Virtual leadership is the new imperative, and the business of IT rolls on - what we’ve learned from our customers since COVID-19

Geoff Scott Profile picture for user geoff.scott April 29, 2020
COVID-19 brings curveballs-a-plenty - SAP customers are no exception. ASUG CEO Geoff Scott reveals lessons from ASUG members on S/4HANA projects and more - including the high stakes of virtual leadership and why virtual events matter, if you can do them right.

remote worker

I was recently thinking about a quote that was, for a time, one of my favorites: “Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again.” Some days it does feel like change is happening way too fast.

And yet there's also a palpable sense of “hurry up and wait,” due to the evolving COVID-19 uncertainties continuing to manifest and shape all facets of our lives.

To address both of those experiences, we've been connecting with our members—asking them questions, offering virtual forums, listening to their challenges, and providing help where we can. And we've learned a lot from all of these exchanges. The overarching theme is that all of us want—perhaps even need—the ability to connect with each other, no matter how geographically distant we are.

Here are 10 things we've learned over the past two months. I hope this list will provide both insight and comfort as we all navigate our way forward.

1. Virtual leadership is really important

There's a been a big focus on the employees who are newly working from their homes. But what's covered less often is how one leads these teams virtually. Respect, punctuality, and hard work—those are just some of the key topics we learned from two ASUG members. “Effective virtual leadership is built on the same foundation that great leadership has always been built on—a clear sense of purpose,” they wrote. “That said, leading a virtual team not only requires an immense level of trust, but also kindness, compassion, and patience. These are often less-developed skills—but don't worry, they're learnable.”

2. The “business of IT” is as important as ever

“We literally don't have enough laptops or mobile devices to send with people,” bluntly stated one recent ASUG Executive Exchange participant during a virtual meeting. “And there is a three- to four-week wait time to receive newly ordered equipment.” Times are indeed tough, but IT has to deliver—as always. During the same call, Tony Caesar, head of IT at Ericsson-MANA, suggested that IT teams need to stay mindful of the bigger picture, but absolutely deliver on the table stakes for the time being. Which is not an easy task. “IT is being called on to help set up infrastructure and provide monitors, docking stations, and keyboards,” noted Caesar, “and to make sure everyone working from home has access to VPN and core applications so that they can get their work done.”

3. Vendor feedback channels must stay open and active

We call them Influence Councils at ASUG. These types of feedback channels are critical for customers, vendors, and partners—now more than ever. In the thick of COVID-19, ASUG Influence Councils not only focus on how to improve SAP products, they also are forums for members to discuss how their organizations are using the software right now. “What's been helpful for all the members is the opportunity to network and benchmark, because there are a lot of people experiencing similar problems and issues throughout their deployment processes,” noted Britany Christenson, project manager and SAP GTS supervisor at 3M. “It's a good place for us to see what other people are doing.”

4. Virtual can be valuable—if done right

As part of the ASUG Pulse Check survey, we asked members about attending virtual events in late March. At the time, 91% of respondents said they had attended a virtual event in the past year. (I'm willing to wager that the 9% who hadn't have probably changed course by this point.) I will share with you that our respondents told us these events were valuable—even if they didn't love attending them. That tells me that the virtual channel for learning, connecting, and gaining knowledge is only going to increase, and it's up to organizations like ASUG to deliver valuable experiences to attendees. Yes, that also means pushing beyond “slides and lectures” webinars and toward more interactive formats that bring our customers together. We've been able to provide a platform for our members to share lessons and obstacles, which is a huge priority for our upcoming events as well.

5. SAP S/4HANA projects can and will continue

What's the status of SAP S/4HANA projects? It's a question I'm getting a lot these days. SAP CEO Christian Klein revealed on the first-quarter earnings call that 500 customers went live with SAP S/4HANA Cloud, and the vendor added 300 SAP S/4HANA customers in Q1, which was a 23% year over year increase. My advice is that even if you're pausing right now on an SAP S/4HANA implementation—as some companies are—you can still start preparing for the move. CIO Ron Gilson, of Johnsonville LLC, recently shared these helpful tips to fellow SAP customers thinking about a brownfield implementation.

Get started early. Begin going through the simplification list, which is the list of products that you have deprecated or are removing from the code line. Begin thinking about issues like business partner implementation and custom code remediation. There's so much you can do before even getting engaged in an SAP S/4HANA brownfield environment, so take advantage of the opportunity to do it. Make sure you find a consulting organization that has actually done a brownfield migration. It's a very different project than a greenfield implementation, so make sure you’re vetting your consultants.

6. A time for some “Design Thinking”?

With so much in flux, this is a good time for companies to revisit—and possibly revise—their strategies, products, or services. “If our distribution channels change, then our product as we know it today changes, too,” said Tara Gambill, senior director of enterprise systems at MOD Pizza, recently. “This is when an enterprise architect can step in and deploy some Design Thinking.” Gambill emphasized that business and IT leaders should conduct an impact assessment that can withstand any type of issue or change. In other words, today the challenge is COVID-19, but who knows what tomorrow’s challenge could be. Either way, you will be better off if you spend some time now developing or reassessing your business continuity plan.

7. Vendors want to hear from customers

Budgets are razor thin and customers want to know just how “customer-centric” their vendors are going to be during these tough times. That has come through loud and clear during my conversations with our members. For their part, vendors, including SAP, also want to keep the communication flowing. “We're going to support customers where they need it,” pledged DJ Paoni, president of SAP North America to ASUG. “We ask that customers keep their lines of communication open with us. We understand that this pandemic will lead to unforeseen pressures and challenges on our customers’ businesses. The way we work through that is by remaining in contact so that we can understand each individual situation and work through how we can help.” Like most things in life, the vendor-customer relationship works best when it's a two-way street.

8. Sometimes we just want to know others are feeling the same way

In March, we launched daily Think Tank meetings that allow members an opportunity to virtually connect with peers in similar roles and functional responsibilities. A recent attendee shared that she was surprised to learn that other organizations “are just like us,” and that made her feel better. Her comment really stuck with me.

9. Straight talk is often exactly what we need

Technically Soledad O'Brien—award-winning journalist, documentarian, entrepreneur, and philanthropist—isn't an ASUG member (though we like to think of her as an honorary member). When she spoke at a recent ASUG Women Connect virtual event, she kept it real. Her advice for attendees included avoiding the pursuit of perfection during stressful times. It's to try to do the best you can for that day, reassess what's important for the next day, and forgive yourself when you can't. Which spurred one attendee to share: “I'm used to working from home. I've been doing it for four to five days a week for a couple of years. But I find I'm having a harder time concentrating some days now than I used to.” This is true for many people. “Every day is going to have its challenges,” Soledad said. “The key is to reassess your priorities.”

10. We have to move forward, and here's one way

No one individual has all the answers. But when we come together, we can do some pretty amazing things. With that in mind, we recently announced ASUGFORWARD, a virtual, week-long event where attendees can learn, exchange ideas, and gain practical knowledge they can put into practice immediately. We designed the programming for SAP customers with the guidance and advice of actual SAP customers. I hope you'll join us in June. Wherever you may be at the time, we have a place for you to hear some straight talk and learn from other organizations just like yours.

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