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SAP is fusing two existing tools into one product aimed at business process automation, one of the key tenets for digital transformation.
SAP Process Automation combines SAP Workflow Management, which launched in 2009 to digitize workflows, and SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which came out in 2018 to automate workflows, into one package. The combined tool uses a low-code, no-code drag-and-drop user interface that enables business professionals and citizen developers to create and automate process workflows.
The product, which is available now, is an extension of SAP's investment in process automation technology, according to Sebastian Schrötel, head of low-code and no-code products at SAP.
"Now we are taking the next step in creating a unified process automation offering," Schrötel said. "We're merging this workflow world together with the RPA world, and we're making it one end-to-end product."
The combination was driven in large part by customers asking SAP to help them integrate automation into workflow tasks, he said.
"It's not just combing the two products," Schrötel said. "We are adding something new on top that allows this whole process automation world to be used by citizen developers with a no-code experience that is augmented with AI for some of the tasks."
For example, one pharmaceutical company experienced a spike in sales after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Many of the orders were coming in via e-mail with attachments. The company used SAP Intelligent RPA to automate the incoming sales order process to digitize the orders and enter them in the system. When it implemented SAP Process Automation, the company could then route the orders under various process conditions.
"The business rules frameworks are embedded in SAP Process Automation, which enables customers to add business rules and have a complete decision framework," Schrötel said. "If the order is dead, do that; if it's across a certain threshold, then set different approvals and so on."
Process automation combined with process mining
The existing SAP Workflow Management and SAP Intelligent RPA will enter a "transition phase" as they become SAP Process Management, according to Schrötel. But, he added, the adjustment should be smooth for customers because the content they've built in either product can be moved easily into SAP Process Automation.
SAP Process Automation can also be integrated with SAP Process Insights, a process mining and analysis product developed by SAP Signavio that helps customers understand how their processes work and can recommend actions to improve them. While Process Insights provides analysis, SAP Process Automation is the execution engine and includes more than 340 pre-built process flows, forms and RPAs that can solve common business workflow problems, according to Schrötel.
"SAP Process Insights can suggest this content so customers can analyze the performance of a process and then get recommendations on automations that are in the SAP content store that might resolve the problems," he said. "Then after you implement it, you can measure again with Process Insights to see how it has done. This then becomes part of a continuous process improvement cycle."
Process automation an important ERP trend
SAP is onto something with SAP Process Automation, as RPA is currently a top trend for ERP, said Predrag Jakovljevic, principal industry analyst at Technology Evaluation Centers.
The trend is also exemplified by enterprise rivals Microsoft, which has the Microsoft Power Automate low-code RPA platform, and Salesforce, which added RPA with the acquisition of Servicetrace via its subsidiary MuleSoft in 2021.
Smaller ERP vendors like Acumatica and Plex have also introduced process automation functions but by partnering with automation software vendors like UiPath and Blue Prism, which could require additional licenses, integration and upgrade issues, he said.
"Only the largest guys have the privilege and advantage of their native RPA," Jakovljevic said.
Process automation is a key driver for businesses that need to reduce operating costs and improve cycle times, said Maureen Fleming, program vice president at IDC.
Companies are also interested in providing business users with the skills to use process automation tools, so they are helped by products like SAP Process Automation that combine low-code capabilities and workflow automation with process mining, intelligent document processing and AI-assisted decision making, she said.
"A key trend in automation is the consolidation of different types of automation and AI technologies onto a single platform," Fleming said. "SAP is on trend with this combination and, given how much improvement is going on in the processes supported by SAP applications, this offering fits into a ready-made market."
The release of SAP Process Automation shows that SAP is serious about providing workflow automation and ERP modernization, agreed Jon Reed, co-founder of Diginomica, an enterprise industry analysis firm.
"If you can get these workflows right, you're not just automating very basic things, but you're starting to automate steps from more elaborate processes," he said.
Jon ReedCo-founder, Diginomica
The tool should be well-received by customers because only the most sophisticated companies can develop low-code and process automation tools internally without help from a vendor, he said. While there are other low-code process automation vendors out there, like Automation Anywhere, many of them don't fully understand SAP environments.
"A third-party provider can help to provide some of the tools and building blocks as an alternative. Any customer, when they look at things like this, should evaluate a range of tools and options," Reed said. "But in general, if you're on S/4HANA, you're probably going to lean toward SAP for automation because they know the processes and code environment better than anyone."
However, SAP needs to be clearer about which SAP ERP products SAP Process Automation works on and what the migration path looks like for existing users of SAP Workflow Management and SAP Intelligent RPA, Reed said. It's not apparent that SAP Process Automation will work with SAP ECC or other ERP versions, and there are tools from SAP partners that may work well for those versions.
"The migration scenarios for products like this probably aren't too cumbersome, but customers will still need to have questions answered," Reed said. "If you are a customer of one of those products you probably welcome this direction because you can see that SAP is investing heavily in these tools, and that's good news for them."
Jim O'Donnell is a TechTarget news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for SearchSAP and SearchERP.