ASUGNews: a fresh approach for SAP customers?

ASUGNews has launched with a crack team. Will it make a difference and will it foster genuine collaboration born out of transparency?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

When I heard the news that Tom Wailgum, 14 year veteran of CIO.com, scourge of SAP and Oracle in particular had been appointed editor in chief at ASUGNews my eyes lit up. Hearing that Courtney Bjorlin of SAP Search has joined Tom added spice to what smells to me like the start of a kick ass team.

If Tom and Courtney are unfamiliar to you that doesn't matter so much. Names rarely matter except in the context of the importance of what a particular individual has to say. What matters is that both Tom and Courtney come to ASUG with a LOT of experience reporting in and around SAP and well regarded reputations for largely knowing their stuff. I was especially interested in understanding the motivation behind their appointment. Why now? What can they realistically achieve? How does this fit into the general Americas SAP User Group plan going forward? What next?

In order to get a bead on this we need to step back. As the SAP maintenance story unfolded, ASUG took a pasting from me for what I saw at the time as little more than sucking up to SAP:

...Despite the carefully worded press statement with paid support from IDC analyst Elaina Stergiades and enthusiastic hand waving by Mike O’Dell, American SAP User Group chairperson

I took some flak for such a strongly worded opinion but I maintain that I was right.

There was little obvious collaboration among the various SAP User Groups around the world and almost no real coordination of effort in kicking back the forced price rise. This always meant that while customers might negotiate individual victories and despite the creation of SUGEN (a sort of super set of a small number of SAP customers from around the world) SAP was always going to get its own way at some point.

I'd like to think the work some of us did in that regard made a difference. It certainly made a difference in raising awareness that there is more than one way to structure deals and that the options a particular vendor puts in front of you may not always be in your best interests. It also got customers thinking far more carefully about contract content. But then I was always left with the nagging feeling that if only the UGs could have done a better job of working together then the outcomes could have been more favorable. Be that as it may.

ASUG eventually came to its senses, cleared out the old guard and appointed Bridgette Chambers as CEO. Bridgette came to the job with no ASUG history or baggage. That gave her a clean start. Fast forward to November 2010 when I was in Manchester for the SAP UK & Ireland UG conference. In part I was representing SAP Mentors but in part I had my buyer advocate hat on. During meetings with Alan Bowling, UK&IUG chair and Craig Dale, CEO, we noodled around the topic of user group collaboration and cooperation. It's not easy to adequately report on this topic without appearing partisan but the general sense I got was that for whatever reasons, efforts along those lines would likely be met with a lukewarm response. That struck me as disappointing but something I could file away for another day.

Fast forward to today. When I think about how Tom in particular has reported issues around SAP, it is clear he takes no prisoners. Check this on Leo Aptheker's departure:

There were missteps, for sure: The 'Olive Branch' to Larry Ellison (re: Sun and European holdup) that backfired; the ill-advised "pledge" to get to 10,000 Business ByDesign customers by 2010; the maintenance embarrassment and flap with SUGEN; and simply not having the ability to anticipate and act on the historic transformation happening in enterprise software, and why Big ERP is D.O.A.

But somebody at the top had to be out, right? Somebody had to be the fall guy, right? Somebody needed to be blamed for SAP's misfortunes, right?

What might someone who writes this way bring to the ASUG table. I asked Bridgette to give me her top three big ideas for ASUGNews:

  • It should be a place where customers are able to hold SAP's feet to the fire
  • Set the tone for dialog between members and SAP
  • An opportunity to create cohesion in the SAP customer ecosystem.

In her words: "We all have a shared purpose in driving success. If we deliver on these three things then everyone wins. We're making scalable investments to ensure success." Bridgette says that she expects Tom and Courtney to apply the same vigor to their reporting on ASUG related issues as they did in their role as independents. "There are no leashes here and we think that our independence expressed through ASUGNews will be a differentiator."

I was surprised to hear that ASUGNews plans to get customers speaking more openly. This has always been an issue. Who wants to go on the record when a project is failing? On the flipside, we don't hear enough genuine good news. If the ASUGNews team can gain the trust of individual customers prepared to go on the record unencumbered by PR departments sanitizing stories to within an inch of their existence then they will have done a very good thing.

I see things more broadly. I'm in the fortunate position of meeting with and having relationships with people involved in the SAP ecosystem from every continent. There is an extraordinary similarity in the experiences and attitudes that people share. Of course there are nuanced differences because as Bridgette rightly points out, customers are at different levels of maturity in their use of SAP, the development of user group activities and so on.

There is a golden opportunity for ASUG to set the stage for a way in which users can act globally in both acknowledging success and taking issues to SAP. It doesn't have to be a template for others to strictly follow but it can be a signpost for the future. "SAP knows our plans for ASUG and we'll have to see how it works. I had a recent meeting with Bill [McDermott, SAP co-CEO] and as always with Bill meetings it went well. Bill has told us SAP cares about customers so we want to know what that means for customers. If SAP is not living up to its promise then we shall say so using ASUGNews as a way of providing the context."

For his part, Tom said: "This is an opportunity for me to get more into the analyst way of looking at SAP and it comes at the right time. We will be publishing a comprehensive editorial agenda in the next week so everyone will see what we're thinking."

There are other opportunities for both collaboration and learning. The key will come in a broad recognition that these joint efforts can have a scalable impact on driving value. I have seen how that works and in most cases it is about having a shared purpose that is expressed in light touch guidelines.

Let's not run away with this. Bridgette and the team have a big job convincing various interest groups that their ideas will work and resonate with a broad set of users. That means for example ensuring the SME market is well represented, something SAP does not do well at this time.

i came away from our discussion with plenty more questions. Some will be answered in the coming days when we see what ASUGNews plans to deliver. Still more insights will come from regional meetings that include other types of customer representation like the SAP volunteers. Still others will come up in the discussions I have with SAP UK&I UG on topics in which I am engaged. The same could easily happen with DSAG, the German UG. Hopefully other groups will be interested in learning  more.

There is real promise to do something different. More important, there is also the tantalising prospect of seeing a new, rich seam of information about what it takes to build SAP success that has often been missing in the public discourse. I can easily imagine that the team will be inundated with requests to 'know what they know.'

Does that spell the end of buyer advocacy or external analysis? Absolutely not. Does it change the shape of influence within the SAP ecosystem. I suspect it might. Is this a model that could be employed elsewhere? I'd like to think so.

There are still plenty of sacred cows that need removing and none of us should forget that despite the best intentions, institutionalized inertia can play some pretty nasty tricks on even the best laid plans.

This is one initiative that has genuine potential. Tom and Courtney have their work cut out but given their pedigree, I am expecting great things and wish them well.

In the meantime let us know what you think in Talkback.

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