As we prepare to get working in this new year, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the changes 2020 forced upon every person, organization, and industry. It should come as no surprise to anyone, but 2020 will be remembered for—and defined by—COVID-19. Almost a year after the virus first emerged, the world is still working to return to a sense of normalcy—or quite frankly, define a new one.

Despite these complications, many companies rose to the challenge, meeting the needs of their customers while adapting new practices and processes to keep their workforces safe. Some of the radical shifts caused by COVID-19 actually turned out to be positive changes, which will strengthen organizations as they operate in a world without the virus and empower employees to do their best work. ASUG looks back at some of the significant developments and themes from 2020 and how they affected SAP customers.

Continued Focus on the Intelligent Enterprise and Digital Transformation

At the start of 2020, all eyes were on the Intelligent Enterprise: an integrated suite of solutions working across all functions and connected to intelligent technologies. SAP defines it as a complete end-to-end platform, and the way to get to it is through digital transformation. SAP has been encouraging digital transformation among its customers for some time now, namely by promoting the move to SAP S/4HANA, the company’s ERP platform.

The focus on digital transformation and the Intelligent Enterprise remained unchanged—if a little altered—in 2020. The SAP Intelligent Enterprise and digital transformation were both once again main focuses at the 2020 SAPPHIRE NOW Reimagined conference. “The digital transformation is no longer an option, but a must,” Christian Klein, SAP CEO, told attendees in his keynote address.

SAP has leaned into changes and uncertainty brought by COVID-19, positioning its solutions and the Intelligent Enterprise as a means to combat black swan events and keep companies organized and functioning in any environment. Moving forward, SAP will likely continue its focus on turning its customer organizations into intelligent enterprises and encouraging digital transformation.

Using and Implementing SAP S/4HANA in the Time of COVID-19

Since SAP first released SAP S/4HANA, the software company has been carefully guiding its customers to the ERP platform. Throughout the early days of COVID-19, the ASUG Research Team conducted weekly Pulse Checks of its members, gauging everything from shifts in technology spending to personal and professional dispositions. Many of the questions ASUG posed to its members were focused on their usage and implementation of SAP S/4HANA. In one of the surveys, 15% of respondents indicated they were currently using SAP S/4HANA and 55% said they are planning to use it in the future. Comparatively, 20% of respondents were currently using chatbots, with another 25% planning to use the technology in the future. Additionally, 10% were using blockchain, while 16% had plans for future use.

While this usage is certainly encouraging, COVID-19 did have a measurable negative effect on the number of SAP S/4HANA implementations. One week, the ASUG Research Team found that 10% of respondents indicated that SAP S/4HANA was a technology that businesses had planned on implementing in the next 12 months before COVID-19 hampered these plans. Comparatively, 5% of respondents halted plans to implement analytics solutions and 4% put plans on hold to rollout new AI and ML technologies.

Despite this, ASUG has heard from a few companies that tackled either completely remote or hybrid digital transformations of SAP S/4HANA during COVID-19. The sixth and final episode of the ASUG Express series, Achieving Success with SAP S/4HANA Virtual Boot Camp, focused on remote migrations. Alex Nearey, project manager of retail and fashion industry CoE at SAP, walked attendees through a case study of a large athletic fashion and footwear company that is in the process of a remote transformation.

Shifting Supply Chains

By far one of the most significant effects of COVID-19—visible to both consumers and businesses—was the strain the virus put on supply chains. In North America, stores saw an incredible shortage of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizer. “COVID-19 is probably the biggest disruption to supply chains that we’ve seen since World War II. It’s affecting the entire globe,” said Richard Sandall, chief supply chain evangelist at Innovapptive, a mobile supply chain and plant maintenance solution provider and SAP partner, earlier this year.

This radical shift has spurred companies to reexamine their upstream and downstream supply chains. It has made them rethink how they acquire raw materials and how they get finished products to consumers. Richard Howells, VP of solutions marketing at SAP Digital Supply Chain, told ASUG that one of the main takeaways from COVID-19 was the “need to balance cost and risk.” A few ways to find this balance include outsourcing less goods and products, while sourcing materials needed to make a certain product closer to the points of production and sale. In another interview with ASUG, Howells also suggested that companies begin identifying alternative suppliers in different countries, examine where inventory is kept, and define alternative sourcing strategies.

But, the impact of COVID-19 wasn’t necessarily an entirely bad thing for supply chains. While it caused major disruptions, it also pointed out some faults in supply chains, which organizations are working to fix. Abe Eshkenazi, CEO of the Association for Supply Chain Management, told ASUG that companies need to focus on making supply chains agile and resilient. “We were not as agile as we should have been,” he said. “I think this is one of the learnings we need to take away from this situation: Efficiency at what costs?”

Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Employees

Another major shift we saw in 2020 was an increase in the amount of time and energy organizations spent ensuring both the safety and satisfaction of their workforces. The health implications of COVID-19 demanded that new, stringent actions were taken to ensure the continued success of employees in this altered working environment. Businesses caring for their employees is nothing new, but in the face of a pandemic, the health of the workforce became a paramount concern. “This is a terrific opportunity for human resources because so much attention is being paid to the workforce right now,” Lisa Rowan, research VP for HR, talent, and learning strategies at IDC, told attendees of the ASUGFORWARD Employee Experience and HR sessions. “We are at the very beginning of a lot of changes.”

Office employees shifting to working remotely is one of the most significant workforce changes stemming from COVID-19. Organizations have increasingly leveraged solutions such as video conferencing and messaging applications to keep their workforces organized. Additionally, we’ve also seen businesses take stock of their employees' attitudes and feelings while giving their workers an opportunity to provide feedback on company practices and processes with solutions like Qualtrics EmployeeXM. As we begin to think about how we can return to our offices, there are applications like SAP Cloud for Real Estate, which help organizations plan for that safe return.

But, working from home is not an option for everybody. Some jobs require employees to be onsite. Last year, ASUG interviewed Dan Dubblestyne, director of health, safety, and environment at Woodbridge Foam Corporation, about how the company pivoted from manufacturing products for the automotive industry to producing N95 masks. One of the key concerns during this project was ensuring the safety of all Woodbridge employees working onsite to assemble the masks. Dubblestyne laid out how the executive team had daily meetings and implemented a “Safe Work Playbook” for Woodbridge’s facilities to follow during COVID-19. The company installed physical barriers between workstations and instituted protocols such as temperature checks, required personal protection equipment (PPE), and personal hygiene standards.

“We’re very happy with the output because, among about 7,500 teammates globally, we had fewer cases reported than expected,” he said.

Further Use of Intelligent Technologies

We’ve been hearing about emerging technologies such as RPA, ML, and AI for years now. Many businesses are currently leveraging these solutions in their day-to-day operations, bringing vital insights to employees. One of the positive changes COVID-19 brought was a new emphasis on these solutions. In a blog post, Andy Watson, SVP and general manager of SAP Concur for Asia Pacific, Japan, and Greater China, discussed how solutions like these will become a necessity for companies to remain competitive moving forward. SAP CEO Klein agrees with this sentiment, telling ASUG members that “AI, ML, and RPA are becoming a necessity to future-proof any business.”

ASUG members are already well on their way when it comes to leveraging these solutions. During the COVID-19 Pulse Check surveys, the ASUG Research Team asked our members which technologies they are currently using and which they plan to use in the future. Almost a third (32%) of respondents are currently using RPA, and another 31% have plans to use it in the future, while 42% of respondents plan on using AI and ML, and 13% already adopted those solutions.

In no particular order, here are the ten most popular articles from ASUG News + Views in 2020:

ASUG is kicking off 2021 with a lot of events. Don’t miss our Pulse of the SAP Customer 2021 – Behind the Data virtual event on Jan. 19, 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT where we’ll give ASUG members a first look at the results of our annual study of SAP customers across the U.S. and Canada. We’ll also be launching a number of our Influence Councils next week. Click here to see the schedule and register.

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