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Recently I was invited by Eventful Group to facilitate a round table of SAP customers in Melbourne to discuss their perspectives in the world of SAP technology. These round table events involve gathering together around 20 representatives from different SAP customers and industries, and in the course of half a day, teasing out their concerns, challenges and conundrums pertaining to SAP technologies. The Eventful Group cleverly invest in these round tables to help craft the conference agenda for their next SAP technology conference event (which in this case is in March next year in Australia). The idea is to ask as many customers what they want to hear about, what problems they want to solve, and what concerns they want to address – which can be a far cry from what SAP wants to sell them. Think of it as ‘Design Thinking’ for crafting conference agendas. SAP itself is intentionally not represented at these events to ensure it doesn’t become a ‘Sales-fest’. This same process is repeated in other cities and the results painstakingly collated by Eventful Group to derive a prioritised (backlog) list of topics for the conference agenda. It’s this level of investment that helps make the Eventful Group conferences so successful and highly rated.

However this blog isn’t about conferences. It’s about what I learned from the round table which I facilitated. Because something struck me this year …. Compared with the same event five or so years ago, the topics of interest have changed markedly. Whereas five years ago key topics focussed in depth on such things as making the most of Solution Manager, or new features of Web Dynpro ABAP and Floorplan Manager, it felt this year that the participants were grappling with higher level or strategic concerns, such as how to shift SAP workloads to the Cloud, how to shift a team towards Agile / DevOps, and even how to make sense of SAP Licensing (much discussion on this one, but more on that later …). This year Solution Manager (a top ranking topic years ago) didn’t attract any discussion whatsoever.

Eventful Group eventually publish to their website the aggregated and prioritised results across multiple round table events on their website. What I seek to do here however is to elevate a small selection of the questions that were debated with passion at the event I attended, and in some cases adding my own commentary or opinions …

Q: How do you innovate quickly without suffering a big S/4HANA migration?

My Thoughts: This concern talks to the fact that some customers simply don’t have the time, budget, or desire right now to embark on a re-implementation or renewal of their enterprise core foundation. The consensus opinion being that migrating to S/4HANA isn’t a “simple” exercise. Instead some customers have business imperatives to innovate quickly around their existing ECC business suite. For some customers this is fair enough – I’ve seen organisations spend much time and money implementing an enterprise foundation, only to find that after the inevitable cost overruns, little time or money remains to do the cool innovative stuff which consequently gets cut from scope. In that context a strategy to simply jump to the innovation side of things isn’t such a bad idea, if you feel your enterprise core as it currently stands can support your immediate digital initiatives.

Q: How do you accept reduced control with SaaS offerings (eg. SuccessFactors) and at the same time absorb an increased pace of change (regular updates)?

My Thoughts: This is a problem that enterprises in general face, whether it relates to SAP offerings or not. With SaaS offerings, as my son’s kindergarten teacher once said .. “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”. It is a mindset shift however, if customers are used to customisations. This reminds me of another saying that Dennis Howlett once mentioned which speaks to the other side of the coin … “customisations is industrial heroin” – in some cases it might arguably be a good thing that customisations in SaaS are more limited, as it can limit the possibility of unnecessary and costly changes, and force alignment to ‘standard’. Nonetheless, some customers will suffer withdrawal pains from taking on cloud-based software that is less malleable than they had in the past.

Q: How do you make sense of all the different SAP integration offerings now?

My Thoughts: There are a myriad of options for integration which customers need to make sense of. Everything ranging from classic on-premise Process Orchestration, to SCP Cloud Integration, to API management solutions, and so on. Customers at the round table expressed angst that they are simply getting options from SAP, not guidance.

Q: How do you make sense of SAP licensing?

My Thoughts: This was a hotly debated topic, and the general mood about SAP here was less than positive, even though SAP sought to extinguish the angst at SAPPHIRE with announcements around licensing. Some customers are seeking to tackle licensing concerns by purchasing specialised software that automatically audits their SAP usage. I heard that some of these software solutions are quite expensive in their own right, so it speaks to the angst that customers have if they are willing to invest in such solutions. One thing is clear … licensing is one of the topics that is ‘top of mind’ with customers and it was one of the headline topics of discussion – something I’ve never seen previously. It will be interesting to see if Eventful Group manage to persuade an SAP representative at next year’s conference to give a presentation that clarifies licensing. All the customers in the room said such a session would be very well attended. I think the big challenge would be getting an SAP representative willing to deliver it.

Q: How do you use and cement Agile / DevOps practices to support digital transformation programmes? And how do you get traditional teams to work this way?

My Thoughts: It’s interesting that this challenge is now a common theme with many SAP teams at customers. It’s a cultural and mindset shift that some teams will struggle with. Everyone has an opinion on this. Personally I lean to the mindset that any project, however large or long, can benefit from adopting aspects of Agile practices in some shape or form – the business alignment, focus, transparency and team work should always lead to better outcomes. Often project managers that dismiss such practices as being inappropriate for their own project come from a lack of understanding or experience with Agile.

Q: How do you manage a skills shift from being ABAP-centric to including Javascript SAPUI5, WebIDE etc.? How do customers handle the resourcing uplift to support multiple technologies? Should we turn ABAPers into full stack developers – and if so, how do they get there?

My Thoughts: This is not a new challenge for customers. Since the introduction of NetWeaver over a decade ago, SAP technologists have needed to stomach a constant stream of new approaches, techniques, and even languages (remember how Java was going to take over everything?). The big problem however is that whilst SAP is eager to introduce new technologies, it seems very reluctant to remove older ones. Which means your team needs to be capable of implementing and supporting technologies spanning over several decades. I still favour the use of full stack developers at Blue T, but they are getting more difficult to find as more technologies get thrown onto the pile. Right now I spend a session each week (and have done so for months) with my customer’s ABAP team to train them on the use of WebIDE, SAPUI5 and Fiori. The enormity of the task is very clear to me. It’s a challenge every customer will face.

Q: How do you get your ABAP developers to be as cool as your digital developers?

My Thoughts: I’m not sure coolness should be your goal here. Getting them to work together should be your goal. Too often they are separated by physical or organisational barriers. In a Scrum team that I currently work with, we have ABAP and digital developers sitting side by side, and that seems to work well.

Q: How have customers dealt with the increased cost of creating their own custom UX. What is the return on investment?

My Thoughts: Here I am referring to custom solutions using technologies such as SAPUI5 or Fiori for iOS SDK. Custom developing user interfaces goes against the philosophy of many past SAP implementations whereby the customer adopted ‘standard SAP’ on the premise that everything about SAP was ‘best practice’. Customers have since been awakened to the fact that when it comes to user experience, SAP is far from ‘best practice’. Nonetheless, investing in designing and building optimum user experiences for your business users is new to many customers, and certainly they will be seeking a return on investment. I’ve seen some great successes in this area, but also heard of some horror stories. The greatest correlation to success from what I’ve observed is in the expertise and capabilities of the people involved, rather than the technology. Design and UX skills are foreign to traditional SAP teams, and need to be sourced appropriately. Also, SAPUI5 / Fiori development is not yet a commoditised skillset, so it’s important to ensure your consultants have solid experience in this area.

Q: How do you unify user experience across SAP’s myriad solutions (on-premise, Concur, Ariba, SuccessFactors etc.)?

My Thoughts: Customers need to lean on SAP to solve this one. Only SAP can truly solve it. Of course implementing technologies such as Fiori Launchpad as a single entry point can assist, but to achieve a consistent user experience ‘in depth’ across all applications we need SAP to deliver this for us. If there is anything customers can do it is to call out cases where inconsistencies cause angst, either through private or public channels – it can help drive priorities for SAP to fix this.

Q: How do we “Run Simple”?

My Thoughts: I expect this term was born from some SAP internal marketing brainstorming session. And I’d presume the people who invented this term weren’t thinking of customer IT departments. Whilst the SAP marketing team might envisage a swan gliding smoothly across a pond, the customer IT team is probably envisaging the swan’s feet kicking madly below the surface to keep it moving forward. And that pretty much sums it up. Right now there is much complexity faced by IT teams in making sense of and wielding SAP technology to keep their businesses moving forward. It’s ironic that during the session one member lamented that the good old days of having a single R/3 system and single graphical user interface are long gone.

Of course, the thoughts I share here are simply my opinion. Everyone has a different perspective. Feel free to share yours in the comments below.

And special thanks to Carolyn and Kim from the Eventful Group for inviting me to facilitate their Melbourne SAP Tech round table. It’s always an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

John Moy

John Moy

Co-Founder Blue T

John consults in SAP user interface technologies, mobile enablement, and web development technologies. He is a blogger, conference speaker and has authored both iOS and Android apps. He holds a certification in SAP Fiori implementation, and is an SAP Mentor alumnus. Before co-founding Blue T, John previously worked in both consulting and solution architecture roles for companies such as SAP, Ariba and Accenture.