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The SAP Run Better Tour made its stop in Cleveland, Ohio yesterday as part of the whirlwind tour of a number of cities in North America.  I was fortunate enough to get away from the office to attend the all-day event.  Now, the Cleveland stop didn’t have as much glitter, glamour and big names of, say, the New York or Boston stops on the tour, but we here in Cleveland are used to playing second fiddle to the more major cities and are just happy to land a spot on the tour.  Although hearing from Lou Meshulam, SAP Regional VP, that the Cleveland metro area has the second most customers in the US Midwest region (behind Chicago) likely explains why we landed a spot on the tour.  I was honestly surprised to learn that there are 220 companies in the Cleveland area that are running SAP, but more surprised by the lack of ASUG membership within those in the room (I’d say that less than 50% of those in the room, based on the show of hands when asked).

The main keynote was delivered by Diane Fanelli, who touched on a number of topics, but focused mainly on how SAP can help customers achieve a competitive advantage.  Diane started the keynote by mentioning her affinity for Cleveland and specifically mentioned a few customers, including my own company Forest City Enterprises.  The personalization at the beginning of the presentation was a nice touch and made me feel like our company was on SAP’s radar, when there are times when I wonder if any executives there know who we are given that we’re an average-sized company and a non-brand recognizable name.

Seeing that the Run Better Tour is geared more towards the business side of the house rather than the technical side, I thought I’d discuss the general themes of the event from a business perspective.

Keynote address

The bottom-line for the keynote was that the business world is evolving rapidly and encountering issues such as an ever-informed customer base who uses the internet and other sources like social media to do research before purchasing a product.  Companies need to stay focused on maintaining a competitive advantage by focusing on 4 key areas: 1) Customer intimacy, 2) Category renewal, 3) Product leadership and 4) Operational excellence and that SAP can help them achieve this competitive advantage based on its size and experience.  Diane also highlighted SAP’s acquisitions of Business Objects and Sybase as ways that they are able to quickly bring value to customers in the areas of business analytics and mobility.

Business Analytics

If you haven’t heard of business intelligence or business analytics, you’ve basically had your head buried in the sand for the past few years (or longer).  The focus here was that business folks need to understand their business and where is makes sense to implement tools/write reports that will add value to help make better business decisions and make those decisions with confidence that the underlying data is correct.  This is a classic case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – your business analytics are only as good as the processes and systems that create the data that shows up in the reports and dashboards that are being used.  By taking a business process approach to ensuring clean data, it allows business leaders to act boldly and instantly as soon as reports and dashboards are reviewed.  Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, SAP BusinessObjects suite of products covers just about everything you need for your BI program.

Mobility

One of the three anchors of SAP’s Innovation Without Disruption initiative is to be On Device, which is essentially enabling mobility.  In a world where there are more cell phones (5 billion) than toothbrushes (2.2 billion) and an ever growing percentage of those cell phones being smartphones, enabling mobility is a must for virtually every organization.  But, before you rush off to have your IT department start creating Apps, you’ll want to make sure that they have a clear mobile strategy.  The requirements of a mobile user are fairly simple: make it easy to use on my device of choice.  Comparatively,  the enterprise requirements are a little more complex: it needs to be secure, needs to be able to run on multiple devices, built with tools that are easy to use/familiar and needs to have diversity with regards to accessing the back end systems.  The Sybase Unwired Platform and Afaria can help to more easily meet the enterprise requirements, but the basic tenet is ‘just because we can create an App, doesn’t mean that we should’.  You should definitely think twice before enabling a mission-critical process as your first venture into the mobile application, so use cases for mobility right now seem to be focused on providing business analytics and processing workflows.

In-Memory/HANA

By now, you may have heard of HANA, SAP’s High-Performance Analytical Appliance.  A lot of good discussion is going on in the SAP Ecosystem right now on this solution and the use cases are still being formulated, but what you need to know from a finance perspective is that it helps to speed up reporting…drastically.  By storing data ‘in memory’, it is more quickly retrieved in reporting – in some test cases, up to several hundred times faster.  In the future, your Business Suite will be able to run on top of HANA, allowing for real-time analysis of operational data.  In the meantime, SAP has announced the first series of applications that will run on top of HANA.

Finance-Specific Sessions

There were several sessions in the afternoon that dealt directly with Finance operations, but the prevailing premise was becoming more agile through automation and standardization.  Discussed were the new pressures on Finance while operating in the “New Normal”: ensuring regulatory compliance, outperforming stakeholder expectations and delivering superior service at a reduced cost.  Being able to close the books quickly and still maintain integrity of regulatory requirements sends a good message to the investing community that your company has things squared-away and SAP enables this through its Closing Cockpit and Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) solutions.  EPM solutions such as Strategy Management help you to outperform expectations by allowing insight into how your company is tracking towards its strategic initiatives and functionality available in Business Planning and Consolidation allows for quick and easy scenario analysis.

One of the statistics presented was that 52% of companies had added an average of 5 days to their close process over the last 5 years due to a number of factors including more complex accounting rules and regulatory requirements.  A number of common issues with closing the books were presented such as manual journal entries, intercompany reconciliations, manualdata submissions, a lack of audit trails and manual elimination entries.  I was surprised by the fact that these were listed as ‘common’ close issues as they seemed very manual in nature and automated consolidation systems have been available for quite some time.  When I asked how prevalent these issues were in terms of the percentage of companies who encounter these issues, the speaker didn’t have that information available.

One key differentiator in SAP’s EPM offerings from those of its competitors is the ability to perform risk-adjusted planning by leveraging SAP’s Governance Risk and Compliance solutions.  This concept allows companies to assess its potential pitfalls and impact the underlying results based on the likelihood of such risk events happening.  By doing so, it allows companies to prepare for the worst just in case things don’t necessarily go according to plan.  This, to me, is an interesting concept and one that I think many finance executives would be interested in, but I’d like to see how this actually works in a system because I’m really curious as to how to make this happen.

In summary, it was a great event and provided me with the opportunity to network with companies that are in my own backyard as well as pick up a number of takeaways.  I’d also like to thank Diane Fanelli for setting aside some time for me and a few other fellow bloggers and an SAP Mentor after her keynote speech – it was great to bounce some questions off of her to gain some added insight!

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