Buried in the middle of Hasso Plattner’s keynote address at SAPPHIRE NOW in May 2015 was a little teaser about a new product from SAP that, like so much at SAP these days, is about a dream from the past finally getting its day in the sun.
As Hasso reminded us in his keynote, SAP HANA started as T-Rex, an in-memory search engine, which derived from SAP liveCache, an early version of SAP Advanced Planning and Optimization that I wrote about in 2009.1 SAP’s vision of a business network, widely touted at SAPPHIRE NOW as the second coming of the global economy, had its origins in a dozen startups trying to disintermediate the business world back in the dot-com days (one of which was Ariba, and another one was CommerceOne, which SAP acquired in 2000). Another concept widely discussed in Orlando was the Internet of Things (IoT), which has been around for decades in the form of manufacturing execution systems (MES), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), and other shop-floor technologies. The main difference is that the IoT of today means connecting these technologies and their sensors to the IT analytics side of the business, also known as SAP’s bailiwick.
In the spirit of dreams of the past finally beginning to see the light of day, it’s worth a look at another SAP product that showed up at SAPPHIRE NOW as a vastly improved, updated, and otherwise real-world version of something others had tried their hands at a number of years back. The product is called, at least for now, Boardroom of the Future, and unless you were paying close attention to Hasso’s keynote, you might have missed it altogether. Chances are you won’t need to pay such close attention in the future.
The basic concept behind Boardroom of the Future is intuitively obvious: give senior leadership a real-time analytical and operational tool that can be used to watch the operations of a company from 30,000 feet, or to drill deeply into the far corners of the corporate empire to look at the detailed functions of a given line of business or division.
The Concept Behind the Boardroom
The brainchild of SAP board member Ingrid-Helen Arnold, Boardroom of the Future consists of a set of three enormous touchscreens, tied directly into an SAP S/4HANA system, which can be used to provide an extraordinary level of analysis and decision support to corporate boards. Not surprisingly, it looks, at first blush, more science fiction than real.
The basic concept behind Boardroom of the Future is intuitively obvious: give senior leadership a real-time analytical and operational tool that can be used to watch the operations of a company from 30,000 feet, or to drill deeply into the far corners of the corporate empire to look at the detailed functions of a given line of business or division. And leaders can do so using a very cool, touch-based user experience that’s even more impressive on a massive 70-inch touchscreen monitor that actually does evoke the future, minus the jetpacks and time travel.
In a world a little jaded by the interactivity between analytics and humans depicted in movies like Minority Report, what SAP is doing with Boardroom of the Future seems almost ho-hum. But without SAP HANA, predictive modeling, in-memory computing, and other cool features, the Boardroom of the Future would be the stuff of futurists and movie directors — or the SAP of the 1990s.
Remember Management Cockpit?
As I alluded to before, this isn’t the first time SAP has tried to change how the boardroom interacts with business analytics. Back in 1998, I was invited by SAP to take a look at Management Cockpit, which was the brainchild (pun intended) of neurosurgeon and business management consultant Dr. Patrick Georges. Management Cockpit was a high-tech “boardroom” festooned with backlit, wall-to-wall analytics highlighting key performance and operational issues in a company. The cockpit metaphor was meant to evoke the flight deck of a modern aircraft: At the pilot’s fingertips is all the information needed to steer the plane toward its desired destination or correct its course to avoid inclement weather.
When I look back at my notes from that meeting, what is interesting is how Management Cockpit showed up at a previous inflection point in SAP’s technological history: the arrival of SAP Business Warehouse (SAP BW). “This wasn’t possible before SAP BW,” my notes read. Also highlighted is the idea that Management Cockpit relied not just on SAP data but on outside data sources as well, and that its goal was to provide information based on a company’s specific needs, and not just on a one-size-fits-all
The reason you probably never heard of Management Cockpit is that it came and went with little or no uptake by SAP customers. This lack of adoption happened despite an ergonomic design based on Dr. Georges’s theories about information acquisition and visualization, and the genuine gee-whiz feeling you got when you realized you were looking at the epitome of the intersection between business and IT.
There are a lot of reasons why this experiment failed, including the fact that business culture hadn’t evolved to use analytics in the ways that Dr. Georges envisioned. But perhaps more telling was that exposing all those key performance indicators (KPIs) and measurements in static presentations over the four walls of the cockpit boardroom left people wanting much more. My notes from that day also contain the following observation: “Can’t do what-if scenarios. Getting new views on the same data looks hard.”
The Dream Becomes a Reality
Boardroom of the Future has most definitively solved the problems I noted with Management Cockpit. As Arnold took the system through its paces, it was clear that SAP HANA’s ability to take a single instance of SAP S/4HANA (which SAP had just moved to that week) and turn it into an analytical platform for advanced decision making was pretty irrefutable. Even with the flaky network connectivity that is the standard at conferences these days, it was an impressive show.
So, almost two decades later, and after several turns of the technological clock, SAP has taken another good idea from its past and brought it to fruition. Why it makes sense now rather than in 1998 isn’t just about SAP S/4HANA or massive touchscreen monitors — though they clearly help. Also working in SAP’s favor is the massively increased complexity of the business world in the 21st century. Real-time business, globally connected supply chains, e-commerce, and the “lot size one” concept2 all contribute to a business world that, more and more, needs tools like Boardroom of the Future.
It took 17 years and an enormous shift in technology, but it looks like SAP’s Management Cockpit dream has now become a reality — thus proving once again that innovation without tenacity and perseverance is an opportunity wasted.
1 See sapinsider.wispubs.com/Assets/Articles/2009/August/Putting-The-Database-On-A-Diet-The-Oracle-Killer-Positions-SAP-As-A-Database-Pioneer. [back]
2 See http://continuations.com/post/61372297/kaizen-for-developers-lot-size-one. [back]