How does a company with more than 180,000 employees, clients and offices around the globe, terabytes of data, and multiple software platforms securely support its employees with accurate, real-time information?
Accenture, a global management and technology consultancy, took a unique approach to overcome this challenge: They put enterprise data right into business users’ hands. Rather than keeping business data under lock and key or requiring users to re-learn how to access that information every month for their reporting needs, Accenture developed an innovative way to give users secure, reliable data access: The company built a suite of easy-to-use, self-service applications, all based on a web services model.
Business users have embraced these web applications, which in turn have reduced the load on the company’s IT department. The keys to Accenture’s success? A clear vision of what tools and services users needed most, a consistent strategy for purchasing and deploying IT tools and architecture, and a well-thought-out implementation schedule.
Also helpful was Accenture’s decision in 2004 to reduce IT costs and streamline operations. Instead of maintaining different IT applications in 64 countries to do essentially the same job, Accenture deployed a single SAP ERP instance globally. Eliminating thousands of redundant applications made it much easier to introduce new applications that all employees could readily adopt and use.
||Accenture’s ERP Delivery team (clockwise from back left): Dan Schocke, Gavin Quinn, Don Galzarano, Kristian Burkhardt, Steven Lake, Eric Parker, Steve Cooper, and Jon Summers (missing from photo: Mario López López)
Accenture stores a large amount of its financial, HR, and sales data in its SAP back-end systems. Traditionally, large companies like Accenture make their business data available via batch transfer, whereby databases are synchronized with master data systems on a set schedule, often nightly or even weekly. This not only delays the availability of current data, but can ultimately delay business decisions. According to Kristian Burkhardt, Accenture’s Director of ERP Delivery, executives wanted near-real-time data access. “Business users wanted to access and update SAP data in real time for activities like planning and executing business decisions,” Burkhardt says. “So we wanted to use web services and a service-oriented architecture (SOA) to create applications that would give users this transactional data access.”
Burkhardt was the main executive sponsor for the first of these new web service applications, but he says much of the impetus came from the bottom up. “Our business users were clamoring for this,” he says. “And seeing that self-service is always the least-expensive option, it wasn’t difficult to convince people. The use case and business benefit were obvious.”
Introducing a New HR
The first application that Burkhardt’s ERP Delivery team enabled for web services, called myRequests, permits Accenture employees to access and update their HR profiles without having to log in to SAP ERP itself. “People’s lives change. Employees might want to verify HR documents, or update their address, marital status, or other significant life changes,” Burkhardt says. “With a web service, they can perform simple tasks, like address changes, which update directly into our master SAP data system.”
Because profile data is constantly changing, having employees edit their profiles themselves proved far more timely and efficient, as well as less costly, than having a call center or HR employee input the changes. “It’s less the time factor and more the quality of the result,” Burkhardt adds. “There’s less opportunity for error, and employees are more likely to submit things in a timely manner if they don’t have to remember to go into the SAP system and do it.”
Based on the success of myRequests, Accenture continues to develop web service applications to support financial reporting and other important business functions. (See the screenshot below.)
For example, the ERP Delivery team developed another web service for client engagement employees to use when updating their project financials with monthly reports that disclose revenue projection. “This would be the only time those employees would ever have to log in to our SAP system,” says Burkhardt. “This web service application makes that action obsolete.
Now, they can submit these updates directly from their forecasting tool via a web service — without having to know anything about the underlying SAP technology — which is a much simpler process for them.” (See the sidebar below for three additional examples of web service applications that Accenture is using currently.)
Taking the SAP Standard Route
The key to developing successful web service applications for Burkhardt and the ERP Delivery team was the decision to follow the best practice of selecting web services offered “out of the box” from SAP that most closely matched what Accenture was looking for.
“Consulting firms in general are all about people. Accenture has more than 180,000 employees — that’s a ton of requests and hundreds of applications to handle them,” says technical architect Gavin Quinn of Optimal Solutions, Accenture’s technology development partner on the project. “It just makes sense to utilize a lot of these standard services to drive that process.”
Utilizing standard services greatly minimized the amount of customization the team needed to perform. “And customization didn’t require pure development,” says Quinn. “Typically, we would just add a few fields here and there, write simple return codes, or add checks to make sure things work.”
The Challenges of Developing a Web Service Model
In implementing myRequests and creating a model for future web service applications, Accenture faced four initial challenges.
Security: ERP Delivery needed to provide total security while also ensuring that users could easily access applications through a simple sign-on process. Using SAP NetWeaver Composition Environment, the team created a single sign-on (SSO) routine that met security requirements and could be standardized for all future applications. “That was one of the key achievements that allowed us to deploy this overall architecture,” says Quinn.
Customization: The team wanted to adapt standard, out-of-the-box SAP enterprise services to meet Accenture’s real-world business needs related specifically to SAP ERP transactions. To address the customization issue, Accenture turned to SAP’s Enterprise Services Repository. “Our business users worked together with some of our IT folks to identify which services we thought were a good fit,” says Quinn. “We take those services, bring them into the repository, add the necessary customization, and then deploy them from there.”
Integration: An additional challenge was integrating the new web service applications with Accenture’s Microsoft .NET platform. To solve this problem, application architects built a specialized software component called a “Service Access Object” that supports authentication and connectivity between .NET and SAP-based web services.
Performance: Not only were security, customization, and integration required, but the overall solution needed to provide benchmark-level performance. Rigorous use of Accenture’s performance testing experts meant that the end solution was stress tested many times in excess of expected business usage.
“We wanted to use web services to create applications that allow users to access and update SAP data in real time for activities like planning and executing business decisions.”
Kristian Burkhardt, Director of ERP Delivery, Accenture
A Deliberately Informal Implementation Strategy Pays Off
Once the team identified how to conquer those four challenges, it set out to adopt a three-stage implementation schedule that involved:
- Prototyping to identify security and architectural needs
- Completing three initial projects over six months, and ensuring the efficiency of those projects
- Producing more services and putting repeatable processes into place
While governance — standardized practices for selecting, maintaining, and updating new applications — is always important, Accenture chose a less formal implementation strategy. “A lot of IT departments assign governance by application, but web services, by nature, span applications,” explains Burkhardt. The team decided to develop two or three services to begin with, and several team members were assigned to temporarily maintain them. “We wanted to see how these services played out before we chiseled the rules into stone,” he says. “So that’s what we did. We started to learn how best to divide up responsibilities for operating and developing web services, and it was a very useful lesson to see how our organization responded to these services.”
“As we build new applications, we don’t have to worry about data getting out of sync or keeping master updates in more than one place, which are important considerations when your business is moving fast.”
Kristian Burkhardt, Director of ERP Delivery, Accenture
A New Tool to Keep Up with a Fast-Paced Business
These first few web service applications proved to be a huge victory for the ERP Delivery team, and for the entire Accenture organization. With a successful model in place for building applications based on SAP standard enterprise services, the company is geared up for future web service development and similar innovations.
“What I’m excited about is that we’ve now proven we can do this and keep it up consistently,” says Burkhardt. “So, as the business requests new capabilities and as we build new applications or new ways of accessing data, this is a critical tool in our tool belt. Now, we don’t have to worry about data getting out of sync or keeping master updates in more than one place, which are important considerations when your business is moving fast.”