Book Reviews: SAP Nation and Stacking the Deck

Two very good books: One documents the massive SAP ecosystem and the challenges now confronting all within it. The other details, in a very personalized but highly transferable way, how major change should be undertaken.

I had the chance to read David Pottruck's new book "Stacking the Deck" a couple of weeks ago. It focuses on leading big time change - a subject that many IT project managers and systems integrators should know a lot about.

I have a healthy appreciation for what it takes to change an organization. I've lived through many large systems projects and have learned a ton of change lessons the hard way. But, I've also had the pleasure of working with a number of great change professionals who really know how to make things happen. Their insights and methods have been great.

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David Pottruck's "Stacking the Deck" Brian Sommer - TechVentive, Inc.

I've also worked with folks who either gave change management just lip service or tried to execute a formulaic approach to change without really understanding what the company/client needed. Change, it turns out, is often personal as well as difficult.

"Stacking the Deck" genuinely does a very nice job of breaking down the steps behind big change but more importantly it does so while exposing the all-too-common reactions executives will have about driving change. For instance, while an executive that is sponsoring a big initiative may know the project is important to the firm, not everyone in the company feels the same sense of urgency or need. The natural reaction of many employees is to shrug off the project and maintain the status quo. As I've come to learn, it takes lighting a fire to get people to see you're serious about this project. And, it takes continued, focused communication to make sure they "get it", get on-board and stay on-board.

While that sounds so patently obvious, it doesn't always get done in real life. What many executives and project teams need is a way to understand the change they are instigating, the methods that will help them achieve their goals and techniques to sustain the effort. Mr. Pottruck's book does a nice job of dissecting change into relatable, actionable steps.

In my consulting career, I've run into a few change management methodologies. These tools were dry and impersonal. They lacked a real human face to a process that is all about humans and their sometimes stubborn or irrational reactions to new things. This book reads well as it is full of examples that convey the essence of the problems and the understanding about why particular methods are needed. This personal touch is what makes the book work so well. It also makes the book something good project leaders will want to refer back again.

If you're about to embark on a big project (e.g., merger integration), you need a straightforward way to see and plan for change. Get this book.

SAP Nation

Vinnie Mirchandani has just released his fourth book "SAP Nation". The book quantifies the enormity of the SAP ecosystem globally. It also lays out a detailed history of the company, its customers, influencers and integrators/outsourcers who exist (and flourish) because of SAP.

It was interesting to read this book as Vinnie and I have walked many of the same paths throughout our careers. We both ran software intelligence groups at the consultancies we joined after college. We even did a dot-com together and we're both part of the Enterprise Irregulars - an influencer group full of some of the toughest analysts/thought leaders/bloggers in the enterprise space. We've even shared a stage more than a few times, too. And, next week, we'll be panelists on a Workday Predict & Prepare telecast. Over the last few years, Vinnie's clearly been more of a buy-side advocate and I've done more sell-side work. Nonetheless, to say we're well acquainted would be an understatement.

I believe Vinnie's been thinking about or working on this manuscript for years. In many of the meetings with SAP executives that he describes in his book, I was also there. His re-telling of the events and executive banter rings true to me even though some interactions took place years ago.

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SAP Nation by Vinnie Mirchandani Brian Sommer - TechVentive, Inc.

Vinnie's retelling of the SAP history appears fairly spot-on. He walks readers through SAP's rise to prominence in the 1980's and 1990's. He provides a timeline of failed implementations. And he gets substantiation for his points from a significant number of references. To his credit, Vinnie did a lot of research in pulling together the full picture of the SAP ecosystem and where it stands today.

I won't spoil the surprise for readers of this book by identifying how large Vinnie pegged the ecosystem to be but I will tell you that it would be equivalent to the GDP of a major country. Interestingly, this ecosystem does not have an ambassador or embassy.

SAP Nation helps readers see the software vendor as large vendor that:

  • may not have invested its R&D monies as well as it could have.
  • may not have helped its customers take advantage of increased economies of scale.
  • etc.

I have two concerns with this book though. The first is that I feel Vinnie may be judging decades of SAP's history based on a modern-day set of criteria. What SAP did or didn't do for several decades should be evaluated on the buyer needs/wants of those times and not today. When so many firms bought SAP in the mid-to-late 1990s, many did so as they wanted a Y2K solution. Others bought into SAP to achieve global economies of scale. I remember a speech one CIO gave in 2009 where he admitted that his firm had spent something like $1 billion implementing SAP software but the software enabled them to free up $1.7 billion in working capital in the 7 months after conversion by eliminating redundant inventory. The payback for many firms in their initial implementations of SAP was often significant. Did those companies make a good business decision then? I certainly believe so.

Roll the clock forward to today and decisions made in the 1990s look naïve or quaint. Yes, now customers have multi-tenant cloud solutions to choose from instead of just an on-premises client server solution. Integrators should have built more efficient data centers and implementation methods by now, too. Vinnie's correct in pointing out the sometimes glacial rate of cost improvements in the on-premises ERP ecosystem. And, he's also correct in cautioning vendors and integrators to get their act together or face wholesale customer abandonment.

This leads me to my second wish for this book. As I read this historical retelling of the SAP world, I felt a lot of change was needed by SAP, its partners and its customers. But, just as the book builds to its climatic apex, it just sort of stops. Where are the mitigating steps customers must take? Where's the revised game plan SAP must execute? What's the 10-step plan for integrators and outsourcers?

The irony of reading this book and Pottruck's Stacking the Deck back to back is immense. I found myself wondering what would Vinnie's book had been like if he'd addressed the change journey that is to come for the ecosystem and not just tell us the journey that has already occurred.

SAP Nation is a fine historically significant book detailing the evolution, size and players within the technology world that is SAP. It definitely succeeds in getting the reader thinking about what they should do with their software, software company or practice. More specifically, I believe it would make any software user, vendor or implementer that is still dealing with older generation application code to swallow hard.

I am in absolute agreement with Vinnie that these are radically changing times and firms that are slow to change will be in trouble. His book should bother a lot of old-school vendors as the same story and research approach about their firm would lead a reader to most of the same conclusions. Software implementers and outsourcers should really take his book to heart as the much of this economy is spent with them. The data centers, personnel, etc. that exist in this part of the ecosystem may have done great work in the past but that was then and this is now. Cloud and multi-tenancy will upend the world of the integrators and outsourcers but too little progress is occurring on that front to radically re-imagine those businesses. And software customers will need to re-think what software they use, how it gets updated, who implements it, etc.

The book's best feature may be in reminding readers the fragile, short-lived state of application software. Long-standing empires are a rarity in the application space. Technology changes and buyers move on. We are living in through one of those shifts today and woe to any of the ecosystem players who do not heed the change. Buy this book just for that alone.

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