Build ERP on social media: not a joke

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.