SAP's Struggle to Operate in a Frontier Environment

Colin Boyd, VP-IT & CIO, Johnson Controls
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Colin Boyd, VP-IT & CIO, Johnson Controls

The number of “cool” IT technology solutions has been increasing at an exponential rate in recent years. Looking back at the early years of IT, say 1960 to 1990, data processing technology was centralized in the hands of a “few high priests of IT”, and networks were very rudimentary. But all this changed with the advent of the Personal Computer which put data processing in the hands of the user. This revolution was followed by a networking revolution enabled by the Internet, and now a mobile revolution enabled by the new generations of smartphones. Cool technology solutions are still happening within corporate datacenters, but for the users, cool technology is all about PCs, smartphones and the Internet, and the near endless possibilities that they offer.

"Users will always be more excited by new smartphones, new tablets, and new internet applications, but not by new ERP applications"

Ironically, the ability to offer cool technology solutions to many users requires well planned and well executed IT infrastructures. For example, the automatic provisioning of software upgrades to perhaps 100,000 PCs and 100,000 smartphones is not an easy task, and it has become a thankless task, since it is largely invisible to the user—until it goes wrong! IT has been divided into two categories: firstly the majority of IT work has been relegated to an expectation that it will “just work “ i.e. water coming out of a tap, a light switch switching on a light, e-mails arriving in the inbox; and then secondly “the cool stuff”. But with the Gen Y generation now firmly entrenched in the workforce, what is cool technology today will very rapidly transition into the mundane category.

Any ERP such as SAP will struggle to be cool. Users will always be more excited by new smartphones, new tablets, and new internet applications, but not by new ERP applications. SAP is designed to be the integration across an enterprise i.e. connecting processes, running transactions, and enabling the flow of information within an organization. Given its size and scope, SAP cannot operate in a “frontier environment”. But it can enable cool technology at the frontier. Businesses and technology are constantly evolving, but there are common themes. Constant increases in productivity are needed to survive and this means mobile platforms are essential, and everything has to be done faster.

The best approach is to use smaller and more agile IT platforms to rapidly build and deliver new and cool technology for users. These platforms will probably be cloud based, Internet provided, and designed with a “mobile first” philosophy. The goal should be to put as much, fast moving and cool technology in the hands of users and customers, as possible. But at the same time, large companies need to continue to invest in ERP platforms to provide the necessary back office efficiencies and integration. The back office platforms need to strive for 100 percent availability and their success is measured in terms of invisibility as opposed to level of coolness.

Creating an overall IT environment where stable and secure ERP platforms can co-exist with fast changing cool technology solutions, and where workflow that supports business speed and agility spans both fast changing front office applications and stable ERP applications, will be a major challenge for CIOs in the coming years. We will never be able to say “all is fine”.

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