The Discovery Channel on IT-business alignment in a cloud world - live from SAP Controlling 2019

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed October 9, 2019
At Controlling 2019, keynote speaker Barb Rojas of the Discovery Channel put an interesting twist on IT/business alignment. How do you impose governance on business users, without stifling their cloud pursuits? After the keynote, our podcast took the conversation further.

Barbara Rojas keynoting at Controlling 2019

What's better than a conference keynote delivered by a customer - with no vendors on stage? Maybe one thing: doing a podcast with that customer after the fact.

That's what I did Tuesday at Controlling 2019, a specialized conference for SAP controlling and finance professionals.

The keynoter? Barbara (Neches) Rojas, SVP Finance Solutions/Program Management Office for Discovery Communications. Good timing with Ada Lovelace Women in Tech day:

As Rojas puts it in on LinkedIn, she "provides the vision and governance for financial application implementations within a global entertainment industry leader." Yep - that entertainment leader is the Discovery Channel. And yes, Rojas talked about sharks. But her main focus was the classic issue all ERP customers must tackle: IT/Business Alignment.

Cable TV is changing drastically, and finance teams must keep up

Rojas' message came with a cloud twist. But she left me with a burning question: how did Rojas' team get such glowing testimonials from both IT and business - while imposing a governance framework on them? In our IT - business alignment podcast (also embedded below), we started with what's driving the change: Discovery's business model shifts. Rojas didn't mince words:

Cable TV is changing drastically over the years. We're trying not to become the Kodak story. So with the invention of Netflix and all the other streaming products, Discovery Channel is working really hard maintain its audience figures. So as the business changes, moving to more digital subscriber-based, etc., we're trying to keep pace.

Relying on SAP to support these changes puts Rojas in a potentially scary place: between business and IT. Rojas:

I work between finance and IT, ensuring effective and efficient delivery of any SAP projects. We work heavily in merger and acquisitions and also any of the business changes as we're looking into new and different invoicing systems.

Careers can get lost in that abyss - but not this one.

It can be a very dark place or it can be a very sunny place, I guess, depending upon what you make of it. I've been straddling the two worlds for the 15 years or so that I've been at Discovery. It's been challenging, but certainly very, very rewarding.

But in recent years, there's been a disruptive twist: the surge in cloud app usage.

Our first instance with a cloud product was probably about eight years or so. It was with our treasury group. We had been using an SAP tool, and it wasn't doing exactly what we needed at that point in time. The user group went out and acquired their own cloud solution, and we learned along the way some of the hardships of why they made the decision they did.

Did they make the right decision? Did we provide them the right kind of support that they needed? We sort of let them go too fast, too early, too soon.

Time for a change:

They got into quite a lot of trouble with their platform and their vendor and other areas. And we've vowed to not make those mistakes again.

Imposing governance on cloud users - without alienating them

It's no surprise Rojas and team imposed governance on the surge in cloud initiatives. But it is a surprise that both IT and business users seemed happy with that governance. How did Rojas pull that off? Business users might understand their domain better, but IT brings something to the table also:

In the areas of governance or working with third parties or working with software development life cycle, we're certainly more skilled than they are. So I think they've come to learn that that balance is important in this successful project for the scalability and longterm longevity of it.

I told Rojas: I don't care whether you're dealing with classic SAP ERP (Discovery still runs on ECC 6.0) or cloud or robotics, you still have to bridge the IT-business gap. If that's not solved, then none of the new tech is going to do anything for you. Rojas:

That's right. We're all on the same landscape. Even if they think they're a workstream and they're off in the corner. You know, SAP is the company's ERP and everything has to end up in the landscape with harmonized data and working together in the end.

As our workstreams have learned over time, it's better if we work on that collaboration from the beginning versus forcing it towards the end.

Applying SAP project lessons to robotics

Rojas learned a similar lesson with Discovery's early robotic process automation projects:

With robotics we've learned that it needs to be, again, part of the landscape. [RPA] is not something that can be stood up alone, separate. It needs the exact same kind of governance that any ERP implementation would need.

Giving users too much leeway can backfire:

I watched some rounds of robotics fail at Discovery because again, that was one of our learning experiences. Originally we left them alone. But we realized that that instance has to be kept as close to the vest as any other cloud product, or any other provider that we're bringing into the solutions landscape.

The governance team has a framework to support each project:

When we come up with a business process or a business problem, it's up to those governance teams to sit together and figure out which is the best place. Is it some process improvement? Is it light automation using Excel? Is it deep automation using ERP? Again, it requires that full governance team and both finance and IT partnering to ensure what is the right process and where it should be put.

Though robotics is in the early stages at Discovery, there are some RPA use cases in production:

We've got a couple of powerful processes in production, on master data, also interfacing with banks.  had mentioned that as a media industry, we have a lot of third party business systems... There's a lot of swivel chair data, and that's where we're using our robotics instance to really help in repetitive data entry between our third party systems and SAP.

The wrap - static reporting isn't enough anymore

Before the podcast taping, Rojas and I both attended an SAP analytics cloud session. There is plenty of work ahead turning analytics into a business asset. Static reporting isn't good enough. Now analytics must support faster/smarter decisions:

We have not yet solved that. It's certainly our challenge. As Discovery morphs into different and new businesses, we're challenged, trying to keep up with that subscriber information and customer information, etc.

Reporting lead times are drastically shorter:

In the content life cycle at Discovery, we don't have that 18 month lead time anymore. The consumer market has changed so drastically, that lead time has to be shorter.

The podcast also gets into the role of Tier 2 ERP, something Rojas has relied on to keep up with Discovery's rapid global expansion. Then there is the S/4HANA decision, which has been tabled a couple of times, due to a focus on post-acquisition systems standardization. Still, you don't have to be at the end of that road to share stories. And that's what a customer keynote is all about:

One of the things that I love about presenting this keynote is when people come up to me afterwards and say, "Wow, I feel like that's me." I love that it [resonates] with people and they come to me to talk about their opportunities, and the areas that they can grow in.

You can also download the podcast or pick it up on iTunes

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