Two members of the Spend Matters team had an exceedingly booked and intensive time at Sapphire this past week. Between the two of us, Thomas Kase and I probably saw a dozen demonstrations, had over twenty formal meetings with SAP team members and partners and spoke informally to over two dozen more customers, SAP solution managers and partners. Even by our usual hectic standards, it really was a completely packed and chaotic few days of learning and interaction. In the coming weeks, we'll continue to share our learnings about SAP's latest procurement, network and supply chain direction -- digging into current and planned product releases as well as new solutions and overall market and solution directions (you can read our initial dispatches here, here, here, here, and here).
Somewhat ironically, on a late night flight back from Orlando, I was reading a good book spanning the history of World War: Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars. In it, I was struck by a passage that could be apropos to what SAP may have up its sleeve -- even though the right hand might not always be talking to the left -- in the procurement and supply chain business applications, cloud and mobile arenas:
The German advance [Spring and Summer of 1918] brought another new and terrifying weapon into the war, the first sign of which came two days after the offensive began, when Parisians were startled by a succession of massive explosions, each about 20 minutes apart ... as buildings collapsed... people on the street rushed for shelter – but it was unclear what they were sheltering from, for the Germans were some 70 miles away, and there were no airplanes in the clear blue sky. It took several hours and a sharp-eyed French military aviator to discover Paris was being bombarded by specially manufactured guns mounted on railway cars, their barrels more than 100 feet long. It took about three minutes for each giant shell to cover the distance to the city, climbing to an altitude of 25 miles at the top of its trajectory ... [the] gunners, in calculating where their shells would land, had to take into account the rotation of the Earth.
What German ingenuity accomplished from a foundry and machining standpoint in building what became known as the Paris Gun (a giant gun with a machined barrel built to extraordinarily exacting mechanical standards nearly 100 years ago) was nothing short of astonishing. And even though it had to take many years to go from ideation to the railcars where they were mounted, the Paris Gun was a very successful psychological and tactical weapon. An amazing feat of innovation -- while soon outmoded by rockets and longer-range aircraft -- that foreshadowed an evolving creative and engineering prowess that enabled a politically crushed world power at the Treaty of Versailles to recover with astonishing speed and superior equipment by the start of WWII.
The assault SAP could be preparing at the moment for Ariba and others -- while as innovative as the 100 foot gun from 1917 -- is a constructive gung ho weapon to enable innovation, not destruction. The key will be for SAP to mobilize its forces to truly combine and deliver a predatory blow to competitors and provide customers with much needed advancement in procurement technology. Indeed, we believe that the combination of Supplier InfoNet, Supplier Lifecycle Management, HANA (their speedy in-memory database technology soon to-be-used for Spend Performance and other areas), SRM (including the new UI), a broader network strategy and really cool and radical new apps developed specifically for mobile rather than desktops/notebooks could radically transform this market.
Of course SAP could trip itself up. It often does -- and the internal disconnects that still exist within the organization, along with a lack of aligned go-to-market positioning and thinking across the solution owners, is a shame. In fact, this can be so self-punishing that a court martial would be mute. But there does appear to be a new culture of usability, innovation and network thinking inside SAP that goes far beyond what the bigger competition is thinking these days. There is truly vision here, and the prototypes of this vision are coming fast. Very fast. This is not the SAP we used to know. Not even close.
SAP may be prepared to align their independent solution and development teams with external partners to truly leverage what each group is up to. Regardless, we suspect the initial shells of innovation, even if their trajectory is a bit off, will start to land in opposing camps in the not too distant future, beginning with the InfoNet GA release.
To close our history lesson today, Wikipedia notes "The Paris Gun holds a significant place in the history of astronautics, as its shells were the first man-made objects to reach the stratosphere." Moreover, the allies were so afraid of its potential, the entire concept was banned at the Versailles Treaty.
SAP's competition doesn't have this option. But they can hope that SAP's bumbling gets in the way of what some of the best engineers and solution minds in the business are unleashing from the laboratory. As for us, our money is on the shells themselves -- and the fact that some will undoubtedly reach escape velocity and change the overall climate for good as they enter the procurement and supply chain atmosphere.