real-time

SAP Business Suite on HANA: Software that Reinvents Business. Reinvented.

Really? Yes, Really!

On January 10, 2013 SAP announced the availability of SAP Business Suite powered by SAP HANA, a new option for SAP Business Suite customers and an opportunity for SAP to deliver “transformative innovation without disruption.” That’s a mouthful, but one that has the employees at SAP super excited. While the announcement was well-received and the audience seemed to like what it heard, this group of IT influencers didn’t seem to exhibit that same level of excitement. But influencers can be a jaded bunch. All too often as you start to dig deeper you find the story just isn’t all that new or different. In this case I believe the tables will be turned. As influencers and SAP customers alike begin to explore and understand the new and very real possibilities, what first appeared to be just “interesting” will truly become exciting. And there is no limit to those opportunities to innovate.

The HANA Story: What It Means to Business

Part of the reluctance to “feel the excitement” might stem from the fact that we’ve been hearing about HANA for a few years now. Six years ago Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP and Chairman of its Supervisory Board, had a vision of what the system of the future would look like. That vision included:

  • All active data must be in memory. In Hasso’s words, he wanted to “get rid of the rusty spinning disk.”
  • Full exploitation of massively parallel processing (MPP) in order to efficiently support more users
  • The same database used for online transaction processing (OLTP) and analytics, eliminating the need for a data warehouse as a reporting tool for OLTP to support live conversations rather than “prefabricated briefing books”
  • Radically simplified data models
  • Aggressive use of math
  • Use of design thinking throughout the model

But such a vision obviously took time to deliver, so for the first few years the world heard about this transformative technology, but couldn’t touch, feel or see it. In 2011 we started to see some results as HANA for analytics became a reality and pioneering companies began to see performance improvements previously unheard of in terms of speed and the ability to handle massive volumes of data.

In 2012 it became real as SAP released HANA as a platform for developers. But the vision was still one of powerful technology and much of the talk over the past six years has been presented in very technical terms. “Here is this super technology; let’s work together to find ways to use it.” That’s not necessarily how business executives and non-technical decision-makers think. Instead they think in terms of business problems. “I have this problem. How are you going to help me solve it?”

While the ability to “support live conversations” and efficiently “handle more users” might resonate with a business executive, these messages were often over-shadowed. Business executives don’t necessarily perceive the value of eliminating disks, simplifying data models or using math. They don’t know what MPP is or design thinking.

So now, with this announcement, SAP is trying hard to change the conversation to be less about the technology and more about the business value.  What is the real value? In the words of one early adopter: HANA solves problems that were deemed unsolvable in the past.

It is in uncovering these types of solvable business problems that the excitement will build. As Dr. Vishal Sikka, member of the SAP Executive Board, Technology and Innovation said, “Now the software at the heart of thousands of the world’s best-run companies can work and think as fast as our imagination.” But many business executives simply don’t have the same kind of creative imagination as a Vishal Sikka or a Hasso Plattner.

SAP Business Suite might be reinvented on HANA but how does that help customers reinvent their businesses? The trick will be in unleashing their imaginations and helping them see the possibilities. Yet in its attempt to make the message universal and relevant at the highest levels of its customers’ organizations SAP often introduces a level of abstraction that is lost on its audience. So we need to translate some of these high level messages into something that might be a little more concrete.

Becoming a real-time business

SAP’s brochure says, “Becoming a real-time business requires managing daily business transactions of your core business processes in real time, such as finance, sales and production – and as well, to capture data from new sources like social media, mobile apps or machine sensors.” However, how many enterprises today have a stated goal of “becoming a real-time business?” They don’t. They have goals such as growing revenue or reducing costs to improve profits. They may or may not be able to connect the dots between those goals and collecting and analyzing data in real time.

For those dealing directly, or even one step removed from an actual consumer or consumer product, the value of data from social media and/or mobile apps might be intuitive. For these companies, their brand is of paramount importance and they take great risk in ignoring social media or opportunities to connect directly with potential customers through mobile devices. So adding this dimension to the decision-making process should be well-received once you get the customer to think in those terms.

For manufacturers of industrial products… not so much. The world is changing, but slowly. It is entirely possible for them to think “social” isn’t business; it is something someone does on their personal time. And mobile devices are what their kids use to text their friends, play games and listen to music. For those same manufacturers, machine sensors and automated data collection (ADC) devices may have been on shop floors for many years. Those sensors and devices may in fact have the ability to shut down a line of production before bad product is produced. But can the data be effectively analyzed in order to improve products and processes? It is very possible that vast quantities of collected data have been underutilized for years, for one simple reason – there is just too much of it. And because it is collected continuously and automatically, it is constantly in a state of flux.

That thought actually brings to mind a parallel in history that dates back to the 1970’s.

Will HANA Bring to IT what MRP brought to Manufacturing?

The business world hasn’t seen something with this kind of potential impact emerge on the market since the introduction of MRP in the 1970’s. Those outside of the world of manufacturing might not appreciate the real significance MRP had, but there are a lot of parallels between the potential for HANA and the automation of the planning process that MRP brought about.

In a nutshell, MRP (material requirements planning) takes a combination of actual and forecasted demand and cascades it through bills of material, netting exploded demand against existing inventory and planned receipts. The result is a plan that includes the release of purchase orders and shop orders and reschedule messages. While the concept might be simple enough, these bills of material could be many layers deep and encompass hundreds or even thousands of component parts and subassemblies. Without automated MRP there is simply too much data and complexity for a human to possibly work with.

As a result, prior to MRP, other ways of managing inventory became commonplace. You had simple reorder points. Once inventory got below a certain point, you bought some more, whether you actually needed it or not. You also had safety stock as a buffer, and the “two bin” system was quite prevalent. When one bin was empty, you switched to the other and ordered more. These simplistic methods may have been effective in some environments, but the net result was the risk of inflated inventory while still experiencing stock outs. You had lots of inventory, just not what the customer wanted, when it wanted it. And planners and schedulers still had to figure out when to start production and they knew enough to build a lot of slack time into the schedule. So lead times also became inflated and customer request dates were in jeopardy.

Once MRP entered the picture, these were seen as archaic and imprecise planning methods. Even so, most didn’t rush right out and invest in MRP when it was first introduced. In fact now, decades later, the adoption rates of MRP in manufacturing still sits at about 78%. Why? The existing practices were deemed “good enough” and, after all, that’s the way it had always been done.

It required a paradigm shift to understand the potential of MRP and the planning process executed by MRP was complex. Not everyone intuitively understood it. And if they didn’t really understand, planners were unwilling to relinquish control.

Yet over time, MRP brought a new dimension to material planning. It brought a level of accuracy previously unheard of and helped get inventory and lead times in check. Manufacturers can experience an average of 10% to 20% reduction in inventory and similar improvements in complete and on-time delivery as a result of implementing MRP.

Now with HANA we’re introducing the potential to improve processes, not by 10% to 20% but by several orders of magnitude. But it also requires a paradigm shift.

Manufacturers, as well as other types of companies, are quite accustomed to making decisions from a snapshot of data, usually in report format, possibly through spreadsheets. They have become desensitized to the fact that this snapshot is just that, a picture of the data, frozen in time.

What if you never had to run another report? Instead, whenever you needed a piece of data or an answer to a question, you had immediate and direct access, not to the data as it was at the beginning of the day, or the end of last week, but to the latest data in real time? That’s what Hasso envisions when he talks about “live conversations versus prefabricated briefing books.” But those used to making decisions from those briefing books need to be educated on the possibility of the live conversation.

And, oh, by the way, traditional MRP, a game changer in the 1970’s and 1980’s is in for a major transformation.  Early MRP, and even versions of MRP today took and still take a long time to run and need exclusive use of the data. So it is typically run overnight or over a weekend. Think of the possibilities if it could now run in minutes or even seconds. Is that possible? With HANA, yes.

“Transformative Innovation Without Disruption”

In his opening remarks Hasso introduced the concept of “transformative innovation without disruption.”  In fact innovation was a key driver for John Deere, the early adopter of HANA mentioned previously in the context of solving previously unsolvable problems. Derek Dyer, director, Global SAP Services, Deere and Company outlined three ways in which the company views HANA as a game changer:

  • Bringing new innovation to the business by solving problems deemed unsolvable in the past
  • Simplification of the IT stack while introducing the ability to deal with huge volumes of data
  • Better serving the business by providing real-time access to data for better decisions

John Deere was originally attracted to HANA based on the performance aspects of the platform. The “Wow!” it was seeking was speed. It has had some initial success with its early projects, but sees a new world with ERP now on HANA. It intends to transform itself from a manufacturing company to a solutions based business. An example: It plans to take data from sensors in equipment in the field, determine how the equipment is being used, under what conditions. Not only will the data be real-time, but it will also allow them to answer back to the customer with very personalized, specific answers, and also support better collaboration with suppliers, dealers and customers.

Seeking Innovation

John Deere and other early adopters can provide some examples and perhaps some motivation, but each company will have to discover its own possibilities for changing the game. This is where SAP’s reference to “design thinking” comes into play. It is a protocol for discovering new opportunities and for solving problems.  It starts out with defining the problem. Because these problems might, as John Deere points out, have been previously deemed unsolvable, this step might not be as simple as it sounds. But it is the first critical step in finding that “excitement.” It can also be the most difficult. SAP and its partners can help.

What about Disruption?

The very term “disruption” is a source of controversy these days. Many talk about “disruptive technology” and refer to it as a good thing. But there are different kinds of disruption. A new technology that disrupts the way you think about problems and processes can have a very positive influence. But when new software (for example a new release of ERP) disrupts your business because you can’t ship a product or support your customer, it is definitely a bad thing. Upgrades to software like the SAP Business Suite are often viewed as disruptive in the bad sense, rather than in a good way. This is the kind of disruption SAP is promising to avoid.

Customers can take advantage of the Business Suite on HANA without upgrading their existing Business Suite. Current reports and customizations are preserved, including integration with other applications. And even partial migrations are possible. And there is no forced march now or in the future. SAP remains committed to supporting the customer’s choice of databases, including database technology and vendors. So the choice is left to the customer.

Yes, there is a cost associated with moving the Business Suite to HANA, but pricing for the new database works similarly to pricing for other databases even though the customer will experience huge improvements in speed, including 10 to 1000 times faster analytics.

Key TakeAways

It is clear that a key value proposition for SAP HANA is speed, but the vast possibility for business innovation trumps the value gained for improved performance. But each SAP Business Suite customer will have to identify its own possibilities for innovation. For some these opportunities for innovation may be staring them in the face. Others will have to dig deep into existing processes and identify those problems they have been living with for so long that they might appear to be unsolvable. Once uncovered, ask the very real question, “Can I solve this problem today with HANA?”

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