Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
6/22/2007
10:17 AM
David  DeJean
David DeJean
Commentary
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SAP Isn't About Easy; It's About Regimentation

Kimberly-Clark's experience with its three-year, $100 million SAP rollout -- plus $17 million for user training -- is hardly big news. But it underscores something I've thought for a long time: the decision to move to SAP has little or nothing to do with making it easier for employees to perform better in the real world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with B-school egghead theories

Kimberly-Clark's experience with its three-year, $100 million SAP rollout -- plus $17 million for user training -- is hardly big news. But it underscores something I've thought for a long time: the decision to move to SAP has little or nothing to do with making it easier for employees to perform better in the real world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with B-school egghead theories about making business operations fit together like Lego blocks, regardless of the human cost.That, from corporate management's viewpoint, is its greatest strength. SAP is a very rigid product. My experience, watching a couple of SAP rollouts from the sidelines, is that the company does not adapt SAP to its business processes, it adapts its business processes to SAP. And this gives management a great benefit: it standardizes the business. It forces businesses that have operated in idiosyncratic ways to adopt regimented methods of execution and reporting.

It drives the employees mad, of course. Everything they know about getting their jobs done, from ordering office supplies to taking care of their customers, goes out with the trash. But employee satisfaction really isn't the point of business anymore, anyway, is it?

The primary customers for SAP seem to be the suits who make big bucks from mergers and acquisitions. The easier a company is to understand, the easier it is to buy and sell, and standardizing the reporting is the first step in that process. (The idea that it also makes it easier for managers by allowing them to respond to predigested data in knee-jerk ways rather than requiring that they really understand their business is surely just cynicism on my part, right?)

A modular, plug-and-play approach seems to be a requirement of the current business environment, where divisions and product lines are wheeled and dealed like cracked vases at a flea market. And that probably explains the success of SAP better than anything else I can think of.

Interestingly, SAP is only the first in what looks like a growing class of enterprise applications. Salesforce.com is another example of a one-size-fits-all solution that in fact fits some much better than others. If Web-delivered services are the future, then we'll see more standardization of business practices as businesses move to standard services rather than developing their own.

All this leaves me wondering. In this roboticized future where all companies do everything the same way, how will any company be able to capitalize on its opportunites? Are the eggheads engineering the possibility of success out of business with these all-encompassing "solutions" that work so hard to make it impossible for mediocre managers to fail?

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