SAP: the road to redemption

Has SAP got past its problems? In some senses yes. They are more open than at any time in the past, the products are starting to shape up. Now we need to hear from customers.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

There was a period, 2008-2010, when it seemed that SAP could not do anything right. Leaders came and went, so-so products were touted as innovation and the company engaged in an epic battle with its customers over large maintenance fee price hikes. Smaller competitors took pleasure in mocking the company and few of my colleagues could muster a kind word to say. It wasn't a good time to be around SAP. That's changing.

The old command and control days, while not entirely behind SAP seem to be fading rapidly. Remnants remain, like the sheaves of paperwork SAP insists its customers, partners and suppliers sign for what at times seems little or no discernible purpose other than to cover someone's backside. Or the whereabouts of the mysterious SAP price book and then there are those pesky NDAs. Those niggles aside, what's new?

There is a clear direction towards more openness of a kind that is not often seen among technology companies. The fact Vishal Sikka was prepared, at almost no notice, to go toe to toe on camera with an IBM associate partner, or the fact the influencer event at last week's SAP Run Better show in Boston was streamed over the Internet suggests to me a dissolving of the artificial boundaries between customers, suppliers, media, analysts, bloggers and other commentators. That is as it should be. It demonstrates a new confidence that many thought had all but gone.

I see no logical reason why technology vendors should hold closed door meetings about product or direction. These are topics of concern to all. In reality, I find that people who live with technology of the kind SAP sells know far more than the army of analysts that crawl over the company's entrails. Those people are now part of what SAP sees as the influencer conversation. As a consequence, we're all getting smarter and more focused in the topics we discuss. That's a definite push in the right direction.

What is even more heartening is the introduction of new faces into the mix. During a conversation with Mike Prosceno, who runs point for SAP's blogger program, we noted that in the few years that program has been running, there have been many changes to the attendee list. It's a natural progression. People come and go, their interests change, it's an acknowledgment of growth and renewal for a company that is itself understanding the value of learning from the outside in and not just from within its walls. At the grand old age of 39, SAP is entering a period of maturity in the nicest sense.

Is it all sweetness and light? Of course not. There's plenty more for the company to do. I sense we'll see more of that maturing spirit at the upcoming SAPPHIRE, which is only a matter of six or so weeks away. For years I've implored the company to put customers front and center. They've tended to fight shy of that in the past but in speaking with Jonathan Becher, SVP marketing, it is clear he 'gets it.' Let's see how far SAP is prepared to go. In an ideal world, I'd like to see the co-CEO's do their selling job in 15-20 minutes and then get out the way for customers to speak to their successes.

I'd like to see panels moderated by influencers, not seeded by pat questions but which address the important topics of the day. That's what happens in the influencer and analyst sessions so why not put that out front for all to see? Most of all I'd really like to see SAP move beyond a focus on engineering excellence - that's a given - to the point where it truly speaks the language of business.

In the meantime, I am starting to understand more clearly why SAP is no longer going for the one annual Big Bang SAPPHIRE but splitting it into pieces. When I first heard about it I felt conflicted. Would I miss something important if I don't go to Orlando especially as by comparison, Madrid is only just up the road for me?  Last year we saw simultaneous shows on both sides of the Atlantic, wired together using TV. That worked surprisingly well although I did feel sorry for the execs who had to run from one side of the pond to the other in a 24 hour period. That's never fun.

This year we will see two SAPPHIREs spaced six months apart. May will be Orlando, November will be Madrid. We'll still have live streaming for those that cannot make one or other show. But then it suddenly struck me that the two show format will provide an urgency to SAP's development cycle. Rather than the annual slew of product releases, SAP will be able to show how it is moving towards a 90 day release cycle, something to which I know the company aspires. That's entirely in tune with the more nimble SaaS and cloud players.

I'm hoping SAP will do more live demos. It shows a fresh attitude towards risk taking for this most conservative of companies. It will show that SAP doesn't have to compete with the mega shows put on by Oracle and Salesforce.com. Those events are now so large that it is almost impossible to get round them in a week.

In splitting the shows, SAP gives everyone a chance to get deep into what the company is doing at locations that are more convenient than the annual death march these shows have become. Jonathan Becher said that in time he'd like to see three or maybe four SAPPHIREs. That sounds ambitious but then it wouldn't be SAP if we didn't see it chewing upon tough problems.

But I think above everything, what I am starting to see is a kind of intimacy that is rare among tech companies. It's evidenced by the many sessions SAP is prepared to put on. For example, while the company tends to focus on events in the US, we are seeing the emergence of satellite events in other parts of the world. The Run Better Tour is an example of that. I was for instance pleasantly surprised to hear that they are taking it to the principality of Wales where my father lives. By SAP's standards, the Boston show was tiny with just a few hundred attendees. That meant we all got to meet a clutch of execs without worrying about timetable conflicts that bedevil the big shows. Another positive step.

Has SAP passed the point where we can say that it is firmly on the road to redemption? The answer must be a tentative yes. Feel good factors aside, we are starting to see applications that deserve the 'innovative' tag for the first time in years. The company is feeling good about HANA and its ByDesign solution is showing signs of real life. SAPPHIRE will represent the next test.

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