Build ERP on social media: not a joke

Build ERP on social media: not a joke

Summary: No-one in their right mind would think that social media could become the foundation for the next generation of business applications. Or could they? This opening salvo discusses a conversation that's opening up this can of worms.


Shel Israel is undertaking a research project for SAP:

I am trying to answer a single, overwhelming question: "What is going on in the world with regard to social media? ...Mostly I am looking for real people with stories and personal experience about what is happening with blogging, video, online communities and assorted conversational media. I'd like to get some anecdotal granularity on why blogging is taking off in Poland these days, or how social media behavior is different in Italy than it is in Russia and Canada.

Phew - that's a tall order. As one might expect, some of the usual suspects like Robert Scoble, David Weinburger and Hugh MacLeod have given their views. As have less familiar voices like Ethan Bodnar, Nicole Simon and Marco Polombi. But it's Hugh's answers and some of the conversation around them that interests me.

My first thought was: 'What does a wine and tailoring marketer know about ERP?' and when I tackled Hugh directly, he agreed that he's 'still learning.' Nevertheless, Hugh raises interesting questions. Like:

Big businesses will always have trouble with anything that subverts hierarchies, for hierarchy is the glue that holds large organizations together. Small businesses have an easier time with blogs and whatnot, for there are fewer layers to keep happy. Secondly, small companies are for the most part private companies. Large companies generally have public shareholders. Different rules apply.

If that's the case then you'd think SAP would be in social media hell. Fact is, SAP is running one of the largest social media style networks I know about. The SAP Developer Network (SDN) with 800,000+ registered and Business Process eXpert (BPX) with 120,000+ registered count as pretty big to me. There's not a huge number of blogs but there's a decent wiki and the forums are very active. According to Keith Elliott, editor-in-chief for SDN and PBX:

Last week, members downloaded 10K software packages, viewed 335K documents, read and participated in 1.7M forum threads. Numbers give us insight into what’s hot and what’s not; insight into where we should focus energies and resources.

Certainly impressive but it isn't backed by user success stories which is a gaping void of another kind. Perhaps we're early in the game. More to the point, is there a place for social media in the enterprise applications space? If there is then folk like Nicole Simon think SAP doesn't have much of a shot at this:

I have had experience working with SAP, my whole 15 years of enterprise live and if there is anything I can tell you it would be that SAP being the leader in social media itself is not going to happen.

If they try to do that they would be like me trying on a size 6 dress and pretend to be slim. Business, social media, its applications, its benefits and how businesses / management / organization need to change - there I see a good possibility because SAP understands the processes of a company, not just the technology. Something IBM feels like, even though they have a VERY good reputation about this space.

SAP customers look for objective orientation, guidance in this world full of confusing things and technologies, this is an area where SAP can be a good global player. In the whole Social Media space? Absolutely unbelievable.

Ouch! Even if you believe Nicole is right, there are immediate departmental opportunities. For instance, procurement reliance on webforms and email is broken. Extended supply chain operations that rely on email and spreadsheets is equally broken. As Loic LeMeur said in his responses:

Less email and more instant messaging. Everything must be in the instant these days. Help me now. Talk to me now. Join this team now. Answer now. Not later. This is clearly a trend inherited from video games, see how they do it in World of Warcraft: build a guild now, join it now, find resources and fight, now, in groups, collaborating.

SAP (in this case) has attempted to overcome the issues with Duet, its Microsoft integration effort but last I heard, uptake was slow. Social media or rather the concept of social computing, where process is embedded into blog/wiki, is where I'd be focusing attention.

Governance, risk and compliance (GRC) - a hot topic for SAP at the moment - is a natural play. In a discussion with Mike Prosceno who commissioned the survey, I suggested that GRC has way too many fuzzy gray areas and that while reporting is useful, it needs contextualizing. The variety and extent of regional compliance variation alone cries out for someone to bring order through blog/wiki. Who will be the subject matter experts upon which customers can rely and what does this mean for the knowledge management systems upon which enterprises have invested millions of dollars? In my mind, the deeper issue is how social media will meet ERP's document driven, process centric world. Back to Hugh:

I firmly believe that the line that separates social media and ERP is going to start getting VERY blurry, and really soon. I can see a not-to-distant future where even the larger ERP solutions are built around social software, not the other way around. And I can see that day arriving in under five years.

I'm less certain. If Hugh is even vaguely correct then business applications will require a radical rethink. At one level, the transaction based systems upon which many enterprises rely are not going to change any time soon. The levels of automation now being achieved and the efficiencies being delivered are way too compelling and have been too hard won for any right minded CIO to give up. At another level, Hugh's thesis throws into doubt much of what we know about the construction of enterprise applications. He probably didn't know that but then he's a disruptor who starts conversations.

More in my next post on this fascinating yet challenging topic.

Topics: SAP, Enterprise Software, Social Enterprise

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • Provocative but needs some factual corrections

    Hi Dennis:

    I often find your blogs interesting and provocative (whether I agree with their hypotheses or not), and this one caught my attention as others have in the past. But I'm sometimes disappointed when some of the basic facts are wrong.

    Example this time:

    You say about SAP's SDN and BPX communities: "There?s not a huge number of blogs..." Huh?

    The facts are: We have 1100 approved bloggers, 60% of whom are non-SAP employees, with some people more active while others have gone quiet over the years. These blogs date back to May 2003 (2 blogs in that first month) to today (145 blogs last month during June 2007), the grand total of which is in the many-thousands. For a non-publishing company, I'd say that IS a huge number.

    You also say that SDN and BPX are not "backed by user success stories which is a gaping void..."

    But if you link here -- -- you will find testimonial interviews with community members who work for companies like Siemens, Kimball, Widener University, Cardinal Healthcare, Tesoro, Wipro... You'll also see a representative sample of the hundreds of "notable quotes" we receive (these get redundant after awhile -- for example we asked for feedback and received more than 100 glowing comments within a couple of days but the themes were similar -- so we just offer a sampling).

    We're working on a project to offer more success stories bundled together for easier access and findability, but for the most part they are embedded in individual blogs, not as a list of success stories. Remember, we are NOT a marketing-oriented website, but rather we are a community focused on connecting our customers and partners and employees so they can collaborate and co-innovate ... so the "marketing stuff" like success stories get pushed to the bottom of the priority list - but we're putting some attention to this topic.

    Otherwise, enjoy your provocative stirring of ideas, observations, and opinions.

    Best regards,

    Mark Y.
    • Ahem

      Mark - I checked the links VERY carefully and apart from the old stories the place I linked through to had zippo, zero content. That's a gaping void. On the blog front, happy to be corrected but then I look for action not just presence.
      • Mabye you missed...

        You might not have come across this link either
      • "VERY" Carefully?

        Dennis, if you had really checked carefully, you would notice that the page you linked to was created on July 5, 2007, a whopping 12 days before your blog. Don't you think that it is a little disingenuous to call a brand-spanking new page a "gaping void"? I mean, really.
  • Many Others ...

    .. have also written and commented about the use of social media in enterprises
    over the past couple of years or so, and I agree with Hugh that there is strong
    potential for the blurring of lines between it and ERP.

    ERP is basically a 2nd (or maybe 3rd) generation manifestation of MRP
    (Manufacturing Resources Planning - anyone remember that ?), and has involved
    inegrating and the distributing templates to other parts of a process-drieven
    organizayion, till it (ERP) has become like a gigantic installation of MindManager
    without the visual interfaces, where forms and spreadsheet derivatives are hung
    off the end of each MM "branch" that is a department and process.

    Given the "adaptability" to purpose of hyperlinks and tags (or clusters of
    taxonomized tags, if you will) I think there is a real possibility that future
    generations of applications / solution like Thingamy will offer most or much of the
    power of current ERP systems but in inherently more flexible configuartions.

    Change ... in needs or tastes by customers, to markets due to innovation or
    constraints, etc. ... just keeps on rolling along in an increasingly electronified and
    interactive world, and I believe many businesses will see (sooner or later) the
    usefulness of being able to make new iterations - much more easily and as the
    need arises - of business processes and solutions. This is essentially the value
    proposition that IBM Business Services is now trotting out to customers as "Work
    2.0", and is largely focused around designing and implementing wiki-based
    mash-ups in response to emerging business processes. One of their key points is
    that you can keep on iterating new mash-ups as the customers, markets, or other
    fulfillment issues change.

    It doesn't take a big conceptual leap / stretch to go from that to the integration of
    mash-ups into ERP systems, and it's also not that hard to imagine that as
    additional widgets or interoperabvility with forms of purpose-built social sofware
    emerge, where appropriate their capabilities will be integrated into ot replicated
    by newer forms of ERP systems.
  • ERP is a joke itself - on social media it becomes absurd

    I've witnessed ten years of ERP "noodling", and before that 15 years of MRPII "thrashing".
    What I'd say is that I've seen little success in either because your typical company can't even figure out MRP.
    What I see SAP doing is selling a pretty picture to corporations with deep pockets who then need to hire busloads of barely English-speaking "consultants" who burn tens of millions of dollars within months while "scope creep" relentlessly pushes out the project.