Art and Berlin

My Berlin infatuation continues. Last weekend I went to Max Liebermann’s villa on the Wannsee. It is a spectacular setting.

Max Liebermann Villa am Wannsee - Berlin


Max Liebermann Villa am Wannsee - Berlin

(from flickrstream of infactoweb.)

The lake is just a few kilometers from the centre of Berlin, but it feels like you are in the country.  

His art is equally memorable. Max Liebermann’s life and the Wannsee itself provide a poignant illustration of the highs and lows of German culture and politics. I’m not an art expert, but there is something rather special about this painting.

It makes me want to go and find a bench to sit on, and read about the Berlin Succession.

You can buy  books and prints etc in the on-line shop, and the museum is a must see.

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Who exactly are you calling a laggard?

In recent post (s) on ZDNET, amongst other things, Dennis Howlett has another go at SAP for being too conservative, brittle, wedded to the past, and so on. I disagree with him, but he is entitled to his own opinions. 

I might be mellowing; but If I commented on everything on the ZDNET blogs written about SAP and ERP that I disagree with, I wouldn’t get any day job done, talk to customers, or see my family. 

However, this statement….

…It may satisfy in the short term and absolutely plays to the laggard businesses to which SAP must be selling.

Made me fume. Calling our customers laggards is low, shallow and simply plain wrong. It is also downright rude.



 (photo thanks to David Terrar’s Sapphire Flickr stream)

 So Dennis,  41,000 laggards? 

Customers trust us to help run their businesses. They don’t want us to experiment with their invoicing, supply chains, customer data, core banking systems and inventory systems. They don’t want us to jump from fad to fad.  If we let something new loose on 41,000 customers it had better work. This is a huge responsibility. To knock engineering is to fundamentally fail to understand the business that we are in. Our customers demand consistency, reliability and innovation. Learning from the best companies in the world is a serious competitive advantage, it is also damn hard. Sometimes we get it wrong.

When we ship product, it isn’t an experiment.  Perpetual beta is not a good model for payroll or availibility to promise. Businesses stop working when this stuff fails, as is often and rightly pointed out.  

We need to balance this operational reality with the need to innovate for the future. This is what Dan Farber missed when he talked to Denis Browne about the imagineering team. With a big chunk of the world’s economy running SAP software, healthy scepticism about this weeks’s next great thing exactly what is required. The insight to spot the real innovation in a sea of neat ideas and hyped up concepts and mobilising it in a SAP relevant context is what Denis Browne and his team does profoundly well. 


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Potsdam and the future of software?

Potsdam (just south west of Berlin) fascinates me. I was there again this weekend.  It is a place steeped in history. Walk through the gardens at Glienicke. Look at the table where Stalin, Trumann and Atlee signed the Potsdam accord. Stand on the bridge where the spy exchanges took place. One of my best friends, Martin, is a raconteur of note and history buff, and he helped make the place come alive for me.  History seeps out of every stone.


Glienicke bridge

Glienicke Bridge, the stuff of spy novels. (photo from Flickrstream –  Max Moureau )

il tavolo della Conferenza di Potsdam

(photo from flickrstream – elisabetta2005)

Potsdam, though, is not just about German, Prussian or European history, it provides a glimpse into the future. Potsdam is home to the Hasso Plattner institute. 


(photo flickr Alexander Saar)

 I’ve written before about the HPI, and the design school there.  I’ve watched several lectures online, and I’ve met a couple of students who have graduated from the HPI.  I’ve been very impressed. I’ve downloaded and skimmed Hasso’s lecture notes on enterprise software, but I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve actually read it in detail.

For anyone thinking of doing undergraduate or postgraduate study in enterprise software, the HPI is definitely worth checking out. It has strong links to the Standford Design School, and a vibrant spin-off model.  

Instilling a culture of design into building software remains a huge challenge, but making it a key part of software education and a research discipline will mean that software will be better for it.

I’d like to see Potsdam become a powerful nucleus for software and software design innovation. With Hasso’s financial and political clout and his active personal commitment to the next generation of software developers, there is every chance that this happen. He has inspired  generations of developers here at SAP, and believe he can do the same with Europe’s brightest. It is great to see one of the great craftsmen of the industry turning his hand to enriching software as a discipline, and encouraging a new wave of startups and innovators.

Berlin is a hotbed of creativity and dynamicism. Every time I visit Berlin, I get a positive feeling about Europe’s future. I sense rebirth, not decay.

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opinions and evidence. The Trouble With Enterprise Software.

I had a great two weeks away from all things online, so I’m jumping into this debate rather late.

Part of my sporadic academic work of late has involved re-reading quite a lot of impenetrable stuff about the limits of empirical research in social sciences. Karl Popper etc. Do not fear, I will not attempt to force them on you here. In fact, I’m going to ask for the opposite here right now, I want a big solid pasta plate full of empirical research.

The blogosphere is full of folks dashing off opinions. Some are very erudite, others not. 99% of the blogs I read are  opinions. That’s cool, there is nothing wrong with an opinion. I have a whole archive of them here on this very blog. It is just that an opinion, is well, just an opinion.

Cynthia Rettig recently published a short piece in the SMR called The Trouble with Enterprise Software  Part of the piece is a rehash of ERP is complex, and therefore doomed argument. It is like the stuff Bobby Cameron did about SAP in the mid 1990s. The article also  links to research about how CEO’s view CIOs. (similar results to how they view other C-level execs, I thought), and some commentary on large system complexity.  It was strung together neatly enough, but it wasn’t based on any real research, at least in a recent enterprise software context.

The article’s core argument,

At present, however, corporations see in software’s seductive invisibility and seemingly open-ended flexibility a never-ending frontier of promise, where hope triumphs over reality and the search for the next new thing trumps addressing difficult existing problems.

Is tantamount to calling corporations stupid.  Very few are, either that or us vendors have a conspiracy going that would defeat even Jason Bourne.

Some of my fellow enterprise software bloggers jumped to praise and expand on the article   ERP is in a mess, and a donkey so they say.

Sensibly, Andrew McAfee points to some peer reviewed empirical research to counter this doomsday view of enterprise software.

The sober and understated language of this paper’s abstract contains a vital insight for people who question the overall value delivered to companies by their information technologies: if IT were not delivering value, rational decision makers would not keep investing in it. Rettig’s argument falls into a long line of pessimistic writing about the value of corporate IT. Much of this writing takes the implicit, and at times explicit, view that the executives who make technology decisions are dupes, perennially falling for a “triumphant vision” of software. These executives are presumably swayed by vendors’ sales pitches and the consistent message from IT’s ‘helper industries’—an ecosystem of analysts, journalists, consultants, and (yes) academics—that everything’s different now, so investments must be made.

10 months ago I read this paper Scale without Mass:Business Process Replication and Industry Dynamics  (I’ve blogged about it a number of times.and sadly I even brushed up on some statistics to understand the methodology) 

I wonder why the much enterprise blogosphere has largely ignored one of the most significant empirical research projects on the link between IT and Productivity, yet hypes up a neat little polemic that offers nothing new?  Perhaps because the empirical evidence jarrs with those dearly held opinions?  After all, where is the techmeme spike for the post “SAP and Oracle worked fine in 10,000’s of business again today”? 

Over on the Enterprise Irregulars board Dennis Howlett dissed McAfee’s post . Dennis said…

This from Andrew McAfee: struck me as being incredibly simplistic and avoiding the reality that’s out

Odd that. I’m out ‘there’, and McAfee’s post describes exactly the ‘reality’ of much of my day job. The other week I was talking to a bank that is merging  yet another take over and a huge utility dealing with deregulation. I spent most of a day recently with a very large chemical company that had gone from 47 core HR systems to one.  The chap who normally sits opposite me is closely involved with a  project at the largest food company in the world.  Next week I’m at a leading high tech company helping work out what bits to run on the ERP, and what bits to run on niche applications, building a joint roadmap to reduce integration complexity. No, it is not all triumphant vision, but this stuff works. What all these companies have in common is that they are simplifying their businesses with an ERP system.  The core ERP business is healthier than I’ve seen it since the late 1990’s.

If you ask P&G about how they absorb takeovers, their ERP system is a big part of this success.

“Staying the same will not work. The supply chain can hold your business model back, or propel you ahead,” says P&G CEO AG Lafley. “SAP allows us to get more in tune with the dynamics of the supply chain, with our consumers and with our customers.”

Or what the Nestle CEO says about the globe project, linking it to Nestle’s impressive business results.

…we’re fully benefiting from Globe, which now covers about 90 per cent of sales. That allows much better management of working capital and trade spend.

…”He puts Globe paramount among his enablers. “Globe allows us to have a much tighter management. A much greater level of transparency. Not only is the system now covering virtually all our businesses, we’re updating some of the earliest applications.”

But then, I’m just swopping anecdote for anecdote.

  Digging a bit deeper, I read Hackett studies that say

by moving to a single ERP system for finance and at the same time implementing consistent data and technology standards, companies can cut the cost of finance operations by 23 percent, according to Hackett’s Book of Numbers™ Research. But companies that take either of these approaches independently may see little to no savings, or even a slight increase in finance operations costs, Hackett found.

World-class finance organizations rely on both of these approaches, which help them spend 31 percent less than their peers on finance, operate with nearly half the staff, and also complete their financial reporting cycle more quickly each month.

And further

Hackett’s research found that world-class Fortune 500 companies run these functions at lower operational costs of $134 million/year ($7.1 million/billion of revenue) compared to typical companies, and process automation and IT enablement play a very significant role in realizing these lower non-IT back-office costs. In addition to this efficiency impact of IT, a direct correlation was found between performance of the IT function and effectiveness in finance, procurement, and HR

This stuff works.

Much of this blog is a rant against complexity, and if I look around here at SAP, I’d say fighting complexity is our biggest competitor. Sure we have much to learn about simplification, and we must get significantly better at reducing and managing complexity. But if there is one thing that I loathe more than unnecessary complexity it is the oversimplisitic. ERP is complex, so is the Belgian tax code. Many of those that damn SAP and Oracle for its complexity seem to suspend business reality when discussing the next great start up that will blow us away.

I’ll restate my rumplestilkin test.

Lock your new paradigm busting vendor in a room and only let them out when they have a compliant Polish payroll.

That sounds trite but most of what ERP applications do is complex ugly stuff. Companies do this stuff, not because they want to, but because a lawmaker, auditor, union or some regulatory authority demands it.  I’ve argued before that putty and lego are not good metaphors for the software that helps run your business. If you can sprinkle some magic ceteris paribus dust on business, and create a neat guns or butter world, then enterprise software would be simple. Actually, you could do it on a napkin. But tell that to the folks who thought up the Norwegian (or was it Finnish) business travel per diem rules. (especially the ones about mileage rates for reindeer sled travel)

So  keep the comments about ERP salespeople and Porsches rolling.  But where is the big stonking empirically solid research that shows me that ERP is dying or that it doesn’t work?

 As much as I hate to quote a competitor success story, herewith a small sprinkling of irony… Andrew’s Ducati wouldn’t be on the road today if it wasnt for enterprise software. 

I’ll finish this long opinion piece by quoting a bit more Andrew McAfee.

I agree that it’s important not to naively accept anyone’s triumphant vision of corporate IT. But it’s also important not to make claims in the other direction that are too sweeping. Perhaps most fundamentally, it’s critical at some point to stop floating hypotheses about IT’s impact (or lack thereof), and to start testing them. We have enough history and enough data to permit more excellent studies like the one conducted by Aral, Brynjolffson, and Wu. Designing and executing resarch that is both rigorous and relevant is difficult, at times dismayingly so, but as these three show it’s well worth the effort.

 Bring on the empiricists.

When consumer meets enterprise..

Microsoft’s channel 9 and 10 are very impressive. I noticed that there is now a Channel 8, but my corporate standard Microsoft Explorer 6.0 conceded defeat while trying to display it. Anyway, over on Channel 10, I saw this Video for a Silverlight  prototype demo for Burton Snowboards. Seeing 3D images, context video and so on is eye catching and engaging.  One of my twisted metaphors is that GUIs are like fashion, and no more so is that true in the retail web shop front. Perhaps we should have seasonal GUI shows;  “From the House of Flex, this spring  for ERP the tones are muted, but with a subtle touch of tactile interactivity.”

 The demo looks like Boo  redux, but better… 

This sort of thing gets really powerful and goes beyond eye candy when it connects with the ERP and CRM system that actually know what sizes, colours, models etc are in stock, and can calculate delivery dates, special offers, dynamic pricing and so on. This is also where all that SOA business actually comes to life. It makes it a whole lot easier to connect this funky world of rich images with the reality of the supply chain.

But back to the “experience” 

The ability to develop rich 3-D and interactive experiences will become easier and cheaper, but the bar to create delight will continue to rise. (remember paddle tennis, anyone?)

I’ve been impressed by the work Adobe is doing in this space. As this rich, emersive experience becomes commonplace in the retail experience, why should it not have a similar impact on applications behind the firewall?  Displaying parts and designs in 3D, rich zooming and flying through graphs and charts. Integrating ERP and CRM with Second Life may seem frivolous to some, but I see it as a zoopraxiscope, a starting point.

The technology alone, though, is not enough. I believe that we will see a great demand for visual designers; people who can imagine new ways of interacting with systems, far beyond the 2D cages in which processes and data lurk today. I may be stretching it when I call for the return of the playwright, but we will need people who can help tell and visualise a story. Perhaps that is what Design is all about?

The default user interaction model has been the column and row for long enough.  For too long, the UI experience has been bound by the paper paradigm, or worse the spreadsheet. Designers of the world unite, you have nothing to loose but columns and rows.

(I’ll be off the grid for about 10 days. Building sandcastles)

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Professional cycling and Sarbanes-Oxley

Professional cycling is in serious  trouble.  The Tour de France this year was the Enron- Worldcomm moment for the Sport.   2-speed describes it well

Is anyone clean?  Professional cycling is a sport for the elite of the elite.  It requires a combination of superhuman genetics, non-stop training and a will to win that overcomes the agony of climbing 100+ mile hills for 26 straight days.  It appears that the self-selecting group of top riders in the world have found that there is no way to differentiate between themselves other than to push their bodies beyond their already distorted genetics..

The wheels below are Zipp 404’s. They are very sweet. Light but strong and aerodynamic.




But cycling needs another kind of 404.  It could also do with Section 806,  – (whistleblower protection),  and a good bit of Section 406, and Title VIII

Cycling requires  a decisive intervention.  Strong medicine of a different kind.  It is high time for the organising bodies,  the teams and the cyclists to get their act together. If they don’t there will be no sponsors, no TV coverage, no teams, and no tour.  Platitudes will not cut it. 

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