Between hosting Super Bowl LVII and being renamed “Swift City” to commemorate the launch of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, sunny Glendale, Arizona, served as the site of the ASUG Best Practices: SAP S/4HANA® and SAP Business Technology Platform (BTP) conference, which welcomed attendees earlier this month.

Held from March 7 to 9 at the Renaissance Phoenix Glendale Hotel & Spa, the anticipated event brought together SAP customers and SAP executive speakers to share their experiences, expertise, and expectations while discussing progress, successes, and challenges amid configuring BTP to achieve business goals and establishing SAP S/4HANA business cases.

Top-of-mind for attendees—and prominently featured on the agenda—were topics such as seamlessly integrating SAP BTP with SAP S/4HANA, promoting efficient intelligent automation with RISE with SAP, and upskilling or reskilling to prepare for the future of work. Keynotes, Executive Exchange roundtables, networking opportunities, customer-led sessions, hands-on demonstrations, panel conversations, and even a visit to Camelback Ranch to take in a spring training game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers made it a conference to remember.

ASUG previously previewed several SAP S/4HANA and SAP BTP conference sessions, but here offers a dispatch from the conference floor, where customers and executive speakers conversed and connected while acquiring valuable skills, resources, and tools to bolster their organizations’ digital transformation journeys.

“Learn, Connect, and Grow”

In his opening remarks, Geoff Scott, CEO of ASUG, reaffirmed ASUG’s core mission to help its members get the most from their SAP technology investment and invited attendees to “learn, connect, and grow” through listening to diverse speakers and attending networking sessions at the conference.

“There is something really special about coming together face to face,” he said. “Use this time to do what you’re here to do. Connect with each other, ask questions, talk to your peers, and hear each other’s stories. Use these days to acquire skills.”

As Scott noted, the substance of the conference sessions was derived from the 2023 ASUG Pulse of the SAP Customer survey results, which identified top focus areas such as integration, standardizing business processes, moving to SAP S/4HANA, and analytics and dashboards.

Sharing remarks by a CIO who went live on SAP S/4HANA just days before the conference, Scott affirmed that “integration matters,” adding that the CIO had encouraged attendees to “get it right. Keep it simple. Keep it standard. Minimize the number of customizations and try to make it the standard implementation we all talk about but rarely achieve.”

Following this, in a keynote address titled “Radical Innovation: Transforming Business, Society, and the World,” technology futurist Jack Shaw asked attendees to consider all possibilities for making emerging technology come to life within specific industries.

Shaw engaged the audience by asking them to predict which emerging technologies would have the biggest impact on business and society across the next three to five years, noting robotic process automation (RPA), AI, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) and the metaverse, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and blockchain as potential candidates (all technologies that customers can consider integrating with SAP BTP to enable their digital transformations).

Interacting with Shaw via poll capabilities available in their event-specific smartphone apps, nearly half of attendees (49%) selected AI as their predicted industry game-changer, with RPA (22%) as the second most popular option, and AR/VR and the metaverse (12%) third.

Shaw reflected that, with a host of new technologies, the biggest challenge that businesses face is “making the shift to continuous strategic planning,” monitoring their technology environments, and accepting the inevitability of evolving business model processes. His closing remarks quoted the American historian Henry Steele Commager, who said, “Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change.”

SAP S/4HANA and SAP BTP Success Stories

Following an announcement from SAP that introduced SAP Datasphere, described as “the next generation of SAP Data Warehouse Cloud,” Kerri Tenbrunsel, SVP and GM of SAP BTP North America, took the stage to express words of appreciation for ASUG members. “SAP is nothing without our user group,” she said. “You dictate the future for us.”

Tenbrunsel assessed that SAP customers understand the need to transform their businesses and stated that SAP BTP is foundationally based on “driving transformation, agility, flexibility, and optimization.” Her intro track, “Adventure of a Lifetime” by Coldplay, referenced the band’s recent Music of the Spheres World Tour app, developed with SAP, which utilized SAP BTP in addition to SAP Cloud for Sustainable Enterprises and SAP Analytics Cloud.

“BTP has never been more relevant to drive the agility, resiliency, and efficiency of your enterprise,” said Tenbrunsel. “The help is all around you, in this room and out there through our SAP experts and partners.”

In conversation with Tenbrunsel to reflect on their companies’ digital transformations, Matt Goldsby, Director of IT at Swift Prepared Foods, and Karthik Neelamegam, Senior Director of EA at Florida Crystals, shared lessons learned from their implementations.

Swift Prepared Foods, a subsidiary of JBS USA, went live on SAP S/4HANA on Feb. 20, days before the conference, but its investment in SAP technology has been extensive, with SAP BTP allowing Swift to save time and money while increasing the accuracy of its global and complex pricing system and other SAP cloud solutions, such as SAP Integrated Business Planning (IBP), at work within the Swift landscape. “We needed a solution that benefitted us up and down the supply chain and gave us the flexibility to free up more of the time of our critical individuals that had been responsible for pricing,” said Goldsby. SAP BTP has been that solution, offloading heavy lifting previously required for Swift’s pricing processes into the cloud while automatically calculating pricing records and adding a fixed-price component to its food-service area.

Neelamegam, meanwhile, oversaw Florida Crystals’ SAP S/4HANA 2020 implementation last year and told attendees that 60% to 70% of his company’s business processes run on SAP. Florida Crystals, part of American Sugar Refining (ASR Group), facilitates farm-to-table global operations in sugarcane farming, milling, and refining, as well as manufacturing, packaging, and distribution; such a complex ecosystem requires dynamic enterprise architecture. Neelamegam mentioned SAP IBP, SAP BTP, SAP Ariba, SAP Analytics Cloud, SAP SuccessFactors, and SAP Concur as some of the third-party SaaS applications at work across ASR Group.

He noted that the variety of SAP services available allowed greater agility and support for the interdependent ASR Group ecosystem. Notably, through SAP BTP, Florida Crystals has consolidated from five integration tools to two, driving efficiency across its businesses. Neelamegam later expanded on the key drivers and motivators behind Florida Crystals’ transition to cloud-based integration (iPaaS) in a session focused on the company’s middleware footprint.

Damien Johnson, Global Chief Architect, RISE with SAP Ecosystems, SAP, discusses the big picture of SAP Cloud ERP in front of a packed conference hall.

SAP Executive and Customer Sessions in the Spotlight

Discussion of SAP Cloud strategy, and its evolution in response to customers’ digital transformation journeys, dominated a popular early session led by Damien Johnson, Global Chief Architect of RISE with SAP Programs at SAP. Touching upon roadmaps, planned innovations, and future features for Cloud ERP, his “Understanding SAP’s Cloud Strategy” session was a big-picture view of the portfolio geared toward educating attendees about the various supports available to customers amid their journeys to the Cloud.

Johnson spoke to the importance of understanding the business changes that are driving organizations to address “legacy complexity” through their IT strategies; disruption across global supply chains, changing customer and employee preferences and needs, and business challenges around leveraging increasingly overwhelming amounts of data were all surfaced as the business changes driving IT strategy.

The move from on-premises to cloud changing software from an asset to a service, implementation of intelligent technologies, and platform capabilities enabling more “decoupled” architecture to continue innovation in a sustainable manner were among the changes to technology landscapes discussed. SAP customers can work within its ecosystem to carry out an “end-to-end journey to drive transformation,” said Johnson, encouraging attendees first to transform their business processes, then deploy Cloud ERP, then drive continuous innovation across their companies.

The role of the enterprise architect (EA) in driving business transformation was key to multiple sessions, such as “Power Peer Groups” led across both days by Sylvain Garneau, SAP EA of Resolute Forest Products at SAP; Peter Keller, SAP EA at SAP; and Todd Lutz, Global Manager of SAP Basis at Goodyear Tire. These roundtable discussions focused on the EA practice’s role in planning and executing transformation activities on the way to adopting SAP S/4HANA and SAP BTP.

Similarly, open discussions and even a SAP BTP-specific round of “Jeopardy!” were hosted throughout the conference in a Partner Solutions Pavilion where attendees mingled and networked freely; Elijah Martinez, Senior Product Manager of SAP Cloud Platform Integration at SAP; Glen Leslie, Senior Director of SAP BTP Center of Excellence at SAP; Bob Sakalas, Innovation Evangelist at SAP; and David Maloney, North American VP of SAP BTP at SAP were on hand for one of the most buzzed-about sessions, “Informal Chat with the Experts: Why BTP Is the Key to Strategic Digital Transformation.”

There, and elsewhere, the importance of “keeping your core clean” was emphasized. Successful implementation of a clean core was also the focus of a session led by Roochir Purani, Associate Partner of SAP Chief Data Executive at IBM, and Gairik Acharya, Associate Partner at IBM, detailing IBM’s strategy and customer project experiences implementing SAP BTP-based clean core solutions.

The AdvanSix Journey

AdvanSix, an American chemical manufacturer that produces nylon 6 and related chemicals such as caprolactam and ammonium sulfate fertilizers, has leveraged SAP solutions since its first SAP implementation in 1999. In their event session, Jenna Snook, Project Manager; Michael Tomaino, Transformation Project Leader; and Andrew Bodunrin, EA (all from AdvanSix), discussed taking a greenfield approach with SAP S/4HANA, first implementing a pilot and then bringing in recently acquired sites on S/4HANA.

In crafting a business case for SAP S/4HANA, the AdvanSix team identified key opportunities to improve core finance and risk processes, optimize inventory and planning, improve its financials through faster processing and reduced clerical work, leverage embedded analytics for better insights to action, and improve the employee experience by laying a foundation for automation and process intelligence. In its preparation stage, AdvanSix explored value maps, engaged with SAP Germany on Adoption Starter Kit, and worked with SAP on custom code analysis.

In building a business case, AdvanSix engaged with SAP, completed a collaborative value assessment (CVA), applied design thinking by having the AdvanSix PMO team interview critical keyholders, and presented a business case for greenfield implementation of SAP S/4HANA on RISE with SAP for newly acquired sites of AdvanSix. Implementation involved a process of partner selection, assessment, and pilot implementation. AdvanSix’s two pilot sites went live on SAP S/4HANA late last month, on Feb. 27.

AdvanSix utilized SAP’s Activate methodology, combining SAP’s proven Waterfall methodology (which relies on mandatory Quality Gate reviews after each phase) with an agile solution design, testing, and deployment approach. The company soon saw results, and as Tomaino proudly stated, “Our go-live date never changed.” That success came in part because the AdvanSix team organized its SAP S/4HANA transformation by business process and carefully considered what was in scope each step of the way. "What is the day one necessity here?” Tomaino advised attendees to consider. “What’s the priority? If it's not day one, you shuffle the deck and push it to the back, barring prerequisites. That was critical.”

Reflecting on their first-phase implementation using no customizations, the team said their “people-focused approach” led to good system adoption and digital transformation. SAP S/4HANA was able to deliver on enhancements AdvanSix’s CFO had requested years prior, providing a bird’s-eye view of credit management. As far as lessons learned, the team said that “it’s easy to train too early or too late,” also advising that every workstream within the transformation be owned from the start by someone from the business and suggesting that businesses allow extra time for building security roles.

Keynote Customer Panels Offer Actionable Insights

Lessons learned from successful implementations and perspectives on preparing for the move to SAP S/4HANA were shared with attendees during customer panels across both days of the conference.

Laura Tibodeau, ASUG board member, led the closing day-one keynote discussion, bringing Lutz to the stage along with Vincent Petit, IT Director of ERP and Finance Systems at Inchcape; Karlene Gomes, IT Director of Supply Chain Service Line at Corning Incorporated; and Saranya Raj, Lead of SAP Center of Excellence for the City of Richmond Hill.

Lutz has been an SAP user since 1994 and oversees the SAP basis and global database teams at Goodyear Tire, where he’s faced challenges from consolidating legacy systems amid the increased capabilities of systems like SAP S/4HANA. Petit, meanwhile, inherited SAP two years ago. At Inchcape, the largest independent automotive distributor globally, he has learned to look at SAP through fresh eyes, which he considers a strength as he prepares to make the business case for SAP S/4HANA.

Gomes at Corning, which specializes in materials science, has 20 years of experience with SAP and is currently considering SAP S/4HANA. “Transformation is almost constant,” she said. Corning had not been through a transformation for about 15 years, so Gomes faced the reality posed by many end-of-life applications: “Do we want to invest to sustain and maintain our status quo, or do we want to invest and modernize?”

Laura Tibodeau, ASUG board member, led the closing day-one keynote discussion, bringing Todd Lutz, Global Manager of SAP Basis at Goodyear Tire, to the stage along with Vincent Petit, IT Director of ERP and Finance Systems at Inchcape; Karlene Gomes, IT Director of Supply Chain Service Line at Corning Incorporated; and Saranya Raj, Lead of SAP Center of Excellence for the City of Richmond Hill.

Raj has been a hands-on SAP user for 10 years and recently oversaw the Canadian city’s greenfield implementation of SAP S/4HANA and SAP SuccessFactors, as well as an upgrade from SAP S/4HANA 1709 to SAP S/4HANA 2020. “Sometimes, I think our SAP journey deserves a Netflix documentary,” Raj quipped. “There are so many twists and turns there.”

The panelists agreed that any transformation requires buy-in not only from decision-makers but from individuals across the business. “In our company, in general, getting many people involved in the decision process and getting them onboard with supporting it was very big for us,” said Lutz.

Noted Raj: “We had champions at all levels of the organization engaged from the beginning, and they were champions even after the go-live. They became experts in adoption and engagement, spreading the word about SAP to people who’d never used this type of system before.”

The day-two closing keynote, “Utilizing SAP Tools as You Adapt to Disruptive Change,” brought together Benjamin Poku, SAP Operations Manager of Baillie Lumber Co. at SAP; Farzana Dumasia, Project Manager of SAP Business Support for the City of Mississauga; and Emily Bell, CTO of Fulton County Schools, for a discussion about best practices, solutions, and communities that let them keep pace with innovation in a fast-changing world.

Issues the panelists faced throughout their journeys included staffing and retention, as well as upskilling individuals to utilize new technologies and facing disruption from the pandemic. Change management soon emerged as a focus of the panel.

“People, processes, and technologies are three pillars for organizational transformation and to make any change effective for adoption,” said Dumasia, reflecting on lessons learned from the City of Mississauga’s journey from ECC to SAP S/4HANA 1809. Dumasia added all transformation projects required business leads rather than being viewed as IT initiatives and emphasized the importance of building trust across the organization.

“Organization change management today looks like building trust and confidence that we can solve our challenges,” Bell remarked. In her district, Bell faced difficulties from disparate systems that did not integrate well and were “highly customized in ways that made it almost put together with a Band-Aid.” A greenfield implementation of SAP S/4HANA, SAP SuccessFactors, SAP Ariba, and other SAP solutions all played a role in the “all-together, big-bang approach” that earned Fulton County Schools an SAP Innovation Award last year.

All the panelists agreed that transformation begins within the individual mindset and that personal willingness to learn and adapt is essential to companywide growth. “I’m a firm believer in continuous learning,” said Poku. “When I interact with others, I try to encourage them to learn more. There’s no end to education.”

“If you are in this business and have a fixed mindset, you’re in the wrong business,” added Bell, noting that educators in her industry often express trepidation about the rise of ChatGPT and other AI services that have ultimately enabled Fulton County Schools’ transformation. “What we’ve seen is that, through time, these become tools that we can use to get our work done in a more efficient and meaningful way. It’s not going to disrupt our lives. It’s going to enable us to move forward.”

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