Offline solutions enable field employees to participate in electronic business processes anywhere and at any time. The applications can run on different devices, such as mobile telephones, PDAs, or notebooks, and communicate with ERP systems such as SAP R/3 across a time shift through synchronization processes. Offline solutions initially store the entered data locally — on the hard disk of a notebook computer, for example — and transmit it to the database of the ERP system as soon as a connection is established.
This approach offers numerous advantages for recording hours worked and travel costs. It has become a simple task for employees at office workstations to record their work hours and travel costs on their PCs with the help of employee self-service applications, but because field employees lack a connection to the ERP system, they have previously been left out in the cold. While on the road, they were forced to jot the information down on paper or enter it into a spreadsheet, then transfer it into the ERP system upon their return to the office. But this procedure is time-consuming and prone to errors. Help is provided by the SAP Mobile Time and Travel application, which enables users to record offline their hours worked and travel costs. Among the first users of the software worldwide is TÜV NORD GRUPPE, which will provide mobile time and travel to some 2,000 employees by this summer.
Seamless integration with SAP R/3
There is a particular need for solutions such as Mobile Time and Travel in the service sector, reports Howard Beader, Director of Product Marketing for mySAP Mobile Business: “Consultants in the field must be able to enter their expenses while traveling. Furthermore, it is important that this input be integrated with the back-end system so that customers can be assured of correct invoicing.”
Seamless integration of the offline solution with SAP R/3 is ensured by SAP Mobile Engine on an employee’s notebook. It controls automatic installation of the offline applications as well as synchronization of master and transaction data. “You can easily administer several thousand terminal devices in the field,” explains Claudius Fischer, Director of Mobile Infrastructure at SAP. Moreover, SAP Mobile Engine, “as a pure Java solution, is completely platform-independent, so that customers are not tied to specific hardware,” Fischer continues.
Mobile Time and Travel is closely linked with applications for online entry of hours worked and travel costs that have long been offered by SAP R/3: Cross-Application Time Sheet (CATS) and Travel Management.
Keeping errors out
To gain a clear sense of the requirements for data exchange between offline applications and ERP systems, it’s important to consider a fundamental problem: An offline application is unable to map fully the extensive data checking that occurs in SAP R/3 for data entered online. For example, up-to-date information regarding the availability of account assignment objects is available only in the ERP system.
To enable the user to transmit consistent data however, Mobile Time and Travel possesses its own application logic, derived from the ERP system. The logic includes restricted checking procedures that enable the solution to intercept the majority of possible errors while the information is still on the notebook. Checking of this type might work as follows: An employee enters into his notebook that in one day she has worked three hours on Project A, three hours on Project B, and 3 hours on Project C. The offline application, however, has been informed by SAP R/3 that the user need only work eight hours a day, and thus returns an error message to the employee. Either she had simply mistyped and had only worked eight hours, or she would need to record one hour separately as overtime. In either case, the application’s checking ensures that the data is entered correctly.
During synchronization, SAP R/3 performs the same input checking on the transaction data transferred from the notebook that is also performed for data entered online. If errors occur that had not been flagged by Mobile Time and Travel, the employee automatically receives a message on the notebook and can correct any errors offline. This procedure ensures that only error-free data is processed. In addition, during each synchronization, SAP R/3 provides the offline application with changed master data (account assignment objects and suggested values). In an ideal scenario, employees can calculate offline their travel costs and hours worked — supplementing or correcting data upon returning to the office is required only in exceptional cases.
Submitting expenses from the road
For field employees, the benefits of recording hours worked and travel costs offline are clear. While still in a hotel room, employees can transfer their data to the ERP system, so that settlement and reimbursement of expenses is already in the works while they’re still on the road. In addition, this benefit eliminates the time-consuming preparation of data for entry into the ERP system. The offline application further simplifies data entry through templates and value prompts for account assignment objects (cost centers, orders, and network plans), that are updated regularly. Moreover, data that has not yet been released for processing can be transferred into the ERP system. This enables data backup without local copies on CD-ROM or other media, and possible data loss on the notebook is no longer a concern.
The benefits to a company are even greater. With the offline solution, employees’ previously unproductive and thus costly travel and waiting time is transformed into worthwhile work time. Employees can log project time and travel information on the way from one customer to the next, or on their way back to the office. This enables employees to close out one customer visit completely before beginning the next.
The real benefit, however, is that information is transmitted in a timely fashion, because it is generally relevant for time-critical business processes. On the one hand, this applies to financial and cost accounting, each of which requires that data be provided within a certain time. On the other hand, rapid invoicing of services rendered improves the cash flow of a business. And it almost goes without saying that precisely controlling project costs and providing reliable data quality for invoicing supports positive customer relations.
Online or offline — that is the question
When deciding upon location-independent recording of hours worked and travel costs, companies are faced with the task of deciding between an online and an offline solution. At first glance, an online solution appears to be the more elegant alternative, since after it is entered into the mobile device, data is immediately transmitted to the ERP system. Moreover, in the best case scenario, it’s not even necessary to install software on the mobile device.
“Offline solutions are important for areas lacking network coverage,” explains Claudius Fischer. They ensure independence from online connections such as WLAN, GSM, and GPRS. When using an online application with insufficient network coverage, information must initially be recorded on paper or by other means, but with an offline system, the data can always be recorded. Furthermore, frequent or continuous online connections incur significantly higher costs than connections that are required only for a one-time synchronization at the end of a day or upon the conclusion of a trip. If the synchronization takes place across the corporate network, the connection costs are so low as to be inconsequential.