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Delivering the Gift of Fire

by Joshua Greenbaum | insiderPROFILES

December 21, 2009

Today, the role of the CIO is being redefined once again — and it’s now line-of-business users who are influencing on day-to-day business functions. SAP is focused now, more than ever, on the needs of these line-of-business users by overcoming user adoption barriers, creating more business-user-friendly tools, opening up the SAP ecosystem, and co-opting the competition.

When SAP software first arrived in the US market in the early 1990s, the office of the CIO was under siege. Distributed computing — borne from the inability of enterprise systems to deal with enterprise-wide data and processes — was decimating the CIO’s authority and budget. In this light, the arrival of SAP’s “single version of the truth,” SAP R/3, was more than a welcome breath of fresh air: it signaled a return to the primacy of the CIO as Prometheus, delivering much-needed innovation to the masses of users laboring in the stone age of technology.

Twenty-some years later, the technology and business landscape has moved well beyond this vision of users and their relationship to IT. More and more, line-of-business users now see themselves as the bringers of fire to the day-to-day functioning of the business. While the CIO’s authority isn’t necessarily diminished, the rising importance of meeting line-of-business end-user needs — as opposed to focusing solely on cross-enterprise problems and solutions — is changing, once again, IT’s role in the enterprise.

SAP Responds to Meet Line-of-Business Demands

These changes haven’t gone unnoticed at SAP. A raft of new capabilities and products has been filtering into the market in recent months, and more products are on the way. There’s still a long way to go to fully meet the needs of the line of business, but there’s solid evidence that SAP is making steady progress. And users across the SAP customer base will be better off for it.

The shift in mentality began with SAP’s embrace of the business user concept, which coincided with the 2007 acquisition of Business Objects. SAP was the first major vendor to recognize that the majority of employees in any organization were decidedly not involved in using or managing the day-to-day back-office transactions that represent the core functionality of SAP Business Suite. This recognition came with a clear mandate —  expand the SAP product offerings to better serve the needs of these users.

Delivering Targeted and Unique Innovation

The challenge, from SAP’s standpoint, is that serving the business user really means approaching everything SAP does from an entirely different standpoint. First and foremost, of course, is the need to deliver innovation that is targeted to these users’ needs — and those needs by definition can be extremely focused on micro-vertical, geographically-specific requirements. That level of granularity isn’t easy to deliver for a company more used to supplying big, broad functionality across an entire enterprise.

Also key to this mandate is the ability to deliver tools and solutions at a different level of usability than had been the norm. SAP’s heads-down, transaction-processing-based user experience wasn’t going to be the best way for the company to win the hearts and minds of this new mass of end users.

Overcoming the Barrier of User Adoption

The problem is as psychological as it is practical: SAP has to compete with an entrenched business-user mentality that has enshrined the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet as the epitome of usability, often for no other reason than “it’s the tool our users know and have been well-trained in using,” to paraphrase countless conversations I’ve had with business managers.

Getting users to adopt an interface that’s merely “better” isn’t easy. In fact, usability studies show that a new interface or application has to be almost 10 times more effective before it will overcome the psychological barrier of adoption. It’s this barrier that has kept Excel as a major competitor of SAP, and all enterprise software, for the last 15 years.

Three-Part Strategy

So, SAP approached these twin barriers — the need for deep, vertical functionality at a functional level with at least an order of magnitude greater than the incumbent solution — with a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Introduce new business user tools such as SAP BusinessObjects Explorer
  2. Open up the SAP ecosystem to fill in the white space
  3. Develop a new strategy that co-opts the competition

As 2010 unfolds, the stage is being set to determine how successful this approach will be.

1. Introducing a Business-User-Friendly Solution: SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

The first step was to roll out additional products directed at this broader and much harder-to-satisfy audience. This product focus can be seen today much more as an expression of the need for a business user-friendly experience than in net new micro-vertical applications. But in setting the stage for a user experience more in line with these users’ needs, SAP is laying the groundwork for a follow-on set of solutions that can dive ever-deeper into the business users’ requirements.

Perhaps the best example among many solutions is SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which SAP highlighted at SAPPHIRE 2009. This software, in many ways, is the prototypical new SAP business user tool, in that it gives users an impressively intuitive way to analyze a mind-numbing amount of data at speeds that simply couldn’t have been imagined 10 years ago.

SAP BusinessObjects Explorer
  SAP BusinessObjects Explorer allows business users to quickly search and intuitively analyze data

Part of the solution’s secret sauce is an in-memory database structure that makes it possible to query hundreds of millions of records in less than a second. But the real selling point is usability, and, for any reasonably savvy business user, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer represents that order of magnitude improvement over other common business tools that promise strong user acceptance.

2. Opening Up the SAP Ecosystem

SAP’s second step to close the gap between its offerings and the business user was opening up its ecosystem. The thinking here was that a strong partner base could help fill in the white space across the enterprise, including that newly important business user’s vertical and geographically specific requirements.

This openness to partners has brought flocks of ISVs to Palo Alto and Walldorf, and a significant amount of new functionality to customers. SAP’s ecosystem has become a key strategic differentiator for the company and it has helped build out a significant amount of business-user capability in the process.

3. Co-opting the Competition

The third step was to co-opt the competition — in this case, Microsoft Excel — by either literally deploying it as part of an end-user application developed by SAP, or by copying the basic spreadsheet format in new SAP applications.

The former strategy was realized in the Duet tools that have been receiving scant notice lately, but which remain a strong offering for the business user. Duet allows Microsoft Office, particularly Outlook and Excel, to act as front ends for back-end SAP functionality. Jointly developed with Microsoft, Duet played the co-opt strategy to the hilt.

SAP is also co-opting Microsoft Excel inside of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which can line up data in many of the formats familiar to Excel users. And SAP is providing import/export capabilities for Excel across SAP Business Suite.

This is very much an expression of a pragmatic view of openness that will play well with business users uninterested in orthodox arguments about platforms and software partners: they just want to get the job done, and will go with whomever helps in the best way possible.

Getting More Software to More Users

I said there were three aspects to SAP’s efforts to tackle the needs of end users and their specific business and technology requirements, but actually there’s a fourth, in the person of Marge Breya. Breya, who came to SAP from Business Objects, holds the title of Executive Vice President, Intelligence Platform and SAP NetWeaver Group. But a better way to see her role is as the EVP in charge of getting more software to more users.

Breya has shown in numerous public appearances, as well as in private meetings, that she gets this mandate better than most, and her energy and drive — as well as her status as a long-term industry veteran — make her contributions all the more significant.

The important thing to bear in mind is that SAP is on a long-term journey, not just a little side trip before getting back on the main road. Getting more software to more users isn’t going to happen overnight, despite the company’s manifold efforts.

Redefining the Role of the CIO

Expanding the reach of software to more business users can’t happen just inside SAP. This strategy must also engage the CIO as a willing partner in broadening the role of  SAP in the enterprise, even if it means loosening some of the control that the CIO had gained back with the ascendancy of SAP in the 1990s.

But what CIOs give up in control, they stand to gain in terms of their overall value to the enterprise. As more business users become more engaged and use more enterprise software — wherever it comes from — the centralizing functions of the office of the CIO will only increase in importance.

And the openness that SAP is deploying to solve this problem — more partners, smaller, more nimble products, and a service-oriented architecture to tie it all together — will require more of the CIO in order to maintain and sustain it.

Innovation Empowering Business Users

Playing Prometheus can have its rewards and its dangers. The Greek gods were rather unpleasantly unforgiving of Prometheus’ efforts to give humans the gift of fire, and surely this allegory has stayed alive all these centuries because of the dual nature of the value of the gift and the “reward” imposed on its giver.

What differentiates our business world of the 21st century from these ancient times is the recognition that progress marches on inexorably, stopping for no one. It’s not a question of whether it’s a good idea to empower end users with innovation, but rather how it will be done. SAP’s approach looks destined to succeed — however different the relationships among IT, the user, and SAP itself will end up being.


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