SAP Looks to Reinvent Itself with Social Media, Collaboration Capabilities

For 40 years, the German software maker SAP AG has built steady, reliable if not particularly user-friendly enterprise applications based around core business processes. The classic example is SAP’s ERP suite, which dutifully ticks all the business process boxes: materials management, order fulfillment, sales and operations planning, etc.

But the world has changed over the last four decades, not least in terms of how people communicate with one another. Today, social media and social networking technology is central to our personal lives. We tap Facebook to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family. Twitter keeps us connected to events happening around the world in real-time. Foursquare allows us to share our whereabouts with close relations and strangers alike.

Despite some initial hits-and-misses (e.g. Yammer), social media and collaboration techniques are migrating to the enterprise and will become central to the way people communicate and share ideas at work as well as at home. Enterprise application vendors are increasingly integrating social collaboration features initially developed in the consumer space into their products. SAP must do the same if they are to stay competitive and relevant.

Applications That Stress People Not Processes

Social media is inherently people, not process, centric. In other words, it’s exactly what SAP is not. SAP must change its approach to enterprise applications. Instead of building applications to mirror business processes as SAP has done its entire history, it must shift to a people-centric application development model. That means building applications that allow workers to collaborate with one another how, when and where they choose to foster innovative thinking and informed decision-making.

According to Co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe’s keynote at SAPPHIRE 2011, that’s exactly what SAP is doing.

The company introduced a collaboration platform called StreamWorks just over a year ago, and recently released an enterprise version of the cloud-based offering. And last month at SAPPHIRE, SAP unveiled Sales OnDemand, a collaboration tool based on StreamWorks designed specifically for sales pros.

StreamWorks is essentially a virtual meeting space where workers engaged in a common task can communicate with each other. It allows workers to integrate data and analytics from other SAP enterprise applications – like CRM and ERP apps – in order to collectively brainstorm ideas and make business decisions. The platform keeps a detailed history of all interactions so management can easily review how a particular decision was made.

The platform incorporates a number of Facebook-like features, including the ability to start discussions, make comments, and run quick polls. It is currently available in three editions – basic, professional, and enterprise – and is delivered on-demand. The enterprise edition runs Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 operating system and includes a virtual appliance installed behind the firewall for administrative controls.

(SAP StreamWorks Demo via YouTube)

StreamWorks a Necessary First Step for SAP

Just acknowledging that it must embrace social media and collaborative decision-making was a requisite first step for SAP to stay relevant, and it has accomplished this with StreamWorks. The platform itself is underwhelming, however, and SAP needs to go further and go faster towards embracing a truly collaborative enterprise environment.

On the plus side, the platform includes the standard social networking features that users expect and are necessary to spur adoption. The virtual agent included in the enterprise edition will also make IT more comfortable, giving it the security and administrative controls it wants before letting a new platform into the enterprise, even one hosted in the cloud.

But StreamWorks is a stand-alone platform. Experience has shown that users are reluctant to open a separate tool to supplement their core business functions. Workers that do most of their work inside a CRM app, for example, are unlikely to stop what they are doing, open StreamWorks, identify the particular project they are interested in and begin communicating with coworkers. They’re more likely to just send an email or wait until they run into a colleague in the break-room.

SAP needs to integrate collaboration tools like StreamWorks directly into its enterprise applications to make them more useful to workers. A StreamWorks widget imbedded in the CRM app’s user interface, for example, might allow workers to initiate a chat or review previous discussions around a particular project without the need to open a separate collaboration platform. The key is to make collaborating with colleagues a seamless extension of how workers already go about their daily tasks.

This will be no easy job for SAP. Its enterprise applications are the result of decades of incremental development. Integrating social media and collaboration features into them will require a significant rethinking of how SAP builds applications. Creating attractive user interfaces is not a strong suit for SAP either. But if collaboration tools are not visually inviting and easy to use, as well as integrated into enterprise applications themselves, workers will ignore them.

SAP should be commended for recognizing the important role collaboration capabilities are and will continue to play in the enterprise application space. But it will not be an easy transition for a company that has been building applications around business processes, not people, since the Nixon administration. StreamWorks is hopefully just the beginning of SAP’s embrace of social media and a culture of collaboration.



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