An integration hub should consolidate heterogeneous data sources and make them searchable from a single interface.

Personalization — An analytics environment should allow end users to discover and subscribe to reports and determine when and how they receive the information — via email or handheld devices, for example. End users must also be able to make report-formatting modifications and retain them without impacting other subscribers of the same report.

Empowerment — Every consumer is potentially an author, so the analytics environment should empower business users by making report authoring available in the context of their daily work. The solution must also provide a seamless transition between report consuming and authoring and empower end users with a tool they know: Excel.

These four design themes, along with the understanding that Excel and email communication are critical hubs in the analytics workflow, formed the basis for our prototypes.

Delivering on the Design Themes: Vision of a Future Analytics Workflow

From our work with SMEs, it became clear that Excel must become much more than a disconnected export target: It should become the authoring, publishing, and consuming hub that supports all phases of the analytics life cycle. Similarly, analytics consumers should be able to subscribe to and manage analytic reports directly from within Outlook. Today, a centralized WYSIWYG environment for creating, publishing, and consuming analytic content that addresses these challenges is closer to reality than you might expect.

One key development is SAP's investments in the enterprise software collaboration between SAP and Microsoft (formerly known as Project Mendocino). The result of this collaboration, Duet software, supports Microsoft Outlook integration. Duet, along with the SAP BEx Analyzer plug-in for Excel integration with SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence,1 became key elements of our design, and our prototypes build upon and suggest extensions to these tools. Figure 2 gives you an example of what this environment could someday look like for the SME end user.

Figure 2
A Design Vision for the Future: Access Reports and Other BI Information via Microsoft Outlook with Duet, and Find Reports and Generate Queries from Excel with BEx Analyzer

With this approach, users could receive reports through Outlook — where they're spending much of their time anyway. And with the SAP BEx Analyzer, content authors already have a live connection to SAP and other information sources. What's more, reports created in Excel do not have to be distributed in only Excel; they could also be saved as Web-based reportsand distributed to users throughout the company.

This prototype also introduces a new task pane in the BEx Analyzer that reflects the entire SME analytics authoring and publishing workflow.

From this pane, users can find, author, and distribute reports and data. In the example shown in Figure 2, the report author is using the "Find Content" function to look for InfoSources for a report on days sales outstanding (DSO) using the search terms "Orders, Aging, Receivables." The task pane would empower the end user to:

  • Find content and sources of information using an integrated, cross-environment search: Existing reports, info providers, and even the responsible persons of a report could be subject to the search, and the result set would list the hits grouped in categories.

  • Create reports and comprehensive report books: The listed info providers (e.g., an OLAP cube) will serve as the starting point to create a new report. Using the functionality of the BEx Analyzer, the user can define filter settings, row headers, columns, and aggregation levels. All formatting can be applied using standard Excel features, and users can combine multiple reports into a semantic "report book" of reports that are commonly used together.

  • Reuse design elements when creating and modifying reports: My Scrap Book contains objects the end user needs to create reports (e.g., graphics, info providers, and links to existing reports).

  • Deliver reports to users throughout the company: The Assign & Schedule area is the publishing hub that empowers end users to deploy reports to Work Centers, email reports to colleagues, and also subscribe to reports within Outlook. The repeated delivery of a report can appear as a recurring event in a user's Outlook calendar and be managed from there.

Conclusion

While this complete scenario is still in the early stages, significant parts of it are already available now. Close integration between the Outlook and SAP solutions can eventually fulfill the vision and meet the needs of end users at SMEs while simultaneously leveraging an enterprise's current investments in solutions and training.

SMEs that are unsatisfied with their current analytics and reporting environment should take into account what our sampling of companies revealed about their processes and begin considering what a centralized WYSIWYG environment would mean for end users. The innovations mentioned here will play an important role in a future service-enabled version of the SAP SME solution.

For more information about SAP's offerings for SMEs, please visit www.sap.com/solutions/sme. More information on Duet software is available at www.sap.com/community/duet. Detailed materials on SAP NetWeaver BI, including SAP BEx offerings, are available at www.sdn.sap.com.

We also encourage SMEs to send any comments or questions about our research, as we welcome feedback about our findings. Please contact us at thomas.fleckenstein@sap.com and tim.murphy@sap.com.


1 For more on this, see "What's Under the Hood of the New SAP NetWeaver BI?" in this issue of SAP Insider (www.SAPinsider.com).

Thomas Fleckenstein is currently working as a Solution Manager for Cross-Topic Analytics in the area of Research and Breakthrough Innovation at SAP AG. Before he joined SAP in 1999, he worked in several controlling positions at Hewlett-Packard GmbH and Comparex GmbH (both in Germany), where he gained firsthand knowledge on the analytics needs of large and medium-sized enterprises. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Mannheim.

Tim Murphy is a Project Lead in SAP's Design Services Team (DST), which reports to the Office of the CEO. The DST emphasizes placing end users at the center of the design process to ensure a positive user experience. Tim's focus is on helping SAP solution areas develop and deliver innovative solutions that end users love to use.

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