SAP Launches Strategic Division: SMB Solutions Group

Yesterday a press release from SAP crossed the wire announcing a new division focusing on small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Here, SMB is defined as companies with fewer than 500 employees and is a subset of SAP’s traditional view of small to midsize enterprise (SMEs). This appears to be another step in the larger plan to make everything about SAP simpler. It is no secret in the industry that smaller companies can easily be intimidated by the likes of an SAP, or (in all fairness) any company of its size and dominance. While many smaller customers take refuge behind their first line of support, SAP’s channel partners, the presence of the giant behemoth behind those partners looms large.

At this point this is largely an organizational change. Dean Mansfield will head up the new division. Dean is an industry veteran, perhaps best known in the market for his senior leadership position at SaaS ERP provider, NetSuite. But, although he is an industry veteran with a career that spans more than 20 years, he is a relative newcomer to SAP, having joined last October. He is based in Hong Kong. But if this were just an organizational announcement, it would probably elicit a big yawn. I see it as more than that, largely because of the strategy behind it.

SAP’s board is putting in place a strategy to “redefine the SMB business solutions market by creating the next generation of simplified business applications powered by SAP HANA, delivered via the cloud that will solve tomorrow’s complex SMB challenges.” That’s a mouthful. But if you look below the surface, you find several, wide-reaching implications.

First of all it is a bold and perhaps presumptive statement. In “redefining” a whole market of business solutions by creating next generation, simplified applications, it seems to imply that all business solutions targeting SMBs need to be simplified. I think this is a gross over-simplification in of itself. Not all products in this market are overly complex. In fact I am not even sure I would call SAP Business One overly complex. If Business One has a weakness, and of course all business software does, it might be in some of the gaps that remain in functionality. After all, it’s not on par with the SAP Business Suite in terms of features and functions…or complexity. The complexity with SAP is more about having a diverse product portfolio. And SAP could certainly benefit from simplifying the selling and consumption of the software. So simplification extends beyond software products, and I think SAP gets that.

But there is a product element to the announcement. This strategy seems to imply that the SMB Solutions Group will be developing a brand new product. SAP has made it very clear that it is not making a new product announcement; it is announcing a strategic division focused on defining what is needed in the future. But the implication certainly is that a (new?) simplified product is needed. I can see why SAP doesn’t want to construe this as a new product at this point in time, because it could very well be that it takes one of its existing products and transforms it into this new generation of simplified, integrated business applications. The simple truth is, SAP has not made any firm decisions yet as to direction and roadmap, and wants to leave all its options open. That is fine for now, but with this announcement, the pressure will be on to better define this strategy.

A couple of things are certain though. Whatever direction SAP decides to go in, it will involve HANA and it will be delivered via the cloud. This might lead you to believe that SAP will leverage its existing products to the fullest in order to bring a solution to market faster and more cost effectively (for SAP). This is exactly what the market would expect an SAP, or any other dominant player with a huge portfolio, to do. That and a bigger development budget than its competitors give SAP an edge. But that is not the stated direction.

Instead, SAP has a stated intention of doing what makes the most sense in meeting the needs of the customer, rather than looking first to leverage prior investments in other product lines, both in terms of core ERP and those “edge” products that might surround it. Why (possibly) create a whole new product from scratch when you have so much component inventory on your shelves? The answer is, because it is a cleaner and simpler solution for the customer. Remember, the overriding goal is to simplify.

On the one hand, it is refreshing to hear SAP express this as an objective, but on the other hand, you have to feel a bit of déjà vu here. Isn’t that what it intended to do with Business ByDesign? The whole reason SAP started from scratch in writing Business ByDesign was to reduce the level of complexity that becomes inherent in a solution that starts out as a large enterprise solution, and grows more complex through evolution.

While many love to attack ByDesign as a “failed” product, I would caution both industry observers and competitors against labeling ByDesign as a failure. No, it has not met a lot of the lofty goals originally bandied about, like 10,000 customers. No, SAP has not sold that many subscriptions, but SAP can boast more ByDesign customers than some of its smaller competitors claim as their entire customer base. Of course everyone has their own personal definition of success and failure, but I would still propose that the rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated. That said, if you harken back to the goal of this new redefinition of the SMB market to simplify the offering, it certainly has a very familiar ring to it.

Will this effort be more successful? I believe it will be, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is supported by a rather dramatic organizational change, which is driven by a new strategy. But probably more importantly is another consideration not immediately visible from the press release. Some of us in the analyst community had the opportunity to meet Dean both in person and virtually, and it was through these meetings that it became clear there was another change afoot. While product strategy at SAP in the past has always been driven by a technology focus, this new organization will have more of a business focus and will be guided and driven by business needs. To some, this might seem a minor point, but I think this could stack the deck heavily towards the new division being more successful than prior efforts.

HANA is a prime example. Yes, it was/is new and groundbreaking, some might even call it game-changing. But it was inspired by technology and created by technologists. And when it first came to market, it was incredibly elegant technology in search of a business problem. While this might go over well in the large enterprise, that is not how SMBs make decisions or acquire business solutions. Even Business ByDesign was driven largely by the development organization working with a few charter customers.

This new team understands that it is not selling IT. Technology is part of the solution and critical to the success, but first and foremost, it is selling a business solution. While simplicity is the goal, this team understands, the business needs of the SMB may not be simple. In fact complexity has a way of creeping up on SMBs over time, particularly as expectations are elevated by consumer technology. SAP wants to help fix that. Its goal is to deliver a solution that can satisfy those needs and can be implemented and deployed in a modular fashion, adding new pieces as needs evolve or budget becomes available.

While this team might not have all the answers today, it is being thorough and methodical in evaluating all the different possible avenues to meeting the goal of redefining the SMB business solution market. But now that the cat is out of the bag, the pressure is on for them to come up with a more specific product strategy and roadmap. The clock is ticking.

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