SAP's Not-So-Secret Weapon: Its Own CIO

Oliver Bussmann, now a year into his tenure as CIO for SAP, has re-invented and raised the profile of the ERP vendor's CIO role. One key: Sharing with customers his ongoing experiences with a huge SAP environment.

By Thomas Wailgum
Tue, December 14, 2010

CIO — Before Oliver Bussmann took the job of CIO of SAP in September 2009, he Googled the terms "SAP" and "CIO" in hopes of finding out about the top tech role as it existed then.

What he found—or, rather, didn't find—surprised him. "There was nothing visible," he says. "Zero."

Inside the German ERP software giant, few SAP employees outside of the IT department knew the CIO, or more disconcertingly, knew whether SAP even had a CIO.

More than a year later Bussmann has performed his own surprising feat with SAP's in-house technology efforts: He's not only made the CIO role more visible inside the company (collaborating with SAP's CTO, developers and support managers), but also made himself available to the world outside SAP's Walldorf, Germany, headquarters. He's meeting with SAP customers, speaking at conferences, being quoted in The Wall Street Journal, blogging, tweeting, basically doing anything to help fellow IT leaders better understand and utilize SAP's portfolio of complex enterprise products.

SAP CIO Oliver Bussmann

That is, in fact, one of his most important duties, Bussmann says: He's an "alpha" customer who runs SAP enterprisewide and also serves as a powerful, accessible reference for SAP's thousands of customers.

He claims a single-instance SAP environment that is the envy of many other Fortune 500 companies running SAP: 71,000 global users on SAP ERP, Supplier Relationship Management and Human Capital Management packages (with 53 different country payrolls).

"Customers always ask: How did you get there? What did you do?" Bussmann says. It's not an insignificant question for those companies who struggle with SAP's demanding business software.

During Bussmann's 2009 interview with then SAP CEO Léo Apotheker, the now current CEO of HP (HPQ) made it clear what was expected of him. "He said, 'Oliver, it's important we increase the adoption of own software and share learnings with the [SAP] development organization and also with partners and customers,'" Bussmann recalls. "SAP had never shared this experience in any organized way in the past."

The Vendor CIO Paradox

It's not quite the "shoemaker's children" scenario, but the conventional wisdom on high-tech vendor CIOs hasn't always been of the highest order.

There are but a few "rock star" CIOs leading high-tech vendors' IT efforts. Most notable are HP's Randy Mott and Microsoft's Tony Scott.

However, when the right CIO falls into the right situation, the combination can be powerful for both vendor and customer: A peer CIO who knows the lay of the land (IT governance, project management and political challenges that IT leaders face) as well as the guts of the vendor's software (what it can and cannot do).

It's the proverbial "Eat Your Own Dog Food" situation, espoused by many technology leaders. (Bussmann, however, prefers "Drink Your Own Champagne," which is both more elegant and also, unintentionally, hints at the high price of SAP software.)

This type of vendor CIO and customer relationship is demanding: It requires absolute transparency, honesty and a faith between the two parties that everyone's best interests are paramount.

"The conversations are open, honest and very direct," Bussmann says of his meetings with SAP customers. "They're sharing what their challenges are.... Sometimes it's not only about [SAP] products. It's about how they want the governance to run, about managing the portfolio, business-IT alignment, delivery models and sourcing."

In addition, Bussmann's IT team documents and shares its findings in a reference database at help.sap.com.

When asked if he's incented to be an SAP salesperson, Bussmann is blunt: "This is not sales. When we're going in to meet with customers, we try to avoid any salespeople," he says. "My job is not to sell but to share experiences and recommendations. I don't sell."

In addition, his prerogative is to talk about all the good and bad things he's learned by being the "first customer," he says. "I'm going to be vocal and talk about pitfalls if they're there. Sometimes I will say, with certain functions, that I would do something differently. That's part of our job."

NEXT: Being SAP's "First Customer"

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