by Arun Shankar

How NYU Abu Dhabi uses automation to manage travel disruptions

Aug 17, 2021
IT Strategy

New York University Abu Dhabi has been able to manage the challenges of post-pandemic travel and ensure student and faculty safety with an automated travel management system.

nafeh masood
Credit: Nafeh Masood

The pandemic has caused extensive upheaval in global travel, creating all sorts of problems for enterprises with international affiliations. With connecting flights being terminated or rerouted, and unplanned stopovers that require last-minute lodging arrangements, manual and paper-driven processes to track costs and operations in any organization are now no longer suitable.

New York University Abu Dhabi has been able to manage these travel challenges due to an initiative it took to automate the tracking of its travel management, operations and expenses.

Travel management is important for New York University Abu Dhabi, first announced in 2007 in partnership with New York University and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. New York University Abu Dhabi’s students come from 115 nations and speak over 115 languages. New York University’s campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of this global university.

Travel-related paperwork is a bottleneck

Prior to the automation of its travel operations, New York University Abu Dhabi used paperwork for submission of expenses and consolidation of receipts. “Initially, NYU Abu Dhabi used a paper form that was circulated for signatures for proper delegation of authority,” according to Nafeh Masood, senior director for financial operations at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Using paper is inefficient and error-prone. Managing paper also requires a human workforce. This was the reason why New York University Abu Dhabi first implemented SAP’s Concur Travel and Expense software back in 2014. With this platform, the university has been able to efficiently sustain its travel operations through post-pandemic times. 

The primary implementation goal was to ensure the educational institution was getting the best travel fares, and to identify ways to generate savings, according to Masood. For New York University Abu Dhabi, the SAP Concur journey provided transparency and compliance to meet its internal audit regulations. It also provided an understanding of the travel service market.

SAP Concur connects expenses, travel, and vendor invoice spending into one system. This gives end-to-end visibility into transactions and compliance, and simplifies travel-management processes. Concur Expense automatically imports credit card charges and matches them to receipts and itinerary data. Receipts generated from suppliers are fed directly into the expense report.

Since SAP Concur uses cloud technology, information is transparent and accessible by any team member with access. Concur Expense and Concur Invoice allow businesses to track employee expenses, review and approve invoices in real time.

Automation reduces administrative burden

An early benefit that New York University Abu Dhabi experienced right away, was the reduction of administrative burden on the back office. Travelling faculty and students were able to upload their receipts while travelling, and close their expense statements much faster. Travel agencies and third-party suppliers received travel data in a systematic format. For university management, SAP Concur now provides a reporting tool making it easy to get the latest updates.

A key benefit that SAP Concur provided was that users could save their paper expense receipts while on the move. Pictures of paper receipts can be uploaded into the application, eliminating the need to keep the receipts till the end of the journey.

Another benefit from the application is the availability of continuous supplier summary reports, or reporting on the fly, without having to request the various travel agencies to submit them to New York University Abu Dhabi. 

Overall, automation eliminates paper. Invoice and expense data is entered into the automated system and imaged receipts are tagged to those transactions. Reports are routed automatically for approvals and reimbursements. Data is accessible for budget planning and vendor negotiations.

“With historic processes, these are often maintained in different systems and in silos within an organization,” says Mark Cullen, managing director for EMEA South, SAP Concur. “This leads to a lack of visibility on how much is actually being spent on travel, if it is being done in the most efficient way, and poor decision making in terms of policy change. The other aspect is more around efficiency of managing tasks such as reimbursements and reconciliations.”

Enhancing duty of care during the pandemic

During the pandemic, New York University Abu Dhabi also used SAP Concur to improve its duty of care obligation for its traveling faculty, staff and students. This was done by integration of its third-party suppliers into SAP Concur.

Duty of care refers to the moral and legal obligations of employers to their employees, contractors, volunteers and related family members in maintaining their well-being, security and safety when working, posted on international assignments or working in remote areas of their home country.

SAP Concur now tracks the location of its users based on the segment of the travel trip that they are within. Using an integrated view, New York University Abu Dhabi can identify where its faculty, staff or students are located and provide them any requested assistance and support.

“Any organization that relies on manual processes, have vague travel and expense policies, or lack tools to ensure business travellers are safe will find their efforts at post-2020 recovery hampered,” Cullen says.

Autmation requires change management

Change can be scary and difficult, especially for smaller institutions where time and resources are already strained. Having the best technology in the world does not mean anything if the team does not use it. Faculty and staff are more likely to use easy-to-use mobile tools, rather than complicated interfaces. Change management plays a vital role in any implementation of new technology.

While implementing SAP’s Concur, Masood had to drive consensus across the organization, enable collaboration, and ensure effective change management. Masood says he needed to get buy-in from the entire community including faculty, students, and administration.

Listening to the voice of the customer, a change management program, videos and training materials were key components of the implementation process. Amongst Masood’s learning points are that consensus is a driver as you go down the journey of implementing any application.

Amongst the benefits of travel-management automation are the elimination of paper, reduction in reimbursement cycle time, increased visibility into data, adoption of user-friendly tools, visibility into location of travelling students, and reduction of fraud.

Automation significantly decreases reimbursement times, by eliminating manual entries and reducing human intervention in the process. Wait times can be reduced from one month to one day after approval after implementing an automated travel and expenses solution.

“The journey with SAP Concur has provided us with transparency into our compliance and internal audit regulation. We now have a full view of travel across the organization,” Masood says.