Sapphire '97: Users content, if SAP delivers on promises

What are customers saying about SAP's recent initiative to make implementation easier?

By Torsten Busse, IDG News Service

September  1997
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Orlando, FL (August 28, 1997) -- "The only thing that counts at SAP is a happy customer in production [with R/3 software]," said Hasso Plattner, co-founder of SAP AG in his keynote speech at the company's annual user conference held here this week.

And for the most part, users of the company's R/3 high-end applications suite appear happy with SAP and its software.

Although users do find the company's terminology somewhat hard to digest, long R/3 installation times have less to do with the technology and more to do with the people implementing the systems, conference attendees said.

SAP's new component strategy that the company will adopt for R/3 version 4.0 due out next year, is being well received by customers -- provided SAP delivers what it promises, users said.

Many users of SAP's R/3 enterprise resource planning software said they found themselves agreeing with the gist of business reengineering guru Michael Hammer's keynote speech, given here Tuesday. Hammer said that using SAP's R/3 software forces companies to rethink the way they do business -- an often painful process resisted by many employees and management.

Most users interviewed here this week said SAP's recent investments in training, education, tools, and services -- a broad initiative now marketed by SAP under the "TeamSAP" logo -- are helping make R/3 implementations easier.

"The process outside of the system, the process of business redesign is still very difficult," said Bill Flaherty, a business analyst with paper maker Fort James Corp. of Richmond, VA. "People have a hard time getting out of the 'But we do it this way' mentality."

"People are afraid of change," said Davi Moraes, CIO at the Brazilian subsidiary of chemicals and pharmaceutical manufacturer Bayer S.A. in Sao Paulo. "And when people have a stomach ache because they are afraid, it's hard to tell them R/3 is the best software in the world."

Once R/3 is actually installed however -- a task Moraes said he found easy to accomplish -- users are easily convinced, he said. "Their work becomes easier and they see more functionality."

But not all users agreed that the R/3 installation process is only a matter of the people implementing the software and their perceptions of its ease or difficulty.

"To a degree it is still technology," said Shahid Malik, computer applications analyst at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. of Lincoln, NE.

If a major customer such as car manufacturer Chrysler Corp. asks the tiremaker to meet certain requirements with its electronic data interchange (EDI) system, Goodyear has no choice, but to make the modifications, Malik said. "And that isn't easy to do with R/3."

SAP's strategy announced last year to break R/3 into several integrated, but separately maintained modules -- using a component model to make changes and additions to the system -- should make the upgrade process easier, users said. In the past, wholesale R/3 systemwide upgrades meant boosting functionality in one area of the system, while other end users within the company gained little or nothing, making it difficult at times to really justify systemwide upgrades, several users said.


R/3 users mostly optimistic about the future
SAP's component model due to be delivered with R/3 4.0, will make it possible for users to upgrade only parts of the system without disruption to overall production. SAP officials also said users will be able to run both R/3 versions 3.x and 4.0 together. In theory, such promises from the vendor sound good to most users.

"As long as they keep the integration," Fort James's Flaherty said. "That's what you buy R/3 for."

Other users have a let's-wait-and-see attitude about SAP's commitments to future products.

"[It] sounds great if it works," said Goodyear's Malik. "But I believe it when I see it."

Long-time R/3 user, Reid Andrews, information technology manager at chemicals maker Stanchem Inc. of Ontario, Canada, was more optimistic about the future. "In my many years working with SAP's software I learned that if they promise something, they will deliver," he said.

Fort James Corp. which just completed a two and a half year installation of R/3 2.2E, is now facing the difficult decision of what to do next. Should the company go straight to version 3.x of R/3 or wait for upcoming version 4.0 which will ship next year, Flaherty wonders. "That's a big issue for us and it is hard to decide."

SAP terminology still hard to digest
Although SAP has invested a lot of money into building up its information network, some users still have difficulty following the company's homegrown terminology for their products and technologies.

"SAP isn't easy to understand," said Bayer's Moraes. "You have to rethink a lot of things you already know."

"It's somewhat confusing," said Kevin Smith, manager of requirements planning and manufacturing systems at Cessna Aircraft Co. of Wichita, KS. "You have to ask the right questions."

SAP officials do acknowledge that R/3 terminology isn't easy to understand.

"You get several SAP people in one room and ask them for a definition of ALE [applications link enabling], and you'll get several long answers," said SAP board member Claus Heinrich. "If users don't understand what we are saying then that is our fault. Then we aren't doing a good job communicating."


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