Trust and relevance - the twin challenges SAP faces as it meets with SAP UK & Ireland User Group

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 25, 2017
SAP UK & Ireland User Group meet this week. SAP will face some testing questions. Here is my pre-event assessment around the top of mind topics.

Buckle up. A long read follows.

By the time readers see this, I'll be traveling to Birmingham, UK attending the 2017 SAP UK & Ireland User Group Connect conference. It promises to be tense. Right now, SAP is in the final push to hit its 2017 numbers. SAP messaging from the CEO's office suggests 2017 is in the books but even so, everyone likes a cherry on top of the cake - right?

While this event is not viewed as a flogathon in the tradition of SAPPHIRE Now, SAP executives will be endeavoring to soothe concerns among users across issues of trust and relevance. I'll deal with each in turn.


SAP has a 45-year-old bank of customer trust upon which it can draw. Regardless of individual customer relationship issues, customers are not going to up sticks and walk away anytime soon.

Customers have built (mostly) smooth running processes using SAP technology over many years. When you get into the weeds of what's been achieved, success may have been hard won and at significant cost, but globally, SAP customers successfully often operate highly complex systems that pay the bills, move the goods, make things on the plant floor, administrate workforces, and manage supply chains across 25 major industries. SAP transitions to cloud-only offerings, customers have been faced with multiple issues that erode that hard-won trust. Not least among problems customers face are:

  1. Lack of a solid business case for upgrading to S/4 HANA.
  2. Lack of adequately qualified/certified implementers on SuccessFactors' projects.
  3. Inadequately addressed concerns over indirect access.
  4. Ongoing lack of control over SIs and continuing 'lights on' costs for existing systems.

We and others have talked about all these issues for a very long time but only see glacial progress.

SAP touts high levels of interest and sales in S/4HANA for example, yet it is still difficult to find many customers who have well-developed roadmaps that talk to the kind of scale we expect to see among lighthouse customers. This issue begs the question - how much of S/4 is shelfware negotiated to avoid some other licensing issue?

Today, SuccessFactors is in much better technical shape than it was just a couple of years ago but grumblings about a lack of certified consultants portend project failures. What's more, soundings suggest that SAP still hasn't got its head around what cloud means for operations and pricing.

Indirect access (IA) is top of mind. We have talked about this at some length and met with SAP executives who have endeavored to set the record straight. The fact remains that customers, partners, and analysts are far from happy. At least on back channels. Some are coming out of the woodwork. Only today, I read this from Sam Bayer, CTO, and co-founder, Corevist Inc:

I love SAP.

Always have, always will.

I love how SAP simplifies business, especially for midmarket firms. Where would we be without it?

I love the SAP community, and I love the people who make the B2B market tick. I love intellectual property laws. They protect the spirit of innovation that built our economy--the same spirit that undergirds the entire tech industry.

But I don’t like illegal monopolies.

I don’t like illegal bundling of goods and services that stifles competition.

I don’t like the 800lb gorilla pushing people around, isolating them, making them feel powerless.

I don’t like Mafia-style sales techniques that force unnecessary products on customers who are scared to buy an alternative.

I don’t like illegal activities that stifle innovation within the SAP community.

I don’t like antitrust law violations, especially when they hurt my friends in the SAP community.

I don’t like SAP’s indirect access policy. Not one bit.

Corevist is an SAP partner. Imagine what's said behind the scenes? Try this. I mentioned to one analyst that I'm looking forward to the licensing conversation at this year's event. The reply:

You would not be looking forward to it if you were an SAP customer. Bloody extortion.

Those are harsh words but reflect the anger among customers. But there is more. Corevist has started to survey customers on the IA topic. These are the results so far:

  • 56% of the respondents claimed that if they went with an SAP product, SAP told them that they wouldn’t have to pay Indirect Access license fees.
  • When asked how bullied they felt in their SAP indirect access negotiations; respondents averaged 8.5 on a self-reported scale of 1-10.
  • 68% of the respondents said that if they could magically get off SAP completely tomorrow, with no impact to their career, they would do so.

I am not surprised by these results because they broadly reflect what we see in the marketplace. In one recent case, I was discussing a Workday/Salesforce situation with a customer who mentioned they also have SAP in the mix. I asked if the company was aware of the IA topic. They were not.

To its credit, SAP is fielding Hala Zeine who has responsibility for formulating and articulating SAP's IA policy to speak at this event. She's up against Ray 'R' Wang, CEO Constellation Research. I suspect Ms. Zaine will endeavor to kick the can down the road while Wang will tell customers to consult on this before signing any paperwork. He is right to do so, but in truth, I want to see customers walking away delighted - not afraid.

The recent uptick in PR around SUGEN is another indication of the extent to which this problem is felt. This from the UK user group announcing that Philip Adams, a long time member, volunteer and former chairman has joined the SUGEN Core Leadership team:

“Philip has been very active in SUGEN activities in the last couple of years. His contribution to the SUGEN Licensing and Auditing Charter has been really valuable when dealing with tough topics such as indirect access. As Philip joins the CLT, I know that his impulse will be to sustain our progress in strategically influencing SAP and helping to drive SUGEN forward,” said Gianmaria Perancin, chairman of SUGEN

My emphasis added. The last time we heard from SUGEN was when SAP maintenance pricing was in turmoil.

All these topics play to the trust issue at a time when SAP CMO Alicia Tillman is trying to recast SAP's image. In a recent interview with The Drum, Ms. Tilman said:

It’s very much a part of our role now, to focus on embedding the science of marketing into all channels by promoting and rewarding a customer-focused, open, and insight-driven culture.

How does that square with ongoing issues of the kind outlined above and more? On the topic of brand safety and transparency, The Drum reported Ms. Tillman saying that:

CMOs have a responsibility to take all the necessary steps to protect and safeguard their brands.

Tillman also believes that measures such as reducing spend in certain digital channels until better controls are developed, being compliant with the placement of ads, and assuring the integrity and relevancy of brands’ content and audiences will go a long way in combating these issues.

All these areas are top of mind for SAP, she asserts, as the German company takes brand safety, viewability and transparency very seriously.

My emphasis added. I hear this but have trouble squaring it with reality. The SAP price book is possibly the most opaque piece of sales literature ever devised. SAP has long talked about integrity, but that didn't stop the company from having corruption issues in South Africa and, more recently, compliance problems related to Iran.


I have to admit I found SAP TechEd 2017 disappointing. Part of that is my fault for not allowing enough time to see the cool stuff SAP developers put on the show floor. It runs deeper than that.

SAP Leonardo, SAP's kitbag of tools, technology and consulting aimed at expansion from the SAP core ERP as a pathway to digital transformation is tepid. Why do I say that? Well, if you're going to invoke the image of a world-class genius then you'd better have something world-class and mind-blowing on offer. SAP doesn't or rather, if it does, then I can't see it.

In my view, SAP is trapped inside the buzzword bingo sinkhole of the blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning, internet of things and the like. My first question to one of SAP's IoT speakers was: 'Give me your top 10 live projects, not POC.' The response? Silence. Yet SAP is touting Leonardo as the pathway to IoT nirvana. How does that fit? Contract compliance along with track and trace are prime examples where the blockchain makes an exciting fit. But then what happens to your SAP license if the customer is faced with IA questions? No-one has a good answer - unless it is to use SAP technology and IA magically goes away.

Reading through the conversation between Bjorn Goerke, Jon Reed, and Dick Hirsch, this from Hirsch smacked me between the eyes:

"I feel like you guys are ashamed of your ERP heritage… In terms of the technology, blockchain, AI – [lots of vendors have it]. What you guys have, which is unique, it’s not the ERP system itself, because with APIs, anyone can integrate with it. It’s the process knowledge, and that’s what you have to focus on, because that’s what makes you guys unique."

Goerke responded: SAP talked about two modes at Sapphire Now as a way of balancing ERP talk with Leonardo plans. But he feels the two modes framework isn’t the best way to frame things: it’s really one push.

"Mode one/mode two works to some extent, to make clear we’re more than ERP, but it’s also a dangerous story in the sense of separating innovation out from the core ERP.

There was clear customer feedback and in the end, [combining the two] is also what we strive for. Of course we want to have machine learning within the core applications."

Hirsch's comment on process knowledge is bang on the money but at odds with where SAP's capabilities can go from here. Right now, businesses desperately need industry-specific expertise so that new technologies are understood in context. Once upon a time, SAP had that expertise in spades. Today? Not so much.

Of greater concern is SAP's commitment to openness. SAP is making a big deal out of its relationship with Google but how does that parse with SAP's DNA?

Most recently, SAP said that it is a contributor to My immediate reaction was 'Wow! Right at the heart of business blockchain.' But then almost immediately my mood soured. Why? Search for a contribution to Hyperledger on Github from SAP's Palo Alto, Walldorf or Philadelphia developer centers.

To steal the words of one colleague:

SAP's commitment to open source is like the Chinese; lurk but don't commit.

Where does this take us?

Consider these topics:

  1. At SAP TechEd, I met up with a colleague I'd not seen for three years. He's gone grey during that time. As I looked around, I saw a lot of grey-haired colleagues. I struggled to find any PYT's - that's Pimply Young Thing to you.
  2. SAP has made plenty of cloud-related acquisitions yet can't keep hold of those same companies' leadership. They've all gone.
  3. At one time, your years of service at SAP were proudly worn as evidence you know what you're doing. Rightly so. Today, those years look more like a boat anchor. You see that in the palpable relief that ABAP skills are back in fashion among SAPpers yet it is Python that's most in demand among the current generation of developers.
  4. When you look at the landscape of new companies that are supporting the latest technologies or consider acquisitions made by large automotive, financial services and retail industries you never hear about SAP. Some may never have heard about SAP.

Does that sound like a vendor that is at the heart of what matters?

My take

These are testing times for both SAP and its customers.

The problems both face have blindingly simple solutions, yet once again, SAP seems too willing to get in its own way rather than deal with root cause issues.

On the question of trust, SAP is no longer the automatic first choice for new technologies, in large measure because customers are afraid of being burned on cost. Perversely, the question of project over-run is no longer a top of mind issue, but the cost of the surrounding ecosystem is in stark contrast to the low-cost providers we see emerging elsewhere. Proactively managing the ecosystem would go a long way towards solving this problem.

For all its hard work, efforts to support universities and financial contribution to open source initiatives, SAP struggles to be the 'cool kid on the block.' It needs a DNA transplant.

If you want to follow my Tweets while at the event then check: #UKISUGConnect and/or connect with me @dahowlett

A grey colored placeholder image