The underrated practice of ERP systems automation - Scotts Miracle-Gro shares its SAP example

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 22, 2022
At SAP TechEd, we heard plenty of useful talk on SAP automation, but mostly from a low-code/business user angle. What about ERP systems automaton? Avantra customer Scotts Miracle-Gro shares its ERP automation lessons.

Avantra's Brenton O’Callaghan interviewing Manikantan Velayudhan Pillai, Manager or Scotts Miracle-Gro Company
(Scott's Miracle-Gro at Avantra Customer Summit)

My SAP TechEd 2022 day one review sparked heated conversation (SAP TechEd 2022 - low-code tools take center stage with the launch of SAP Build, but is it the right message?).

That's a credit to vocal SAP community members, who excel at pushing conversations and calling out BS. No surprise - enterprise pros have strong views on these topics:

I've linked to samples of both as they surged on Twitter - perhaps for the last time, given Twitter's precarious state. Now, the week after TechEd, the debate about low-code, automation, and bridging the IT-business gap rolls on.

SAP TechEd - low-code is in, why not AIOps?

As SAP revealed, a big driver behind the SAP Build low-code announcements is the ongoing IT talent shortage. Thus the need to empower business users to "build" - and automate their own workflows. Does that fly? Realistic/credible ERP automation talk is always welcome. But as I wrote in my day one piece, that conversation doesn't usually extend where it needs to: into the brass tacks of operational systems.

Another aspect of automation still doesn't get enough attention: SAP DevOps, AIOps, and the need to automate ERP systems, not just business workflows. This is another area where customers have a number of options to evaluate, from SAP to ISVs to systems integrators. I think the topic deserves more SAP TechEd airtime; it's been that way for as long as I can remember. But if you want a head start, our diginomica partner Avantra has been fleshing out this topic: see Want to avoid a skills crisis? Get your ERP automation hygiene in place.

To be fair, SAP TechEd 2022 wasn't totally absent these topics. No, there weren't any AIOps sessions, but there was one DevOps session. As Martin Fischer, head of DSAG's DevOps working group told me, "That's an outstanding session." (I'll get more input from Fischer on SAP DevOps down the road). But how are SAP customers facing the ERP automation challenge/opportunity? A few weeks ago, during Avantra's online customer summit, we got some answers.

Scotts Miracle-Gro shares its SAP automation story

Manikantan Velayudhan Pillai, Manager, SAP Basis at The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, shared its SAP cloud story:

We started our cloud journey and digitization about six years back. We have our entire SAP workflow running out of the AWS public cloud, and there are a few more initiatives that are currently happening. We just went live with our SAP TMS, which is the transport management system on S/4HANA, as well as our logistics systems. Then there is more coming up, with our actual workforce moving onto S/4HANA.

But how do you connect systems observability to automated workflows? Avantra's Brenton O'Callahan asked Pillai, 'What motivated your decision to pursue AIOps, as a way of automating manual/legacy tasks?'. Pillai responded:

Like most companies, we have an on-site/offshore model. Most of the time,  my team works on day-to-day operations. One of the key challenges, when it comes to Basis teams, is that our members don't really get hands-on with live projects: moving to the cloud or any kind of upgrades, any kind of automation within the systems, it's usually done from outside a company. We bring in consultants.

Why does it have to be this way? Why can't you do more of this yourself? During his summit keynote, Avantra CEO John Appleby called this the automation paradox. Part of that paradox? Not having the time/resources/tools to put your own automations in place. Pillai's team faced a similar problem:

Typically, it's happening this way, because you really can't take your hands off of your day-to-day operations. So you have to have some kind of automation. That's when my management asked me to invest my time to find out: what are the things that can be automated?

At the time, system monitoring was a real chore - spreadsheets and manual interventions kept the Basis teams plugging away:

The very first thing that came to my mind was monitoring. System monitoring was all done through Google Sheets... We'll have different teams from India, as well as from the US, do an automation, and do monitoring for that specific period of time, and just update some Google Sheets or Excel sheet on top of it. So this was not something we were doing efficiently.

Scotts Miracle-Gro chose Avantra:

We  started our partnership with Avantra to see how we can automate monitoring. It's been a wonderful journey for the past two years so far. My SAP systems, along with my SaaS solutions, have been completely monitored using the Avantra tool.

Pillai's team has moved beyond monitoring, into ticketing and alerts:

We have have a successful integration with ServiceNow. What that means is it's not just monitoring. It's also a ticketing system that gets into alerts, and other specifications that we need as a team. So that's been a great success story for us.

What is the biggest ERP automation challenge?

After the Avantra Customer Summit, I sent follow-up questions to the Scotts Miracle-Gro team, starting with: What is the biggest challenge in an ERP automation project, and what is the best way to address that? As Pillai notes, one early challenge is to get the fine tuning right:

Automation in SAP ERP systems requires multiple iterations of fine tuning, and it is very easy to get derailed. In our case, when we started automated system monitoring, we received more than 500 incidents for our first month. We were able to fine tune and reduce the incident count to less than 50 per month. We faced a very similar experience in our journey to automate system refresh. After a few iterations we were able to optimize the overall system refresh process and be able to execute refresh with minimal manual interventions.

And what is their top lesson for a company embarking on an ERP automation project? Pillai said something I didn't expect, but it rings true: better systems automation also means a better user experience.

Automation is definitely the way to move forward. It helps resources focus on core business support and helps reduce time spent on most of the daily mundane tasks. Automation in system monitoring helps drive a better system health, which results in a better end user experience. I believe spending a considerable time and effort to automate SAP-related activities helps drive a significant reduction in time and effort spend on day-to-day activities and a better end user experience.

In an economic time where we must do more with less, ERP automation is an appealing focus - especially because you can go after it regardless of which ERP systems you're using, and which cloud you're running on (or not). But these days, you always need a business case. That business case needs to include proven scenarios that yield results. For Pillai, which use cases yielded the most benefit?

I would say both SAP Monitoring and SAP System refresh has had the most impact for my team.
We see a considerable reduction in end user tickets, and a better user experience as we have been able to fine tune system performance. Also, the automation using SAP refresh has helped my team spend less time performing system refresh. Our core SAP ECC system refresh is now executed in less than 4 hours.

My take - if observability doesn't work across systems, it's a farce

This is just one angle on AIOps in ERP environments - and just one customer story. But I hope it shows how these conversations are relevant to the future of SAP system administration. I'd like to think, in the future, SAP TechEd will take up more of these conversations, and expose customers (and practitioners) to a wide range of SAP DevOps tools and approaches. You can't take a general DevOps practice and force it onto an ERP landscape. But there are some very interesting approaches that bring these threads together.

I find the Avantra integration with ServiceNow intriguing. Automation in heterogeneous landscapes requires tools that play nice together, handing off workloads, automations, and tickets. If observability doesn't work across systems, it is a farce.

This is also where the concept of hyperautomation Avantra CEO Appleby wrote about on diginomica comes into play. Automations can be siloed too. I'm still not in love with the term hyperautomation; I'm hopeful to avoid using it, but I see what Appleby is getting at. At the Avantra Customer Summit, Markus Koch, Technical Enablement Manager at Avantra partner Red Hat, argued that hyperautomation must replace "islands of automation."

Today, almost anybody simplifies their jobs by using some kind of automation via a simple script, Perl script or whatever, or more sophisticated or even proprietary automation solutions... Today it's still focused on automating technical tasks, such as server provisioning, or network configuration

The goal we want to achieve is a true collaborative approach between these islands of automation, where we do not focus on a single technical implementation, but on the whole business process, and how it is implemented.

Yes, that's a more ambitious approach. But if you want to avoid automation islands, it's the right framework. Koch has an even fancier buzzphrase:

We call this accretive strategic automation. Avantra uses the term hyperautomation for it. Together, we can today form this end-to-end approach in the SAP space.

If SAP customers want to get out of the automation paradox, they need more than outside consultants. They need building blocks. If firms like Avantra, Red Hat and Service Now can get closer to automating a whole business process, then I don't care what you call it. Use whatever buzzword you like, it will be worth it. Tracking customers like Scotts Miracle-Gro is the best way to validate the progress - and where this approach needs to go next.

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