Reviewing Sapphire, user interfaces, the Devil's Triangle, and IT success

This is a guest post was written by SAP expert, Jon Reed, describing a podcast interview he conducted with me following SAP's recent Sapphire conference.

This guest post was written by Jon Reed, an accomplished blogger, SAP expert, and author of the website jonerp.com. Jon interviewed me following SAP's recent Sapphire conference, and we discussed a variety of topics that are of interest to readers of this blog. Listen to the recording by clicking the player at the top of this post and read Jon's summary of our interview. Jon originally posted this as an article on his blog.

SAPPHIRE 2009, BUSINESS BYDESIGN, AND ERP PROJECT FAILURE (AND HOW TO AVOID IT) Written by: Jon Reed Interview Date: May 22, 2009

In the first installment of his "Sapphire in Review" podcast series, Jon Reed of JonERP.com welcomes special guest Michael Krigsman, President of Asuret and popular ZDNet blogger and Tweeter. Michael's focus is evaluating the keys to IT project success and failure, so during this twenty-eight minute podcast, Jon gets Michael's take on how project failure applies to ERP vendors and SAP specifically. Jon also gets the skinny on Michael's investigations of Business ByDesign at Sapphire, and why he sees SAP's focus on UI improvements and BI enhancements as important to ERP project success. In closing, Michael shares an inside view on what it's like to be part of SAP's Blogger Relations Program, mixing it up with SAP executives.

Podcast Timeline:

1:01 Michael's work at Asuret and ZDNet, and how it all ties back into examining the dynamics of IT project success and failure. Asuret provides consulting and software on business transformation projects; on ZDNet, Michael analyzes case studies of IT project failure and evaluates why they aren't achieving project objectives. He also looks at related issues pertaining to organizational dynamics, business and IT communication breakdowns, and the cultural issues that contribute to project success or failure.

2:32 The highlights of the keynotes from Michael's perspective. Two things stood out: first, Michael got the sense that SAP was making an attempt to bring in more consumer-oriented, end-user interfaces into their software. This is way overdue, but an essential area of improvement. A more human-oriented enterprise will yield more successful projects. Michael also enjoy Hasso Plattner's keynotes - all his years of experience have put him in a position "beyond reproach" where he can speak his mind and cover topics that interest him.

3:50 Michael spend some time at Sapphire investigating the status of Business ByDesign (BBD), a much-maligned product that still divides analysts. Some believe SAP's vow that they are taking BBD very seriously despite the delays, others feel SAP has dropped the ball. Where does Michael stand? Michael sees both sides of this debate, he sees SAP taking BBD very seriously, but they made fundamental technical errors or faulty architectural decisions that have impacted the current status of BBD. Michael interviewed, "almost to the point of rudeness," a series of customers and executives, trying to get to the bottom of BBD. He posted a blog about his views on SAP BBD after the show wrapped.

What he found was a consistent story across the board, though SAP has not disclosed the scope of its SaaS plans in Krigsman's view. Krigsman believes that in the evolving software industry, where more services are moving to the cloud, that SAP will make a strong BBD play. They haven't figured out the economic model for BBD yet, but don't count them out going forward, they're in it "for the long haul."

6:55 Customer impressions of BBD? The customers Michael spoke to loved BBD. But there is a catch: they all cited the strong customer support they were getting from SAP. However, at the BBD price points, customer handholding won't be economically viable. So, subtracting out the handholding from the equation, will the customer still be happy evaluating the software on its own merits? This is an important question to track.

8:12 In Michael's writing on project failure, he refers to the so-called "devil's triangle" of systems integrator, vendor, and end customer. Did he pick up on this dynamic at Sapphire? It's not the kind of topic that is conference or time-specific. The "devil's triangle" refers to an underlying set of relationships. Michael is always talking to vendors about this. The best vendors and SIs will acknowledge this issue exists, and that sometimes agendas aren't fully aligned, and that there is work that needs to be done. What doesn't impress Michael is the denial that such problems exist.

At Sapphire, Michael spoke with senior SAP folks who acknowledged these issues are real. These problems aren't going to change without significant effort. In that context, Michael doesn't see himself simply as a customer advocate, because all three parties have a responsibility to share in the process. It's about a fair and honest dialogue with all parties at the same table.

11:19 Jon asks Michael "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being 'least prepared to deal with these issues' and 10 being 'most prepared', how would you rate the SAP community?" Michael wouldn't assign a simple number value, the reason being that SAP's community is not substantially different than other vendors. When you talk about rating a community, when you have a large organization like SAP, it's not fair to give the community as such an overall rating.

It's much more fair to drill down into individual customers and systems integrators and look at their performance. Michael would love to see a "reputation marketplace" for both SIs and vendors. And not just a single number for SAP. In Michael's "reputation marketplace," vendors like SAP would also be evaluated in different industries and different product areas. Others have talked about setting up such a marketplace, it's not Michael's original idea but he is all in favor of it.

13:34 After Sapphire, Michael attended at MIT CIO Symposium, and some of the the quotes he blogged about from that event were striking. For example, in terms of the CEO perception of IT investments, one quote: "IT spending doesn't often doesn't create topline growth or greater efficiencies." It's a little shocking after all these years of IT innovation to hear quotes like that. Jon asks Michael how he sees ERP vendors that often straddle business and IT, fitting into this picture. Michael says that ERP companies are the poster children for "business transformation projects." When you talk about ERP, you're mixing heavy duty business change with heavy duty technology. That's precisely why ERP projects are the most complex and difficult to implement, and why the rates of failure are so high. It's extremely challenging and difficult to get the technology folks working seamlessly with the business folks.

When you're implementing a business change product like ERP, that depends upon complex software technology, you can see, by definition, the crossing of the business-IT line. In many cases, there SHOULD be a blurring in the middle, with the business people working "hand in glove" with the technology people. But when there are misunderstandings on one side or the other, you are sowing the seeds of future problems. Business-IT alignment remains a challenge. What frustrated Michael at the MIT panel? They got four CEOs up there talking about what to do to bridge this gap, but this is nothing new. Michael wants to see a bolder announcement with a bolder commitment of resources at the CEO level, whether it's "tin can and strings" or whatever it takes. Lip service isn't going to cut it.

18:20 Jon pulls the project failure discussion back to Michael's Sapphire keynote reactions, asking him whether or not the themes of the keynotes around UI improvements and a BI emphasis, tie into better project success rates. Michael thinks these themes are very important. When you are automating business transformation, it is often talked about in very abstract terms. But on a practical level, anytime you can make software more accessible, more user-friendly, requiring less training and drill under the surface analytically, then you are doing something better and more helpful for the user. This is also going to reduce training costs and flat-out "make life easier."

There's also a broader context: if you go back some years in the history of ERP software, the user interfaces and the ways in which the users could interact with the software, has been very archaic compared to consumer-oriented UIs. Michael is glad to see there is a trend across the industry, including SAP, where the influence of the consumer-oriented user interfaces is now being felt much more strongly. It's also interesting, because from a BI point of view, having better UIs means that ordinary users can access data in the system in ways that don't require complex queries, giving the user a more rapid benefit. Michael cites the "Enjoy R/3" program of the late '90s, and now you fast forward, and some of the things that SAP is doing involves social software. SAP seems serious about this, and it does have softening effect.

22:46 One of Jon's goals for the post-Sapphire podcasts is to give listeners who weren't able to attend a feel for the event. Jon and Michael are part of a unique program at SAP, the Blogger Relations Program (headed up by Mike Prosceno's team, which includes Stacey Fish). Often this program puts bloggers right into the fray, having sometimes contentious discussions with SAP executives. Jon asks Michael to give his listeners an inside view of what it's like to be inside of such a program. Michael says, "Think about it this way.

Take a bunch of really smart people, all who have expertise in their respective domains, whether it's bloggers or SAP Mentors (who were part of the program this year), and put them together, and then set them loose on various topics being represented by SAP executives." Yes, you are going to be part of some heated discussions, but they are mutually enlightening to all participants. It's an amazing thing to be a part of, and Michael gives a lot of credit to SAP executives who will sit down with a group of bloggers and Mentors who have different points of view and who hammer them with rapid-fire questions. For other software companies considering such a program, Michael thinks SAP has an excellent model for this type of program. The discussions benefit SAP as well, giving executives immediate feedback from experts out there in the field, and getting this type of feedback directly to executives can be a problem.

26:41 Jon asks Michael to give his closing words to SAP listeners: "If you want to run a successful project, you need to look beyond the technology." The cause of project failure is not a bug in the database, it's about how your team is working internally, and how they are working with the SI, and how they are working with the vendor. Change management counts, executive buy-in counts.

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