Sapphire notebook: structured taking unstructured seriously

Historically SAP are an enterprise structured data software company: as society evolves unstructured data is ever more important. How are SAP coping with the opportunities and red herrings our increasingly connected world surfaces for them to respond to?
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

I started writing and then scraped two blog posts this week while spending time at SAP's big North American event in Orlando Florida 'Sapphire', as my experiences became obsolete as the event progressed - false rumors, new information and knowledge processing takes time. This is the predicament many of the 'traditional' software vendors find themselves in as our rapid fire world mutates in unexpected ways.

Many of the SAP end users I talked to in the Sapphire halls know only a small sliver of the vast number of products SAP offer. The vast majority were working on multi year integrations of specific toolsets. The average age of the onsite attendees were probably around the same age as SAP  - born in 1972/40 years old, and a few were thinking hard about how society is changing. Most were buried in details and deadlines, with no interest in what the future held outside of technical advances, challenges and opportunities to their specific role.

While the understandable goal of conferences like Sapphire are to look to the future, the reality is the vast majority of attendees (there were more online than at the event) are SAP veterans, and most are living in a highly structured world. Getting these minds in IT and business units to consider unstructured information, data, communication and tacit knowledge sharing seriously in a world which is now seeing a tsunami of customer interaction and data on top of the old world of internal enterprise infrastructure is tough.

SAP are both at the mercy of rapid outside events (which may turn out to be the future or fad) and attempting to steer their ship on a sensible course which advances the interests of their customers and investors. Right now a poster child for SAP is fashion brand Burberry, who dazzled with their digital strategy built around knowledge and intelligence about each and every customer. In a perfect world a Burberry enthusiast will walk into any of their stores on the planet and upon revealing their identity within moments Burberry staff will have their profile on their digital device.

Their past purchases, preferences, wish lists and social network history will all be quickly surfaced by the increasingly impressive in-memory database HANA, which will also provide stock information for any products the prospect is interested in anywhere on the planet, and update the supply chain once a purchase is made. HANA is seen as the foundation of this real time world, with other Burberry technologies such as Salesforce living further up the food chain. Burberry are an enterprise software company's dream client, but in another highly enjoyable keynote segment the wonderful Ron Dennis, who took overNew Zealander Bruce McLaren's eponymous Formula One motor racing team in 1969 and turned it into a powerhouse in racing and other industry verticals had one of the most telling sentences of the conference: 'It's scary that we need as much (SAP) as we do as we don't have the scale to justify the investment'.

This is the chicken and egg situation many of SAP's prospects are in: SAP are doing a great job with HANA, but in this economy most customers can't afford to commit to extensive, expensive backend infrastructure contracts until they see a profitable enough marketplace for their products to pay for it all.

Ron Dennis always built McLaren factories twice as big as needed, which always end up overcrowded and requiring a bigger one. SAP are hoping that architectural metaphor will come true for other customers who want to be like Burberry whose 150 year old digitally transformed global company, modelled around supply chain, and on intelligence and interactions with prospects and customers, is being watched closely by the retail sector, especially as their stock price paints an attractive portrait of their approach.

'The clock speed of society has got faster' to quote Jared Spataro of Microsoft Sharepoint, and enterprise firms used to providing long term industrial infrastructure are getting pulled into ever more sophisticated analytics needs against that reality. SAP have stepped up and their offerings are looking well aligned with customer and prospect needs and aspirations.

From what I consumed at Sapphire HANA and Analytics were very well defined and on a healthy trajectory, the always challenging mobile strategy was in focus, although very Apple centric, but public and private cloud were somewhat chaotic. Everything around unstructured data and tacit knowledge sharing was also somewhat perceived promise over substance including the task SAP is just coming to terms with of folding Streamworks into Successfactors Jam to fulfill the somewhat vague 'social everywhere' layer mantra.

It was interesting to see Successfactors CEO Lars Dalgaard on a big stage at Sapphire: I've been used to seeing him in more humble settings in the past, and his rampaging viking style was somewhat at odds with the smooth presentation of co ceo's Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe.

Lars used to seem like a plucky contender, but on the big stage and rampaging around the conference brushing off public relations handler instructions he seemed somewhat brash and aggressive. All sorts of rumors swirl about frictions between the co ceo's; now we have a powerful board member adding a vibrant impatience for change to exec sessions. There may be too many chiefs and not enough indians..meanwhile the Hasso and Vishal technical show adds another deep dimension to the positioning theater.

Now that Successfactors are being digested into SAP the goal of their gradually disrupting the old way is happening and isn't pretty for some of the old guard who i heard grumbling abut the '300 mph' speed Lars operates at. Loose cannons are not tolerated for long in the enterprise world unless they are producing spectacular results and there was an element of oil and water to the feel of the new separate cloud business Lars heads up as it was presented alongside the now HANA foundationed traditional SAP. While McDermott and Hagemann Snabe excitedly announced that some would buy a Porsche or Harley for their fortieth, SAP bought Successfactors as a racy new Cloud native company. Cloud has successfully muscled into the enterprise vernacular and is now maturing to become part of the furniture as the newness and fear has worn off for most.

Daalgard is arguably part of the earlier wave of cloud evangelists; a brilliant mercurial salesman for what were new software as a Service ideas which have now come of age. His passion for sales ('we are all salesmen' he said in a closed door Q&A session) and for end user experience is terrific …it's going to be interesting to see how the separate cloud unit and Successfactors evolve while coexisting and influencing its much older business siblings, theater even….

SAP are already somewhat bipolar with the twin influences of Walldorf with its works councils and distinct heartland culture and Palo Alto's silicon valley 'change is good' feel. Add in the cloud  division and we now arguably have a third dimension. SAP are a tower of strength around structured data - the question now is can they serve the unstructured needs of their clients without breaking their banks, and will the newly socially networked world be populated with useful, quality rich and analyzable data, or will that prove to be a fashion that evolves into something else.


There's lots of great blog post content on the SAP Community Network about Sapphire

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