by Thomas Wailgum

The New SAP: The Techies Are Back in Charge

Mar 17, 2010
Enterprise Applications

SAP's new co-CEOs faced scrutiny since their crowning: But can they innovate out of SAP's "glory days" past?

Ever since SAP’s Superbowl Sunday Switch-a-roo, the headlines swirling about SAP’s CEO shakeup have focused on the promotion of the new co-CEOs: Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe.

Among many other articles, there was an interesting back and forth between The Economist (The Trouble with Tandems) and industry analyst Josh Greenbaum (More Fun with Co-CEOs: The Economist Responds).

SAP’s move resembled the Phoenix (with two heads?) rising from the ashes: The German ERP software giant likely resurrected its trusted dual-executive model because it provided a certain level of security and comfort amid the abruptness of the change. (The regime change from former CEO Leo Apotheker continues in fits and starts.)

McDermott, the smooth sales guy, and Snabe, the product developer, seem like they’ve been on a global roadshow even since February, meeting with customers, employees, analysts and the media. I’ve perhaps unfairly characterized the duo as “The Odd Couple,” but that’s solely due to the noticeable range of personal and professional differences. The union, however, does make a lot of sense right now.

I’d also guess that the marketing spin of a more “customer friendly” and “kindler, gentler” SAP offered by luminary Hasso Plattner, McDermott and Snabe is probably playing well in Peoria (Ill.) and Penzberg (Bavaria), though skepticism still exists around maintenance offerings. Apotheker surely wasn’t the “warm and fuzzy” type.

But customers should note that there is another trend at work at SAP: The techies are back in charge.

Plattner, a computer scientist at heart, has firmly grabbed the reins in his role as chairman of SAP’s 16-member supervisory board. Previous executive board members, notably John Schwarz, are gone. In turn, SAP promoted CTO Vishal Sikka, who leads SAP’s technology strategy, to join Snabe on the executive board. Sikka is not just window dressing. (See my interview with him.)

Clearly, the “new” leadership will have to shed legacy issues of the past and tap into the innovative sprit of the SAP zealots who do exist. And show the competition and its customers what it has to offer—such as its new BI tool for “the rest of us.”

In an insightful interview with CNBC, the hosts asked the new co-CEOs this pointed question: “What’s exciting about SAP in terms of innovation?”

Good question. And one I’m sure that Plattner & Co. will be answering again and again and again, whether anyone asks the question or not. (If you can’t get enough of in-memory database talk or Business ByDesign hype, then the SAP marketing machine is going to be sweet music to you ears in 2010!)

Forrester Research principal analyst Paul Hamerman writes in a recent report on SAP’s leadership changes that SAP’s technology challenges are sizeable.

“For SAP to grow and prosper, it cannot live off its legacy technology core,” Hamerman writes. “Plattner and Sikka will have hands-on involvement in evolving the technology strategy, but making it resonate with customers will be a key challenge…. While the technology strategy is also important, putting too much faith into a few technology silver bullets (e.g., in-memory computing, cloud computing, mobile, etc.) could be a sign of weakness rather than vision.”

I suppose SAP’s retrenchment back to tech leaders shouldn’t surprise any of us. During SAP’s “Glory Days,” the tech chiefs were the business chiefs. And the company prospered.

But as Bruce Springsteen warns us all, if you’re not careful those glory days can pass you by in the blink of an eye.

Do you Tweet? Follow me on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline.