I thought it would be nothing more than reasonable to share some takeaways with you from the European SAP TechEd ’06 conference which is currently being held in Amsterdam. The TechEd has this typical SAP-style flavour of being, let’s say very elaborately organised. That includes a massive plug & play event infrastructure, which is obviously rebuild many times a year across the world to transform venues into genuine SAP conference buildings. The title of this year’s TechEd is ‘Empowering an Ecosystem of Innovation’ and I guess you will agree it contains all the politically correct words you can possibly imagine in 2006, except maybe for ‘an inconvenient truth’ (but that’s off-topic).

Here’s some of my first takeaways:
1. SAP’s president of technology and products Shai Aggasi delivered his keynote to an audience of developers and specialists in a sharp suit and a tie. He did a similar speech at Sapphire Paris a few months ago – addressing mainly business people – wearing all black, including a mock turtleneck. Probably got him confused too much with Larry Ellison, which must have been an unbearable thought. On the other hand, SAP is clearly not obsessed with the competition.
2. Shai described a 4-layered approach to creating success with his product stack, which should link simplicity to innovation. The first layer (Solidifying the foundation) emphasises on consolidation of the applications infrastructure, bringing the organisation’s SAP skills up to date and getting your act together on the corporate data through master data management. Although particularly the last concept is quite relevant (here’s a recent discussion on it’s importance), Shai seemed utterly premature in his claim that ‘you probably have taken care of this by now, otherwise you’re simply lagging behind’. Smart marketing, admitted. But the truth is that most organisations are still in the process of discovering MDM and SAP’s technology is very, very new indeed: it’s acquisition of A2i – instrumental to the MDM product strategy – was only two years ago. That’s virtually nothing in SAP’s idea of a product life cycle.
3. And that brings us to the second layer: modernise the core. Agassi quoted an awfully familiar sounding CIO ( ‘You can touch my core systems twice every decade, and preferably only on Saturday morning between 7am and 8am’) and a CEO with a slightly different vision (‘I want innovations a least every quarter’). Not surprisingly, Shai suggested to implement the newest version of MySAP (ERP 2005), which will be stable and relatively untouched until at least 2010. But at the same time, he announced a continuous flow of enhancement packages that will be delivered every 6 months. These packages may contain new services, composite applications and technology enhancements that will help to further optimise processes and systems without disturbing the core functionality. Not even on Saturdays.
4. The third layer (optimise business usage) gave the speaker the opportunity to show off some of the newer incarnations of an omnipresent SAP, all intended to thrill the end-users of the software. And make no mistake: that old, dreadful SAP GUI certainly doesn’t do a good job in exciting its users. Nice is of course the collaboration with Microsoft which lead to the DUET interface to Outlook (Capgemini was by the way the very first integrator to pilot it, with a Dutch utility company), but also interesting is the way SAP looks through interfaces such as RSS, the new Muse ‘business browser’, business intelligence dashboards and Adobe’s interactive forms. For that matter, you can even use widgets on Apple OS X, although of course very few insane desktop publishers will consider using SAP in the first place.
5. The fourth layer is all about innovation, obviously. By that time, Agassi was approaching the end of his keynote and he clearly didn’t pay enough attention to the subject. Or maybe he just hasn’t established the proper vision already: I’m sure simply having Chief Process Innovation Officers inside the organisation won’t do the job. Real innovations always ‘happen elsewhere’, somewhere in the twilight zone between companies, their clients, partners and competitors. Companies that succeed in mashing-up their services with services from elsewhere are on the right track to create new value through innovative products and new routes to the market. So typically, the real innovators are the business entrepreneurs at the market-facing edges of the organisation. They should be busy creating new business, not innovating processes.
Many more interesting things can be told about the SAP TechEd ’06 (including a discussion on the overemphasis on Java, the dynamics of a quickly growing business process expert community and SAP’s adoption of Enterprise Architecture). And you never know what the next two days will bring. So I’m bound to dedicate a few additional blog lines to all of this, somewhere in the next few days. We’ll let you know through your favourite RSS feed.