Lethargy weighing down SAP ERP?

John Moy Profile picture for user johnmoy May 2, 2013
In this guest post, John Moy makes a broad assessment of the SAP mobile applications space. He looks at the roles of SAP, systems integrators and customers in an ecosystem that he believes is not functioning as well as it might. There are lessons for all developers in the enterprise space.

I've worked in the SAP on-premise ecosystem since the early days of R/3. Working in those exciting times we threw ourselves deep into SAP implementations, replacing old 'legacy' systems and their clunky mainframe text-based screens with an integrated system wielding a beautiful modern graphical user interface and architecture.  Times have changed.

Almost two decades on, I’ve seen some SAP installations becoming the ‘legacy’ systems they once replaced.  And this isn't an indictment so much about the technology - SAP are in their own words seeking to 'innovate the future, not consolidate the past'. But outside the walls of SAP's R&D labs and software development centers, outside the SAP-sponsored conferences promoting new innovations and products, there are SAP ERP systems stagnating.  How did we get here?

The role of SAP

SAP has done well in recent years to reinvigorate the product set with new innovations and acquisitions in mobile, cloud and in-memory. But prior to this, ERP customers endured years of new but sometimes subpar technologies set upon them. The tumultuous path of SAP’s various legacy mobile extensions dating back a decade is an example.  It would be fair to say that some trust and goodwill has been squandered, and some customers are now more likely to take a ‘wait and see’ approach with newer offerings. And of those components of SAP which have not been renovated – take for instance many functions still based on the classic 1990’s graphical user interface – well, they’re simply getting old.

The role of System Integrators

Whilst SAP has focussed on innovation to sell more product, many of the large System Integrators have had less incentive to innovate the way they approach implementations. After all, their business models rely upon selling time and people, and they continue to earn large revenues following the same playbook from a decade ago. Whilst SAP uses Agile methodologies for product development internally, many System Integrators stubbornly hold to older Waterfall approaches.  In a sense, SAP and System Integrators may well be out of lockstep. Whilst SAP is focussed on innovation, the large System Integrators have focussed on standardisation and commoditisation. As a consequence, I’ve seen System Integrators lacking the skills and abilities to implement and unlock the features in a modern SAP system.  And that is before considering innovations in areas such as mobility.

Last month in a conversation with Dennis Howlett, I hinted about some of the changes we are seeing in the mobile space. My concern, while not made explicit, is that many classic SAP developers in some of the larger System Integrators will struggle to make the leap into mobile development. To illustrate, I recall a global SI showcasing their home grown iOS SAP-related app to me – the user experience was clunky, the visual design unappealing, with little regard for Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.  By contrast, I’ve seen an iPad app written by a specialist developer for car salesmen of a large car manufacturer, with gorgeous visuals including virtual reality views of car models and their interiors driven by the accelerometer. And to top it off the app is gamified … when a sale is made, the salesman is presented with a virtual slot machine where they have the opportunity to win a gift card as an added bonus. I often see better mobile innovations coming from the smaller integrators or small specialist mobile development shops.

In short, SAP’s ecosystem of consultants and system integrators need to re-skill, re-tool, and re-think their approaches to implementing or upgrading to tomorrow’s SAP, rather than yesterday’s SAP.

The role of customers

Of course customers are not without fault.  For many, the implementation days are over and the IT department, stripped of funding, is charged with ‘keeping the lights on’ as efficiently and cheaply as possible. Often this doesn’t leave any time or money for adopting innovation and change.  I’ve seen system upgrades treated merely as technical upgrades, ignoring any new features offered by the new release. Sometimes the focus on cost reduction results in outsourcing or offshoring.  These further become mitigators for innovation, consigning the systems forever to the title of ‘legacy’.

Does this sound familiar?  Call it lethargy or legacy. To bring their SAP systems into modern times, SAP customers need to reinvigorate their systems with innovation.  SAP knows this, but the burden of inertia is something that works against its aims. Perhaps the future of SAP ERP in this decade might be defined not so much by technological innovation on SAP’s part, but on the approaches and attitudes of those implementing and running the software. Don’t get me wrong. SAP ERP has some fundamental strengths in depth and breadth which the new cloud vendors cannot match. Yet.

But, for its flagship on-premise solution to remain relevant, we need:

  1. SAP to deliver the right innovations, without disruption, to elevate the software to modern day expectations (think elegant user interfaces etc.); and
  2. Large System Integrators and service providers to re-skill, re-tool, and re-think their approaches to implementing or upgrading to tomorrow’s SAP, rather than to yesterday’s SAP; and
  3. Customers to focus beyond ‘keeping the lights on’ to extract more value from their SAP systems with new innovations from the software giant.

Without all the above, SAP ERP’s brightest days may well be behind us.

Image courtesy of ZDNet

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