Any company that has faced the tasks of aligning enterprise processes with business strategy to pursue sufficient enterprise planning with SAP Business Planning and Consolidation (BPC) knows the hurdles and challenges that this endeavor presents. With SAP Analytics Cloud, SAP has released a solution that covers all three aspects of data visualization, planning, and predictive analytics. But is SAC suitable to replace established BPC Frontend application EPM (Enterprise Performance Management)?
Challenges during Planning…
If business planning is carried out with a solution whose functionality does not match the corporate structure and planning strategy, this would ultimately lead to a high decrease in planning effectiveness. Instead of accomplishing and incentivizing a high level of planning accuracy, we often see that clients then often deal with multiple problems: stagnating processes due to process or data inconsistencies (formatting, layouts, non-standardized or differently weighted KPIs), inclusion of different kinds of planning relevant data sources, and a very heterogeneous system landscape that is created as a result of different sub-plans being implemented in many different systems.
For some time now, SAP optimized its approach towards enterprise planning along with their other offerings. Different solutions with outstanding planning features evolved and have been used by many companies successfully for years to solve these problems. Most famous is certainly “Business Planning and Consolidation” (BPC) in its different versions. For some time now, a cloud-based frontend solution has been added to SAPs planning tool stack promising to provide additional sufficient planning capabilities.
With SAP Analytics Cloud, SAP has released its most versatile frontend that covers all kinds of features for data visualization, planning, and predictive analytics.
Yet Another Planning Tool?
With already existing and proven planning frontend tools in the market, the frequent and major question for clients is to why extend the product portfolio with yet another frontend (planning) tool? This is fair and legitimate – especially regarding the afore mentioned planning complexity, and also considering that BPC is already a powerful, deeply integrated tool with corresponding IT requirements and – to say the least – reasonable licensing costs.
One of SAPs main value proposition comes from its strategic direction focusing on cloud solutions, provided in products, such as Data Warehouse Cloud (DWC) or the frontend tool Analytics Cloud (SAC). These products are promised to deliver top-notch innovative features, an easier integration process and ease-of-usability. As they can be used via web browser, they provide high flexibility but are still highly secure. In fact, being reachable and being able to work securely with cloud solutions from any device is seen as a major benefit as compared to old and often inflexible planning frontends. BPC has a great reputation within the market of planning solutions, as it provides a broad spectrum of functionalities, covering every step of the planning process and as for the backend is still the ideal solution. Not so much its previous frontend including the add-on EPM.
For many it was unfortunate to hear SAPs announcement for an end of support for BPC (latest) by end of 2027 (or even earlier as for SAP BPC, version for Microsoft 10.1 by end of 2024), [cf. (SAP, SAP Analytics Cloud Integrated Planning, 2021) SAP Learning Platform]. This means, that not only a top-notch planning product is being sidetracked, but companies also face a deadline for exchanging their planning frontend. In this blog post, I distinct the SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC) to the previous conventional frontend of the SAP planning product BPC. For a distinction based on the provided features, please feel free to look at this blog article (Vanhouette, 2020).
A Look at the BPC Roadmap …
In the following section I will provide a rough glimpse on each distinct frontend product of BPC in both BPC standard and BPC embedded for BW/4HANA and S/4HANA. Please feel free to skip to the next section if your are familiar with the roadmap of the different BPC systems.
Firstly, I want do distinct BPCs frontend application from its backend applications, as the two best known backend applications will still play an important role in planning scenarios. These are namely BPC Standard and BPC Embedded, and they are very distinctive from each other. For both, the highly Microsoft Office-integrated EPM Plug-in provided the frontend, but it lacked ease-of-use and flexibility.
With the rollout of BW/4HANA and S/4HANA, additional BPC backend versions optimized for BW/4HANA and S/4HANA were provided, which still used EPM but at least provided the ability to use the SAC as its Frontend. The reason is the following: In S/4HANA and the SAP Business Suite scenarios, an embedded BW was used in the planning models of Integrated Business Planning (IBP) and Business Planning & Consolidation (BPC). The version of BW used in the embedded scenario was SAP BW 7.5 powered by SAP HANA, but SAP has no plans to enable SAP BW/4HANA for embedded BW. (Due to good reasons, such as sizing.)
Besides, the promise of the more integrated SAC planning solution, and SAP’s announcement to no longer support BPC with service and updates should be a good enough a call-to-action for a switch to SAC as the frontend. But it is also reasonable that companies worry about the replacement of BPCs Office Add-on. As an enthusiastic user of the SAC planning professional license, I want to present my thoughts on why the implementation of SACs planning solution would in fact be very reasonable in addition to a BW/4HANA, eventually S/4HANA. I already highlighted, that with SAC, SAP offers its customers a comprehensive and flexible, cloud-based front-end solution that not only (and opposed to EPM) provides self-service business intelligence with a promised steep learning curve, but also covers a wide range of innovative planning functionalities in areas, such as predictive analytics.
But what about feature limitations in the SAP Analytics Cloud?
Sceptic readers might judge my afore provided claim and malign the SAC for its alleged feature limitations and lack of flexibility in its customizing options in direct comparison to BPCs EPM. However, this alleged inflexibility in customization should first of all motivate planners to question the complexity within their planning processes and to put efforts in optimizing and simplifying them, thus breaking up seemingly historically risen inaccuracies. With a proper planning process in place, users can indeed make use of SACs wide range of planning features, such as easy conducted what-if analysis using a value driver tree (VDT), which depicts the value flows through the model and their hierarchical links and supports the manual adjustment of its drivers. Thus, the VDT allows for a very detailed visualization of the different links and impacts affecting on top level metrics.
Another great asset provides the wide range of features for gaining data insights and simulations on-the-fly. These encompass Smart Discovery, which uses AI to automatically highlight patterns and relationships, Smart Insights providing the key insights, Time Series Forecasting for AI-driven automatic forecasting of planning metrics, Smart Grouping for finding interrelations and deriving automatic clusters or Smart Predict where AI driven predictions are led by a manually created predictive scenario.
To sum up, the SAP Analytics Cloud has in fact grown reasonably into a top-notch, innovative enterprise frontend and planning solution. It not only provides planners easy-to-use smart analytical functions and visualization capabilities but is (in my opinion) currently also the most consolidated solution referred to its orchestration capabilities. It offers features for crowdsourcing plans and budgets across the organizations to increase engagement and accuracy and linking operational and financial planning to improve alignment and performance.
Benefits from SACs seamless integration (including roadmaps)…
The SAC can be easily integrated in the applicational environment and used as the single platform [cf. (SAP, SAP Analytics Cloud Integrated Planning, 2021) SAP Learning Platform] for fast collaborative analysis, planning and visualizations.
It is even easier to harness all upcoming innovative features provided by SAP systems than it has been before. E. g. one of the (in my opinion) most valuable assets of SAC is its seamless connectivity to SAP BW/4HANA and S/4HANA, Salesforce, SuccessFactors or especially the SAP Data Warehouse Cloud (DWC). Thus, the SAC serves as a single point of truth for consolidated data across the data warehouse and facilitates centralized reporting.
To support downstream data operations, the SAC enables the export of plan data from the SAP Analytics Cloud solution to SAP BW/4HANA 2.0 (SP 04) [ with login cf. (SAP, Enterprise Planning Road Map for SAP Analytics Cloud, 2021)] and S/4HANA. As we know SAP HANA provides the Automated Predictive Library, this library corresponds to SAP Predictive Analytics as well as the SAP Analytics Cloud Smart Predict engine. This allows developers to deploy predictive models directly in the HANA environment in different programming languages, such as R, Python or SQL.
Furthermore, it is possible to export data to other digital core and line of business solutions beyond financial information including units and volumes that are also planned in SAP Analytics Cloud. Besides, SAP enables bi-directional transfer of (forecast) data between SAC and DWC by the end of 2021. This way integration complexity is reduced as planning-relevant input data (such as actuals) can be intuitively staged and acquired through the DWC as a single source. Thus, companies will highly benefit from DWC’s development into a powerful cloud-based connection platform, supporting transformation capabilities and a multitude of diverse and easily integrated data providers, that can be seamlessly used within SACs self-service planning environment.
Also, the processing in Excel is possible using the Microsoft Analysis for office add-on of version 2.8 SP09. This version lets users connect directly to the SAC and next to all known excel features, allows the retrieval, and display of data created on a new model type for analytics and planning scenarios. The hybrid connection is solved perfectly here, and the cloud back-end can thus seamlessly work with the on-premise thick client, to consume acquired data models. The web-based table interface of SAP Analytics Cloud allows drilling and filtering Microsoft Office worksheet, but without any local client installation. With the SAP Analytics Hub, any other portal accessible via URL can be connected. For further processing in third-tier solutions, SAP plans the implementation of open APIs by 2022 to pull planning and forecasting data from SAP Analytics Cloud to external solutions. [ with login cf.(SAP, Future Releases Roadmap 2021, 2022, 2021)].
Replacing the common Netweaver frontend…
A great prospect for companies with a long and successful BPC for Microsoft Excel frontend history, provides SAC’s mutual connection between existing SAP BPC backend environments (both based on Microsoft and NetWeaver), combining to a hybrid planning scenario of both planning solutions via import and/or write-back (BPC Standard) or even live connection (BPC Embedded) backend. Eliminating the efforts for extending BPCs Web UI, the SAC offers connections to write data back to an BPC embedded configuration model from SAC. With only the planning license needed (minimum SAP Analytics Cloud for planning, standard edition, manual coding e.g. for developing a web application and adding custom views via Java Script and .json files is thus largely being avoided. As soon as BPC data is imported into the SAC, it can be combined with other models in the SAC as the dataset for a custom frontend perspective. The table shows the main possibilities of joining BPC by connection:
|Data import to SAC||Write-back to SAC||BPC Live Data Connection|
Table 1: Hybrid Planning BPC Scenario [cf. (SAP, SAP Analytics Cloud Integrated Planning, 2021)] SAP Learning Platform
Currently, SAP is pushing ahead with the development of innovative features for their cloud solutions (such as the DWC). Companies that want to keep up in BI and planning are recommended to implement the SAC as their frontend, which also appears to be comparatively more cost-effective. As one of SAP’s most innovative solutions, the SAP Analytics Cloud offers a comprehensive support for features in the planning process and is easily embedded into existing architectures (including BPCs backend solution) thanks to its wide range of connection adapters. Besides being a self-service BI solution, it sets out to become a self-service planning solution, continuously simplifying its UX and successively limiting training efforts for business users or planning experts whilst supporting the creation of flexible, source-independent and consolidated planning scenarios. For this, the SAC provides planners a multitude of e. g. AI- and machine learning driven smart features, to conduct the planning in scenarios, which where, if even possible, complex to implement using older planning products.
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