Friday Rant: A Modern Paris Gun? Preparing for a Potential SAP Innovation Assault (Part 1)

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.

- Jason Busch

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Voices (3)

  1. Thomas:

    @eSourcingSensei – we’ll get to the latest in their sourcing offering – SAPPHIRE was a great opportunity to understand their broader suite better – and the substantial innovation taking place in their surrounding tool set was quite interesting – check this piece if you missed it:–HANA-Procurement-and-More

    I should add that when you’re at SAPPHIRE, the "typical" supply chain and procurement tools that we normally review and engage around here at Spend Matters, obviously only makes up a small portion of the SAP solution set. I think that you need to look at the whole to get a feel for where they’re going – which is what I tried to do in my post.

    How much materializes, and how much is drowned by the bureaucratic inertia present in large organizations remains to be seen.

  2. Jason Busch:

    I don’t think we’ve mentioned their sourcing product once in our write-ups this week. Yes, we would agree that that much of the market is ahead at this point (related to SAP’s sourcing toolset) in both depth and usability … it’s the new stuff that is a step ahead outside of sourcing from a vision and innovation standpoint. Of course we’ll all need to see proof points, references, etc. to see this innovation is being translated into action. But the seed is more than planted …

    Thanks for chiming in.

  3. eSourcingSensei:

    Hello Jason

    When you come to report further on SAP’s developments particularly for eSourcing, it would be good to set a foundation in place for where they are developing from, in other words, maybe from customers viewpoint what it is they currently deliver or dont deliver.

    This would include some of the existing failings in their technology that are far from being resolved and does not appear in the next two releases and therefore whislt I impressed with your observations about their advanced thinking, the timing on delivery may mean that they still remain some way behind the game.

    I have viewed other technology that is years ahead of current SAP offerings so rather than being bullish about the prospects of them becoming the lead in that market, I remain cautiously optimistic that with the right thought leadership insight and customer interaction they may come up to the same or similar level as competition.

    I am afraid that I do not share your current optimism for market domination by SAP.

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