Clarity at SAP

May 31, 2009

How will SAP develop? Where will it lead its customers?

We expect a CEO keynote at a software conference to answer questions like this; in what was his first full-CEO keynote, Leo did not disappoint. The answer? Clarity. Clarity is exactly what is needed to combat a global downturn and, guess what, clarity is exactly what you get from SAP.

I was there: the heads were nodding around the room and the Twitterati were passing the approval on as fast as their thumbs could go. “Good message,” one reputable analyst told me, and given the general dearth of good messages from SAP in recent years, you could see why he was pleased.

Good message? No. Illogical message. It makes no more sense than saying, “Language enables clarity,” and for roughly the same reason. Language doesn’t in do anything about clarity one way or the other. Used well and in the proper way by people who are intending to communicate, language can bring clarity. Used for other purposes, it can equally well confuse or deceive.

Now, in the history of the world, there have been many people who have claimed that a new language or a better language would indeed improve clarity and bring new intelligence and insight to people. But they’ve all been mistaken. They’ve seen a desirable effect (clarity), and they’ve known that you don’t achieve this effect unless a certain tool (language) is used correctly. So they think that the effect can be achieved by constructing the tool in a way that makes it impossible to misuse. But that’s just a mistake (what philosophers call a category mistake). The effect is not in fact caused by the tool, but by the way it’s used, and the tool itself has only a limited amount of ability to dictate what the final effect will be.

Similarly, SAP is merely a tool for storing business data. Good data, right problem, excellent analysis: voila, insight! Bad data, wrong problem, silly analysis, voila, confusion.

Now, there is an actual arguments that could be made in favor of what Leo is so blithely promising. You could say that the structure of SAP, the way it’s put together, is designed, through the use of best practices, to provide clarity, much as those mythical clear languages were going to be incapable of stating things that weren’t true.

I’m sure that Leo believes this, but since I don’t work there, I find it a bit of a stretch. It certainly can’t be something one would want to take on faith. It’s at best an empirical question. Whether it’s true or not would depend enormously on the quality of the implementations, the quality of the data actually being stored, the ability of the data to be used in multiple different circumstances, so that the data could be helpful in addressing real problems. If best practices genuinely produced good and useful data, flexibility and agility, etc., etc., that would be good to know, but I, for one, would find it surprising and at odds with what I know.

I might be more inclined to believe that SAP really does produce clarity in this way if I hadn’t asked Henning years ago what were his biggest problems in running SAP, and he pretty much said that it was hard for him to get insight into what was going on. I would also be more willing to believe it if SAP spent a lot of time analyzing whether the customers are using the software effectively. If they had lots of evidence that showed that people aren’t having problems with data quality, with fitting best practices to their own, or with flexibility and adaptability–that is, if they spent a lot of time figuring out whether their software was working in this way and could persuasive show that it is–one might feel that they really have happened on that magical clear language.

I actually had a long talk with Leo on a subject closely related to this. He’s a very smart guy, and it was a very enjoyable talk. In the talk, he insisted over and over again that it’s not his company’s job to see to it that the software is used effectively. I believe him, and I believe that’s a sensible statement of the company’s mission.

Unfortunately, though, if he doesn’t want to start reaching into companies and making sure that they’re using the software well, he can’t know one way or the other whether the best practices, etc., of SAP are producing the clarity that he’s claiming for it.

It may be enough for him to proclaim as an article of faith that SAP is enabling clarity. But it is not enough for me.

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