SAP’s release of its HANA in-memory database back in 2015 was a watershed moment for the company. At that time, SAP began rewriting its flagship ERP product, streamlining many of the features and modules and adding a personalized, consumer-grade user experience with the SAP Fiori UX tool. The company’s new ERP product, S/4HANA, was born.
As part of this major step in the evolution of SAP’s flagship product, the company also shifted to a cloud-first approach, giving customers the technical underpinnings needed to support a fully cloud-based implementation, while still offering the option of deploying S/4HANA on-premise.
Whichever deployment option you select, the inherent complexity of SAP’s products often leads to a scenario in which users must call upon IT to perform tedious maintenance tasks before they can proceed with urgent projects.
The HANA database itself provides the underlying data storage mechanism for S/4HANA. (In other words, HANA is the database and S/4HANA is the business application that runs on top of it.) As the first in-memory database for SAP, HANA was revolutionary, bringing together the best characteristics of both traditional online transaction processing and online analytical processing. HANA’s capability of responding to queries with lightning speed (even for very large data sets) makes it a standout for companies running complex ERP environments.
As SAP’s primary ERP solution evolves, customers must be mindful that making the move to S/4HANA will likely impact the way they use reporting and analytics tools. Even if you have not yet made the transition, it is well worth an investment of your time to consider the implications and take a proactive approach to building an optimal SAP S/4HANA reporting and analytics strategy as you look to the future.
Let’s begin with an overview of the reporting tools that SAP provides for its current ERP offering. After that, we will cover some of the key factors to consider as you plan your strategy for financial reporting and analytics on S/4HANA.
An Overview of SAP S/4HANA Reporting Tools
Like many other large software vendors, SAP has developed an array of different reporting tools around its ERP product, each of which has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Knowing which tool to use for which purpose can be challenging, and often requires a detailed understanding of the technical underpinnings of each reporting product, along with a clear grasp of the use case. That usually calls for a back-and-forth conversation between the user in the finance department and a technical expert from IT. When you have an urgent need, that can be a disadvantage.
Here is an overview of the SAP reporting tool suite:
SAP Business Information Warehouse (BW) – The SAP Business Warehouse is a data repository (data warehouse) designed to optimize the retrieval of information based on large data sets. The rollout of SAP BW is a major project, requiring extensive planning that takes into account all of the various use cases to which you can apply BW.
There is a workflow associated with BW in which you extract the data from the source database, and then transform and pre-process them to provide for rapid analytics based on large data sets. BW is a legacy SAP product and is most often found in deployments of the company’s ECC product (the predecessor to S/4HANA).
SAP BW/4HANA is SAP‘s next generation of enterprise data warehouse solution. It allows you to connect historical data with real-time operational data and integrate data from multiple sources into one data warehouse.
BW does not provide reporting per se; it provides a data repository optimized for certain kinds of reporting. In order to use it, you must first design reports using traditional tools such as BusinessObjects, Tableau, or Qlikview. By making direct calls to BW (rather than to SAP’s live production database), you can often generate reports much faster than you otherwise could.
SAP Analysis for Microsoft Office – This is a collection of plug-ins for SAP that provide Excel-based reporting capabilities. These include an Analysis plug-in, a dedicated Enterprise Performance Management plug-in, and another for SAP’s Business Planning and Consolidation (BPC) module. To make matters more confusing, SAP released an alternate version of this product in 2020 called SAP Analysis for Office Edition for SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC). The version you use will depend upon a number of different factors, including the user’s operating system and the company’s SAP product landscape.
The two different versions vary somewhat in the functionality they offer. The original series of plug-ins supports Microsoft VBA macros, whereas the SAC version does not. The former has a versioning feature that supports “what if” scenario analysis, whereas the latter does not. The SAC version is also reported to have significant stability issues when querying data sets containing more than 3,000 rows. SAP is focusing on the SAC version and has put its legacy Analysis for Office version into maintenance mode.
SAP Analysis for Microsoft Office delivers data in pivot table format, in pre-built workbooks. Any design changes to those workbooks require advanced Excel skills and a detailed understanding of the underlying data sources and procedures. Many of the most useful features in Excel are unavailable, such as the ability to add a dynamic calculation to a pivot table. In addition, SAP Analysis for Microsoft Office imposes a rigid structure on the SAP data that it presents. So although the out-of-the-box features of Analysis for Office provide a useful way of connecting Excel to your SAP data, the resulting output lacks the extreme flexibility that most Excel users have come to love so much.
SAP Analysis for Office is a reasonably good tool for getting a surface-level view of ERP data, but it is simply not flexible enough to provide for the sophisticated needs of analysts in finance and accounting.
SAP BusinessObjects BI Suite – SAP’s business intelligence solution, BusinessObjects, is complex, expensive, and requires a significant amount of expertise to use and manage. Typically, IT has to manage this tool as a key infrastructure component, and you must normally involve IT whenever you need a new report design, or if you require a change. BusinessObjects cannot support real-time data changes, making it unwieldy for ad hoc reporting. Some of the tools in the BusinessObjects BI Suite do not work well with financial data, requiring complex formulas in order to create financial reports. That, in turn, requires the involvement of IT experts in the process. As such, it is poorly suited to the type of basic analytical tasks associated with a month-end closing.
SAP Business Planning and Consolidation (BPC) – BPC is not a reporting tool per se; it is an SAP module for complex planning, budgeting, forecasting, and financial consolidation. Over the years, SAP has offered a number of different planning tool modules. Today the two main offerings are Integrated Business Planning and BPC. The former is part of SAP’s suite of supply-chain management products, whereas the latter is built around the analytics platform, but there is considerable overlap in the purposes these two products serve. BPC relies on the SAP BW data warehouse to function, so implementing BPC is a complex undertaking.
In BPC, users can adjust plans and forecasts, speed up budget and closing cycles, and ensure compliance with financial reporting standards. However, even though BPC is closely connected to SAP’s other analytics products, it does not include its own reporting tool; users need to use Analysis for Office or some other external tool for reporting.
For SAP users looking for an alternative to BPC, insightsoftware’s planning and consolidation tools provide a strong alternative to consider.
SAP Analytics Cloud (Embedded Analytics) – The SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC) was the evolution of several components aimed at business planning, predictive analytics, and data visualization. At its core, SAC is primarily aimed at visualization, that is, producing dashboards that provide a graphical representation of your ERP data.
However, SAC is poorly suited to the kind of ad hoc analysis that most finance professionals must perform on a regular basis. For those kinds of tasks, insightsoftware’s GL Wand provides a strong companion to SAC, giving users a range of ad hoc analysis capabilities that complement the features found in SAC.
SAC has a steep learning curve, making it difficult for finance and accounting personnel to attain a minimal level of proficiency. In addition, SAC is reported to be very slow when working with large data sets.
Common Pain Points in the Finance Department
Given the wide array of S/4HANA reporting tools, it’s not surprising that many SAP users feel frustrated by the complexity of the software and the dependencies that it creates for scarce IT resources. SAP develops some of the most powerful business applications in the world, but it often does so at the expense of simplicity and usability.
For users in finance and accounting, that kind of complexity generates some real-world disadvantages. The month-end closing process, for example, requires a good deal of ad hoc analysis: gathering and collating information, reconciling GL balances against external sources, and identifying any discrepancies that you discover in the process.
If finance users must constantly call upon IT to modify reports or create new reports from scratch, it adds unnecessary delays to the reporting process. The unfortunate reality is that, very often, users simply choose to work around the problem by performing tedious copy/paste processes using the reports they already have, rather than waiting for IT to deliver what they need. This can consume hours of valuable staff time—time spent manually moving data from multiple sources into a single Excel spreadsheet and reformatting to suit their needs.
To make matters worse, the resulting information is out-of-date from the moment that you export data from SAP to Excel. To update an Excel spreadsheet created in this way, you must repeat the process all over again, consuming even more valuable time. For this reason, it is critical that finance users have reporting tools that give them real-time access to data in the ERP system.
Another fatal flaw in many of the reporting tools is their lack of drill-down capability. When a member of the finance team is tracking down discrepancies in a GL account balance, for example, it is important that they can drill down from the information in their report to the transactional detail that supports it. Having that capability is the difference between getting an answer in seconds or spending minutes or hours finding the answer you need.
Simplify Reporting by Removing IT Dependency
When users are highly dependent on specialized IT experts to develop and modify reports for them, it creates a lose/lose situation for both the finance team and IT. IT departments are busy enough as it is and should focus on projects of strategic importance, rather than performing routine formatting and maintenance tasks that consume time unnecessarily.
When finance teams have true self-service capabilities, it eliminates a key dependency and avoids the need to perform tedious and error-prone copy/paste workarounds.
With tools that deliver real-time visibility to ERP data, finance users can get up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening in the business. Although many of the standard SAP reporting tools provide real-time data, it’s common practice to export that information to Excel for analysis. At that point, it becomes static information, and updated analyses require the user to re-import new data into Excel. With insightsoftware’s Wands for SAP, you have a tool that provides real-time data together with robust drill-down capabilities, so your finance team can operate at a much higher level of efficiency.
Simplicity is a virtue, as long as it does not require a compromise on performance or capabilities. The Wands family of products from insightsoftware provides self-service capabilities, robust drill-down features, and real-time access to your SAP S/4HANA data. GL Wand, Reports Wand, and Planning Wand integrate directly with SAP and allow for secure distribution and collaboration across your organization.
insightsoftware helps users to escape the limitations of SAP reporting by accessing pre-built reports or easily creating their own, without relying on IT. Reports access composite data across multiple dimensions, and provide filtering and drill-down to journals, balances, and subledger accounting to speed up reconciliations and enable interim reporting to check status and outliers. Instead of wasting time figuring out which of SAP’s many different reporting tools is right for a specific job, you can create a new report with confidence, knowing that you have maximum flexibility with the tool you are using.
To learn more about how insightsoftware can help your business, request a free demo today.