SAPPHIRENow 2019 - co-founder Plattner's trip Back to the Future

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett May 8, 2019
Hasso Plattner, co-founder SAP took the stage to deliver both a technical and inspiring keynote. It was one of his best.

Hasso Plattner and Jared Smith

Hasso Plattner, co-founder SAP brought SAPPHIRENow 2019 to life with a second-day keynote that both harked back to the past yet looked forward to the future. At once both humble and bragging, yet recognizing where SAP has not done so well yet mindful of the lessons it has learned, this was the Plattner I know and respect. 

There were high expectations among the trade analysts that this keynote would get into what they see as the critical technical show and tells for which Plattner keynotes are known. That kind of happened but left many questions unanswered. Even so, let's go from the top. 

What SAP got right and wrong

Plattner is at his best when he goes off-piste from the prepared speech and today was no exception. He quickly got bored with telling the audience how big, wide and deep HANA has become but for reference, SAP has counted 50,000 licenses. Tellingly, Plattner acknowledged for the first time that ERP is not the center of the known enterprise software universe. In what I take as a doffing of the cap to Salesforce, and referring to the early days of S/4HANA development, he said:

I saw the center of the world still in enterprise systems...(that was a mistake)...CRM is probably outgrowing the ERP space

But then, and in conjunction with Gerrit Simon Kazmaier, SVP SAP Analytics & Database and Data Management, Plattner walked through the advance being made with HANA. For the technical folk in the audience, They talked about an architecture that brings the database and analytics back together after a messy separation while at the same time developing a system that allows for the easy creation of apps that include external services through the concept of 'spaces.' In Plattner's parlance:

HANA is too good a database to be locked inside an enterprise system. 

On updates, patches and the pace of innovation Plattner hit all the right notes with: 

If your system is 15 years old it is not the best in the world...We can update permanently...the speed of innovation has to increase...not slower release changes.

And as a veiled admonishment to those who remain in the 'undecided' camp on the move to cloud-based systems, he had this to say:

We move much faster in the cloud so we develop there first...but we know the majority of you are probably on-premise, we don't forget you, we go back to on-prem once we're stabilized in the cloud.

That will not please those who think that certain systems - think accounting - should always remain in premises. Given that survey after survey shows customers struggling with the business case, this affirmation of SAP's R&D direction should be enough to get customers thinking. But then SAP has often left customers with the impression that an S4/HANA move is simply a technical upgrade. Despite many presentations, they often can't see how S4 provides the platform for an SAP-centric future. 

The XO story

When Plattner brought on Jared Smith, co-founder Qualtrics, I expected to hear a reiteration of the earlier keynote during which Ryan Smith, co-founder spun a good story around experience management. Smith did what he had to by way of illustrating how Qualtrics has helped change the customer experience at a large (un-named) hotel group.

But it was in Smith's telling of how Qualtrics evolved that I saw how Plattner would be attracted. Qualtrics made its bones by establishing an understanding of what matters in academic research. As the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute, I can only imagine how much music that would have been to Hasso Plattner's ears. It allowed him to think back to 1972 and the founding days of SAP and how they learned what needed to be done. He freely acknowledged that as the company grew, it lost touch with customers but senses Qualtrics can help it get back to that 'startup' feel. 

There was some discussion about how Qualtrics and SAP are working on providing extended solutions but the detail was very thin. 

My take

SAP likes to talk about being close to the customer but irritating topics like indirect access, forced upgrades, delayed delivery, and unwelcome audits have tarnished the company's reputation in recent years. From everything I have seen, those problems are being addressed albeit at a pace that customers find frustrating. But that has to go hand in hand with product customers can consume that will help them move forward. As Jon Reed discovered in his discussion with ASUG Board Member Ron Gilson:

Our leaders are focused on business outcomes. They could care less whether it's SAP or anybody else.

The question then comes - did Plattner's back to the future trip to SAP's founding in 1972 where he talked about learning from direct interactions with customers hit the spot? It did with me and, I suspect many others. As a guage, Plattner drew a good number of giggles from the audience during his 90 minutes on stage. That doesn't happen often. 

He sees Qualtrics representing the cultural learning example through which SAP, together with its customers can move forward in a purposeful manner. What's not to like about that?

There is one caveat. As Plattner and Smith talked through some of the products being brought to market, there is still a sense that Qualtrics is not really a product but a set of tools that have to be custom built for each scenario. Smith said as much. That in turn leaves some critics wondering whether Qualtrics really is just a sophisticated survey tool that can be bent around a series of customer experience problems. The BMW story Phil Wainewright suggests otherwise but the lack of architectural outlines and roadmaps in this keynote session does beg the question.