Building the Right Portal

Feature Article | June 18, 2008 by Henry Smith

Approaches to implementation of SAP NetWeaver Portal To provide self-services, implementations of SAP NetWeaver Portal range from very simple deployments to extremely complex portals.

SAP NetWeaver Portal can deliver a wide range of services from the SAP ERP back end. One focus is on self-service offerings, because they fit with the strategy of reducing costs for employee support while improving the service-delivery experience for employees. To enable SAP NetWeaver Portal to contribute in this area, the appropriate business process functionality must be incorporated. The business packages for employee self-service (ESS) and manager self-service (MSS) are the two most common elements here. They are both part of the SAP ERP Human Capital Management (SAP ERP HCM) solution, itself a subset of SAP ERP, and can be deployed with SAP NetWeaver Portal.

The ESS and MSS business packages provide a foundation on which to build a self-service offering. However, they are unlikely to contain the functionality exactly as a business needs it. A deployment through SAP NetWeaver Portal can help here – the component is based on common Internet standards such as Java. That allows for significant customization of self-service features to meet business requirements. Non-SAP applications, services, and content can also be incorporated into SAP NetWeaver Portal.

Approaches to implementation of self-service

To provide self-services, implementations of SAP NetWeaver Portal range from very simple deployments using unmodified content delivered by SAP to extremely complex portals that are loaded with custom development. We have identified four different approaches, along with the resources needed, the necessary level of effort, and the risk involved.

Low cost, low risk

The simplest approach to implementation involves turning the out-of-the-box services delivered by SAP on or off, based on the defined scope of the specific implementation of SAP ERP HCM at the enterprise. For example, if payroll is not in scope for SAP ERP HCM because that function is outsourced to a third-party vendor, configuration of the self-service involves turning off the payroll-related SAP services in the portal.

The approach also assumes that SAP-delivered fields, field nomenclature, business processes, and default functionality are accepted without any modification except to turn off fields or functionality that are not in scope for the given implementation.

Using SAP-delivered content is the simplest and most cost-effective approach. It requires the fewest resources and a relatively low level of effort in terms of difficulty of configuration, which can be performed by the functional practitioners. If the goal is quick implementation of a limited-scope self-service offering with SAP NetWeaver Portal, this approach is quite attractive. Since the approach does not involve customization, the company can expect full support from SAP, which translates into low support costs. Maintenance costs are also relatively low because no custom redevelopment must occur when the SAP software is upgraded.

The key drawback to this approach arises because out-of-the-box functionality from SAP is unlikely to meet the specific business requirements of most organizations. That is to be expected, because no two businesses implement even the same business process in the same way. This approach might also require that business users modify their business processes. Thus, organizations generally do not take the out-of-the-box approach. But it is nevertheless important as a foundation for all further approaches.

Going vanilla

The second approach can be described as vanilla, because it involves building on the content delivered by SAP by customizing the nomenclature and field properties in SAP NetWeaver Portal to meet the business requirements of the organization. This approach, like the simple one, does not involve any custom development.

The vanilla implementation approach is also cost-effective, requiring the same resources as the out-of-the-box-approach, but getting a step closer to satisfying the requirements of the business owners. When combined with simple customized branding of the portal with company colors, logos, and other graphics, customizing of nomenclature and field behaviors can go a long way toward designing an acceptable self-service offering.

Configuration is relatively easy with the vanilla approach. The overall level of effort depends on the complexity of the business requirements. SAP NetWeaver Portal allows a high degree of customization of different elements. A single field has several customization options, including modifiable nomenclature, look and feel, emphasis, help texts, and descriptive text.

If the goal is quick implementation of simple self-services that closely fit the business in terms of the look, feel, and relevant nomenclature, companies can choose an attractive and cost-effective approach. And as development-based modifications do not change the SAP-delivered content, SAP will provide full support, assuring relatively low support and maintenance costs.

But there is also a drawback. Although the customization of field properties is likely to be well-received by key business owners, they still might have some issues with the execution of business processes in SAP NetWeaver Portal. But midsize organizations often implement the vanilla approach, and it can be a good initial implementation of self-services for larger enterprises. This option is rich in functionality, is cost-effective, and involves low risk in terms of support and maintenance.

Basic customization

The basic customization approach enhances the previous approaches by introducing light custom development to modify delivered functionality to meet business requirements. Typical development efforts include modifications to expose fields in the portal that exist in the SAP back end, but that do not appear in the content delivered with SAP NetWeaver Portal. Typical development can also include creation of simple applications to enable modification of infotypes.

This type of implementation requires development resources according to the scope of the requirements. The typical implementation should require only portal developers, who are essentially Java programmers. ABAP developers will be needed for changes in functionality that primarily occur on the SAP back end, not for portal-based, Web Dynpro applications.

When development is introduced into an implementation of SAP NetWeaver Portal, the complexity of the project and the level of effort required to effectively implement the self-services increases. Although the basic customization approach restricts modifications, a large number of simple custom developments can still lead to a more complex implementation.

The basic customization approach is fairly cost-effective in terms of support and maintenance costs. The majority of the self-services are based on functionality delivered by SAP that development efforts do not modify, so it is well supported through normal channels by SAP and internal SAP-savvy resources. If the custom development that deviates from SAP standards remains at a manageable number, the long-term maintenance of the self-service offering is also manageable. Some redevelopment efforts might be required to restore functionality to custom-developed applications if a significant upgrade of SAP software changes underlying functionality on which the original development depended.

The basic customization approach is probably the most common for implementing SAP NetWeaver Portal. If the scope of the project is properly managed and reasonable expectations are set with key stakeholders, the approach can result in a well-received self-service offering, because it meets the majority of key business requirements to the satisfaction of the business owners.

Highly customized applications

The final approach uses the ESS functionality delivered by SAP as a basic platform on which to build complex, custom-developed self-service applications. That involves significant development efforts and often aims at replicating the functionality of legacy systems and automating existing business processes by mimicking manual procedures in SAP software. Unless there is a well-thought-out strategy behind this approach, it can be risky and is, by definition, quite costly.

In terms of resource requirements, a highly customized approach can require several types of development resources, including portal, ABAP, workflow, and Guided Procedure developers. The level of effort required to implement self-services using this approach depends completely on the scope. Implementations of SAP NetWeaver Portal that involve a high level of customization typically turn into multiyear projects. Organizations embarking on such projects need a high level of experience, knowledge and skills in project management, so that the drivers of project effectiveness – scope, time, and cost – are tightly controlled to help manage project risks. Unless they are carefully managed, these projects can result in implementation costs that escalate out of control.

The support and maintenance issues related to a highly customized portal represent another area of significant risk. Extensive modifications of content delivered by SAP reduce the amount and level of support that SAP and other resources can provide. The key support resources are the developers who created the custom applications. In terms of maintenance, upgrades of SAP software can trigger significant redevelopment efforts to keep the applications compatible with the upgraded environment.

An individual mixture

Companies should thoroughly examine the business requirements that they want to address with the self-services deployed in an implementation of SAP NetWeaver Portal. Once they identify their needs, they don’t have to stick to a single perspective. There is no reason that different approaches cannot be applied to different aspects of an organization’s implementation. For example, business requirements might dictate that the ESS implementation can use a simpler approach, but that the MSS implementation needs a more highly customized approach to provide managers with the right tools and information.

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