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jonerpdemojam.jpg Jon has been tackling key SAP issues (like SAP certification and HANA) since 1995. Get the latest from his blogs, YouTube channel, and iTunes feed.

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Podcast: The Utter Sexiness of SAP Business Workflow - With SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz Print E-mail

podcastlogo_jonerp.gif"What makes SAP Workflow so darned sexy -- the motivations of the Workflow Influence Team -- plus a satirical take on SAP Business Workflow versus HANA and ByD" (ERP Lounge #17)
Podcast Interview Date: January 18, 2011
Podcast: Listen Now!

What is SAP's hottest, sexiest new technology? No, it's not HANA, it's not ByDesign. In this humorous-turned-serious podcast, Jon Reed and special guest and SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz talk about a hype-worthy technology known to insiders as "SAP Business Workflow." After 11 minutes of satirical riffing, Jon and Thorsten turn their attention to more serious matters as Thorsten talks about the overlooked power of SAP Business Workflow and what the Workflow Influence Team is doing to impact SAP Workflow's production direction. In this forty minute podcast, Thorsten explains why NetWeaver BPM does not render "classic" SAP Workflow irrelevant. He provides insight into why these two are actually complementary technologies. Thorsten also shares his ideas for modernizing SAP Workflow to make it compatible with BPMN standards and appealing for developers.

Editor's note- podcast links: This podcast references SAP Mentor Sue Keohan's blog post on the ASUG SAP Workflow Survery Results. Thorsten also a popular blog on SCN. Other links: SAP Mentor Initiative. Sue Keohan on Twitter. Track the SAP Workflow Influence Team on Twitter. Note: click here to download just the satirical "Announcing SAP's Latest Game-Changing Technology - SAP Business Workflow" portion of the podcast (first 11 minutes).

Note: to comment on this podcast series, or send in a question for us to answer in the next one, be sure to join our ERP Lounge Group on Linkedin. If you want to subscribe to the series, get the The JonERP Master Blog and Podcast Feed. Or find Jon on his @jonerp Twitter feed. The ERP Lounge podcasts are also included in the JonERP iTunes podcast feed.  

Podcast Highlights

Note: no summary notes are provided for the "satirical" portion of the podcast because you really have to listen to it to get the flavor. The rest of the podcast has detailed summary notes below.

10:40 Why is SAP Business Workflow so darned sexy? Thorsten: Business Workflow has been around for such a long time - the first release was long before my time - 2.1H or something like that. It is actually the workhorse for executing business processes, and it has strategic importance to everybody who runs business applications on the SAP platform - that goes for SAP and ByDesign and the classic Business Suite, as well as customers who run SAP and CRM and custom applications.

Especially in high volume scenarios, Business Workflow operates in a very stable manner, and yet, despite it obvious importance, there have been a lack of innovations in recent Workflow releases. Some things were changed, but some things are just not state of the art. One way we found out about this was by making an ASUG survey, asking several hundred customers what they liked or didn't like about SAP Business Workflow and what their pain points were.

A lot of them had the same pain points. For example, the SAP Workflow Editor is two generations behind the ABAP Editor and is a pain to work with. The SAP WIT, around Sue Keohan, evaluated the feedback and talked to SAP about it to pass the feedback the development teams to give them some customer feedback to work with.

14:10 What would you say to the response that Workflow is alive and well in SAP but the focus is on the NetWeaver BPM side, because NetWeaver BPM is where the resources are and that's where customers should be headed? Thorsten: That depicts the situation accurately - most of the resources seem to be on the BPM side inside of SAP. It's very well that SAP is making it the highest priority to roll out BPM to customers, it's a valuable addition to product suite, it's good they are putting development resources into BPM also.

However, there are a lot of resources to be developed before the roadmap is completed and NetWeaver BPM can become the cross-system, cross-technology process orchestration engine it has the potential to be. SAP should not turn a blind eye to Business Workflow, there are so many customers using it, and it has such an important position to those customers. Workflow is a key part of their IT and business landscapes that you cannot ignore it, it's important to listening to the customers needs in this area. They do need a state of the art Workflow development environment that includes an integrated ABAP editor for the Workflow design time - you can't work without these things. Currently

16:22 Jon to Thorsten: Don't we need to rethink that we need to rethink what we need when we talk about what is strategic, because I get the sense that strategic for SAP and what is strategic for SAP needs to be redefined. Wouldn't it be strategic for SAP to make sure that customers' needs were being met in the workflow area? Thorsten: In my opinion, anything that makes the system work better, smoother, and better integrated should be of high strategic value to SAP. I know many scenarios in which it would make completely good sense to integrate, for example, BPM as the central process orchestration engine and the local workflow engine in a number of connected ERP systems, and have this cross-system cross-technology workflow run time, so Business Workflow should not be seen as something that competes with BPM but as something that compliments it.

That is the way that customers put Workflow and BPM together in actual real life projects. It would work out better if they had better tool support for this kind of integration, or if they could design such processes in one design environment. The point is the two should not be seen as competing but as complementary, and they should be integrated together much better.

19:02 Jon to Thorsten: one thing that struck me when we were talking earlier: we think of Workflow as this older technology from another era, but you were telling me there is a lot of potential to integrate SAP Business Workflow with BPMN standards, which would be a very modern approach to technical architecture, right? Thorsten: That was one of the suggestions that came out of the survey. If you're a BPM customer, you have this very comfortable design time for BPM processes that is based on open BPMN standards, not SAP proprietary but open notation standards for business processes. You can create your business processes with graphical modeling in the BPMN environment.

We have seen proof of concepts where these BPMN processes can be integrated into very different development environments. Why not take the same process you can integrate into Google's Gravity tool and bring them into the ABAP system, where you have the Workflow Editor? Why not change the SAP Workflow editor and graphical notation slightly so that it conforms to BPMN? The conceptual differences are very few, it would take only minor changes to make SAP Business Workflow to some degree BPMN compliant. That would be a very neat thing, because it would allow the same people to work with the same modeling notation editor whether it was based entirely on BPM, entirely on ABAP/Workflow, or a combination. That would be a very valuable conceptual harmonization between the Workflow and NetWeaver BPM, and it would tie in the work for business experts and technical experts as well.

22:16 Jon to Thorsten: You're a founding member of the SAP Workflow Influence Team (WIT), you have a distinguished set of colleagues, a lot of customer data, constructive ideas to improve Workflow, suggestions for how to enhance the customer experience and integrate it with NetWeaver BPM and other forward thinking SAP technologies. You have all those things, so surely SAP is going to listen to you and make changes, right? Thorsten: You mentioned everything that we have, but you forgot to mention one thing we don't have: and that is the hype. We don't have the hype. This is what I made this attempt at creating the Workflow hype on this podcast - if we can do that, then it will be easy for Workflow to take over the world.

It would be nice to create some awareness and make contact with more of the people out there who are interested in this. In ASUG, it's well organized, but that's just the North American user group, so we do want to make contact with other Business Workflow users who share our belief that this is a very valuable technology in the SAP world and that we should work constructively with SAP to help them understand where the quick wins are that they can get with very little investment. They have a Workflow engine to make it even easier to use, even easier to generate robust, high performance, Master data enabled and flexible business processes which can only benefit everyone in the SAP universe. Workflow is only more relevant now that it's increasingly clear that the ABAP system will remain the system that SAP's high performance ERP business applications run on.

24:48 So SAP's standardization of ABAP in the suite makes Business Workflow all that more significant to reckon with. Thorsten: I believe so, because we can see that SAP is differentiating based on the core of the business systems running on ABAP and the edge enhancements outside the ABAP system. These fringe enhancements are intended to be minimally invasive to the ABAP system or cross-system, that is all good and well and no one wants to take that away, but if you build business applications in the core business process in your core application landscape, that's likely to be ABAP. For a business process that is executed entirely inside the ABAP system and never goes outside, it makes complete sense to build that with SAP Business Workflow. If we are going to use this tool happily in the future, there needs to be something done to enhance it further. Sue Keohan put it very nicely, when she tweeted something along the lines of "Working with the old UI editor in the ABAP system feels like being the only kid on the block who has to play with mud and sticks when everyone else has an iPhone."

26:48 Jon to Thorsten: So let's say you're an SAP customer listening to this podcast, you are inspired by this revelations that Workflow is one of SAP's leading technologies, how do you get on this train? Thorsten: Follow the WIT on Twitter for one....follow that account and we'll keep you posted on our latest activities, webinars, and blogs. We would like to hear from you, and we'll provide networking at events like TechEd, Sapphire Europe, and so on. The more people join forces with us, and tell us about their business apps that aren't sexy but run very well, we can build our case and get that message across to SAP. And definitely blog about your view and experiences with Business Workflow! I would like to get a dialogue started - some seem to have this impression that SAP Business Workflow is either dead or no longer relevant. I don't share this impression, the more people communicate about it, the more we can change these misconceptions.

30:30 Thorsten clears up some misconceptions about the "Kiss of Death" Web Dynpro for Java blog.

31:26 Jon to Thorsten: We were being tongue-in-cheek at the beginning of this podcast about SAP strutting on stage and showing off their latest SAP Workflow victories. While we were joking, if you were sitting down the those at SAP who oversee SAP executives about BPM and Workflow, what would your point be? Thorsten: I have a brilliant colleague Tobias Trapp, he made a small mistake and because of that, the system generated 3 million workflows on a lean ABAP system, and it didn't even hiccup, it just smoothly and silently created 2 million work items. Nothing crashes, nothing slowed down, it was not a problem. The tools are great and the server is so stable. This is just a tiny story that shows what SAP actually has here, and how very well matured and scaleable and incredibly powerful this technology is. Do that with any other workflow engine and see where that leaves you. 15 years of fine tuning has led to an incredible maturation of this product.  I just don't want people to turn a blind eye to something that is already so good for the job.

33:42 Jon to Thorsten, closing comment:  Maybe we need to redefine sexy in the enterprise. Maybe running 2 million workflows without a hitch should e the new definition of sexy in the enterprise.



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