SAPPHIRE Now 2011, the wrap

SAPPHIRE NOw 2011 is over. How well did the company perform? Surprisingly well. Here's how and why.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

As has become customary, SAP sets the bar for creating a program for those of us who do not fit neatly into media or analysts. This year was no exception and the team did a first class job of ensuring that we gained access to all the necessary board members and line of business heads. That provides the best way of taking the temperature at the top while providing the backdrop for analysis based upon what we see at the coal face. Our group consisted of Vinnie Mirchandani, Frank Scavo, Brian Sommer and Jon Reed. We were joined by Ray Wang and Vijay Vijayasankar at appropriate times.

What's telling about this group is that with the exception of Vijay, all members have given SAP the hardest time of any vendor and especially during the maintenance price rise crisis. It speaks volumes to SAP's willingness in engaging with its critics and not just those who consistently speak well of the company. In that sense the Irregular 'crew' has responded and evolved into a more professional, polished and disciplined outfit that hunts with a purpose SAP understands.

The flipside is that our agendas were packed and we were scheduled within an inch of our dropping from exhaustion. That's a price worth paying when trying to get your arms around such a large company. As I and others have said many times before, SAP provides an example that few others choose to follow but form which I believe we all benefit. This year was no exception with the board meetings being particularly open and relaxed.

Having indulged in a moment of self congratulation, time to move on to the meat.

This year's SAPPHIRE Now was the first opportunity for Jonathan Becher, interim CMO to truly stretch his wings. I have to admire Becher's approach which carried a lot of risk. People don't like change, even when it is for the better and on this occasion I believe SAP scored a home run. It had to.

Most analysts expect a conference to kick off with the CEO comforting customers by telling them how well the company is doing and then getting straight into new product announcements and the occasional canned demo. The internet has changed that and we expect live demos but the general pattern remains the same. Salesforce.com is a little different in that the company celebrates customer success early on at Dreamforce. This time, SAP turned the whole event upon its head.

  • Day one saw SAP turning the stage over to non-SAP visionary thinkers and the American SUG (ASUG.) This was unexpected but it got the crowd thinking about what SAP means and what it stands for. Some thought the visionary panel was a bit contrived. I didn't. I don't see any way SAP can control the thoughts of independent and world class thinkers.
  • Day two saw co-CEO's Jim Snabe and Bill McDermott attempting a sort of TV show but with customer stories front and center. As I said earlier - no product in sight and it worked moderately well. Next time I'd prefer to see live testimonials.
  • Day three saw an excited and happy co-founder Hasso Plattner answering 13 common questions about the company's technical strategy. 13? I'd prefer three. Again, customer examples figured heavily. Dr Plattner drew laughs from the crowd when he spotted co-CEO Bill McDermott consulting his iPad, implying that McDermott had better be closing deals since he clearly was not paying attention to the Herr Dr professor. It's a very long time since I have seen Dr Plattner so upbeat, a tone reflected in our later meeting.

Interspersed with the main keynotes, SAP unleashed some of us upon customers and partners but without the customary PR minders in tow. What a refreshing change!! It meant we could record the reality these people see on the ground but without the incessant 're-interpretation' and spin PR loves to put on anything.

Underpinning all of this is the real story of SAP's own transformation. As we reached the end of the third day I was satisfied that my initial impressions had been confirmed. SAP is quietly charting a different course. It won't be to everyone's taste and colleagues will be impatient. I was pleased to see that impatience is shared by those who sit at the top of the SAP food chain.

Board level executives are paid to put on a happy smiling face, even when all around is stormy. On this occasion, I sense the company is becoming comfortable with itself and is both clearer and more certain where it and its customers' future lays. There wasn't the foreboding of forced march upgrades, wildly disruptive change - although disruption is never far away. From my perspective, it also mirrored what I saw at SAP's HQ the other month. That consistency is vital to understanding how a company is performing and represented a part of what I explained to financial analysts in a closed session.

In talking to long time colleagues, customers, partners, developers and fellow SAP Mentors there was a general sense that while elements of the three days were a tad cheesy, the overall content was of a quality that gave everyone something valuable to take way. It may not make for Googlesque headlines but that doesn't matter to SAP customers.

As always with SAP, there is a morass of complexity just beneath the surface. It is now down to the company to take what it saw in the reactions of largely satisfied customers and move forward. You can argue that a general improving economy always changes attitudes. That aside, the SAP customer base has always had plenty to grumble about. On this occasion, those grumbles were largely muted as customers and especially ASUG members realize that getting the best from what SAP offers is as much their responsibility as it is SAP's. That's a relatively new phenomenon that flies in the face of litigation where the finger almost always points at SAP.

The next scorecard comes at SAPPHIRE Madrid. It is only a few months away but will serve as a benchmark test on how capable SAP is becoming in keeping to its delivery promises.

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