The overlooked potential of industry-focused virtual events - an ASUG life sciences example

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed October 16, 2020
Superior virtual events don't necessarily require radical changes. As ASUG's recent week of industry events for SAP professionals proved, an industry focus on live customer stories goes a long way. Here's my ASUG life sciences and health care review.

ASUG life sciences - Varian
(ASUG life sciences program - with Varian)

In my art of virtual events series, I've implored vendors to take creative chances on virtual events - and documented the bright spots. But: you don't have to jump into the deep end to deliver something useful.

This year, ASUG, Americas' SAP Users' Group, pulled off several worthwhile events, keeping to a straightforward model:

  • Go with live presentations as much as you can
  • Keep the focus on customer stories, not vendor messaging

Now, I'll grant you, that doesn't sound too hard, but a surprising number of events fall short - either recording all their customer sessions in advance, or getting bogged down in over-moderated "customer interviews." The week of September 21 - 25, ASUG added another welcome twist with its SAP for Industries Virtual Experience (you can still register, for free, to view the event replays).

One unavoidable reality of the pandemic: industry is everything. If I'm an SAP/Oracle/fill-in-the-blank customer in travel and hospitality, I have a totally different set of predicaments than ERP customers in consumer goods. If I'm an automotive supplier, let me hear from other automotive companies on how they're managing cash flow, or addressing safety concerns on the shop floor. Sitting through a day of "pandemic success stories" from say, SaaS software companies, just doesn't speak to my situation in automotive. The fact that we're running the same software doesn't get to the core of my issues right now.

ASUG life sciences and health care day - a virtual program review

To help address this problem, ASUG took its fall industry events online, putting on a week of virtual days for SAP customers in automotive, oil and gas, utilities, chemicals, life sciences and health care. I attended a number of sessions, but it was the life sciences and health care day that really caught my attention. This industry is under tremendous pressure to not only keep us safe, but get us to a post-pandemic life. ASUG's Ann Marie Gray penned a detailed recap in A Checkup on SAP Life Sciences and Health Care Customers.

Several sessions focused on S/4HANA upgrade lessons. Granted, there are a number of S/4HANA use cases out there - but if you're in the same vertical, and considering an S/4HANA move, that's always going to be useful - especially when you account for the stringent/specific regulatory issues. In the health care industry, you're not upgrading to anything without data compliance.

Some sessions explored intriguing tech options, from data lakes to process mining. I was more interested in the industry know-how. Life science and health care companies are feeling an urgency for speed that is particularly high stakes, with a viable COVID-19 vaccine being the biggest variable in the global economy. As several speakers noted, the need for speed exposed pre-existing "logistical bottlenecks" in the health care supply chain.

I liked this no-excuses quote from Mandar Paralkar, head of life sciences industry at SAP:

Sitting on the sidelines does not equate to resilience whatsoever. COVID-19 has really exposed company's organizational weaknesses, operating model weaknesses, and supply chain weaknesses, but the silver lining is that organizations that arrest this moment and cope with it are not only helping to pull themselves out of this adverse situation more quickly, they're really fortifying their success equation that much stronger out for the long haul.

Varian, a global player in radiation oncology, shared their story on moving to a newer version of S/4HANA (version 1909, for those who speak SAPanese). It's always good to hear the business case that won budget approval. Varian's emphasis on automating business processes hits a key proof point for S/4HANA ROI.

Naga Nallaiah, SAP technology manager at Varian, spoke to the benefits of the two-month upgrade, and why automation is central to their forward strategy. S/4HANA 1909 brings RPA capabilities Nallaiah's team wanted:

Our goal is to automate fifty percent of our business processes with end-to-end automation. We want to use Robotic Process Automation to reduce monotonous tasks and focus on the core areas.

Business functionality in S/4HANA 1909, including predictive accounting, was another draw for Varian. One of the most forward-thinking sessions was from Brooks Olphin, Process and Task Mining Manager, Johnson & Johnson, who spoke on "Implementing and Scaling Process Mining on an Enterprise Level." Olphin shared their use of Celonis' process mining solution within their SAP landscape. To build momentum for a company-wide process mining program, Olphin's team adopted a startup mentality. As Marie Gray wrote:

The year-and-a-half-long project at Johnson & Johnson began as a proof of concept using the Celonis platform to analyze the order to cash system for points of friction and inefficiency. "Our journey began with us acting as a small startup," Olphin said. "We then realized we needed to put some guide rails in place for different teams as we brought more users into the system."

For those life sciences customers new to process mining, Olphin advised: attack your bottlenecks as they are identified. And: treat process improvement as a daily discipline, not as a project with an end date. And: keep pushingl new bottlenecks will emerge. Olphin told attendees about their next phase: automating with notifications.

As we move into the walk phase, it's important to note that we're bringing new capabilities. So this is where we're sending out automatic notifications, both proactive and reactive, to how our processes are performing today. These can be things that our business, our end users need to prioritize, or these could be issues within the process itself.

We also bring in goal and KPI tracking, which is where we're able to realize those benefits and ensure that when we do go back to the business, we're able to show them the value that we're bringing.

New tech without ROI is a non-starter. Olphin gave an example: reducing order cycle time.

We had a business unit, and it was around thirteen days of cycle time to get from an order entry to an order out the door. And so we were able to really highlight those areas of inefficiency. We went from 13 days to four days.

But perhaps the most inspiring story came via Johns Hopkins Health Services (JHHS), and how they became PPE and reusable gown manufacturers. Marie Gray again:

The organization's path to that decision involved a little bit of good fortune and a lot of resourcefulness... The good fortune came from the fact that the hospital network had a 165,000 square-foot distribution center based in the Baltimore area near five of its six hospitals. That facility made it possible to assemble PPE and distribute it both locally and to ship to its sixth location in Florida. JHHS began by creating prototypes of its own face shields. Once the design was approved by leadership and the clinical teams, it began to mass-produce these.

By chance, a JHHS employee heard from a relative about how Ford Motor Company had begun manufacturing reusable gowns from airbag material. The team reached out to the company for samples, which it then sent to its clinical teams for approval. That led JHHS to be able to deliver 60,000 gowns in one month, which were found through testing to protect medical professionals from contamination far better than disposable gowns.

My take

These standout bits give a flavor for how an industry-focused day can offer something you just can't get from a scattershot. Yes, you can pick industry sessions from an on-demand catalog, but what ASUG did here is better.

That's because conversations have a way of building on each other throughout the day. For an SAP life sciences person, getting in the nitty-gritty of compliance issues like HIPPA and ISO 9001 - especially in an SAP configuration context - isn't yawn-inducing, it's vital information. A more general version of the same session would trim the same details a life sciences specialist would want to hear.

All that said, even ASUG, which has events at the core of its business model, has room for improvements. I would argue that the interactivity of the live sessions could go higher, starting with a more dynamic Q/A segment. As moderators get more experience, they should make sure to have good questions ready - and draw them from the crowd also. Never allow the speaker to come off-camera without answering some kind of question. One answer leads to more questions - that's what you want. Press the issue.

I know that ASUG experimented with more peer-to-peer discussions at this show. I hope that experiment continues. It takes time to build a culture of peer participation, but the event organizers that crack the code on that will have a leg up (see: Virtual event honesty - an interactive virtual event won't work unless we solve the participation paradox). Too many event planners holding back on the bolder experiments, biding time until on-the-ground events come back. That's the wrong attitude, for reasons I won't reiterate here.

For vendors that aren't ready to get more radical in their event structure, applying an industry and customer focus is one way to push forward. Just remember - all customer sessions aren't created equal. I really don't want to hear your CMO or your account rep interviewing your customer. Set the customer free to share their unvarnished story. Why not let a customer chair their own customer panel? Scary? Maybe, but it's a show of customer confidence that carries weight.

One thing I'd like to see ASUG do more off: when the moderator steps in at the end, make a point of asking the customer: "What's the number one thing you need from SAP now?" In the Q/A segment, ASUG should reinforce a role as customer advocate. Frankly, all vendors should do this in their customer sessions - but few do. Most end the session with the typical, "that's fantastic, thanks for sharing your amazing story" etc. Nice adjectives I suppose - though they sound better coming from the mouths of the customer than you. Better to show you are willing to hear feedback, and act on it.

If/when ASUG starts charging for these types of virtual events, they will have some interesting dilemmas regarding the sponsored sessions, where we get a bit more of a marketing flavor from SAP or its cloud partners. For a free event, attendees will put up with some amount of commercial programming amidst the customer-focused sessions. Though I found these sponsored sessions were more informational than sales-y, if it were a paid program, I could see some paid attendees balking. That's a problem for another time.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on the art and pitfalls of virtual events.