Combining business and IT talents with industry best practices to drive and achieve value from SAP technology investments, the SAP Center of Excellence (CoE) is an essential asset for optimizing organizational processes.

And, as attendees at this month’s ASUG Best Practices: CoE and EA conference (April 18–21 at SAP U.S. Headquarters in Newtown Square, PA) will learn, the CoE is still evolving, to improve service for those SAP customers pursuing business growth in a fast-changing global environment.

Bringing together SAP customers and leaders to gain key insights into the roles that both the CoE and the Enterprise Architect (EA) play in driving digital transformation at their organizations, the four-day conference will feature executive speaker keynotes, expert panel discussions, and customer-led sessions. Attendees can choose between attending only the CoE conference (April 18–19), only the EA conference (April 20–21), or both events, which merge with a networking social on April 19.

In his day-one keynote, titled “The Evolution of the SAP Center of Excellence,” Thomas Walther, SVP & Head of SAP Service’s Premium Hub – Center of Expertise at SAP, will reflect on the CoE’s commitment to helping SAP’s customer segment become a “best-run business.” Through the structure of an informal “fireside chat” with David Wascom, SVP of Executive Programs and Head of Content for ASUG, Walther will address challenges and opportunities facing customer CoEs while illuminating the evolution of the CoE itself, discussing the business value of the SAP CoE, and educating attendees around how they can apply lessons learned to their own organizations.  

Ahead of ASUG Best Practices: CoE and EA, Walther spoke to ASUG about his keynote address, major shifts in CoE history, and what the future holds for this organizational asset.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q. Why was this the right title for your keynote address, and in what ways do you feel the SAP Center of Excellence has evolved in recent years?

A. When the SAP CoE was started, it played a completely different role than it does today. Twenty years ago, SAP would roll out new products, and, at that time, we’d often have limited knowledge of the market, of customers and their problems. And what happened at that time was that customers and partners struggled to implement new products because there was no understanding of how it could be done correctly. No best practices existed. At that time, the CoE was founded, in a reactive model, to help these customers and partners. Customers were calling for help, partners were calling for help, and we answered these cries for help. We visited many customers at the time, including in North America, where grocer customers wanted to ensure that chocolate would be delivered in time for Christmas.

With other customers as well, we noticed similar things that had gone wrong, and we started to collect these common mistakes to develop documentation and best practices out of it. Over time, we transformed from reacting to these calls for help to proactively reaching out to customers and partners to make them aware of what can go wrong and be with them at the junction points when a decision is to be made to go left or right, and to advise them at early stages. That’s a major shift that’s happened over time. We are more reactive than we once were, too, but today we’re very much focused on proactive support of adopting SAP technology.

The other major shift has been in terms of technology, business processes, and complexity. We’ve always had in mind that we need to look at customer solutions end-to-end, including SAP and non-SAP components. At the end of the day, what the customer wants is for their solution to work end-to-end, not only the SAP component of it.

Twenty years ago, you could say our lives were simple, but in a cloud world, it hasn’t become less complex. Quite the opposite. In a hybrid environment, many different technologies involve business processes spanning over multiple data centers and on-prem locations. The complexity of running and implementing such solutions has increased. We’ve had to learn both new technologies and new ways of consuming software and assisting our customers with it.

Q. To me, both of those major developments—the technology changes and SAP moving from reactive to proactive to better serve customers—really validate the need for the Center of Excellence. Change is constant and continual, but it’s not predictable. Organizations require a space for collecting and sharing knowledge for that feedback loop.

A. When we look back at the reactive support that was provided when products were rolled out 20 years ago, then we look at the rollout of SAP S/4HANA today; we don’t see quite the same mode of operation. Although it is indeed a new product, changing from on-prem to Cloud or on-prem to hybrid Cloud, with all the challenges I alluded to earlier in terms of complexity, we have a different way of dealing with these changes because of the CoE, which can be established both at SAP and on the customer side.

The CoE reacts to needs, anticipating in advance potential pitfalls or changes of direction, and responds accordingly with a plan, taking a leading role in transitions that are happening both in the market and internally with their business. It’s instrumental. If you look back, this was not a given, but I see a totally different role, with the CoE being at the center of what is happening on the customer side, making sure that customers safely reach the destinations they want to go to.

Q. SAP has its own Center of Excellence, which provides business value to the organization, informing and driving the direction of its technological development as well. SAP itself runs because of CoE.

A. I would like to give you two examples of where this is actually a very important aspect of how we run at SAP. On the one hand, the CoE interacts with so many customers, many of them our largest and most complex customers, whose operations stretch the limits of the products and solutions they were designed for. The problems we are encountering and solving with customers together, we are also taking back into the development organization with the intent to improve our products and to optimize what follows.

Additionally, SAP also runs SAP software. We run a business and need business software to support it. So, of course, we run on SAP. What we learn through the Center of Excellence from our customers, we also bring back into our own IT organization. Lessons learned and solutions that we find together with the customers, though built for their particular business challenges, are also applied for our own internal IT to support them. We take these lessons learned back to our internal IT organization, advising SAP from a Center of Excellence perspective on what to do in certain situations. It’s very much a strategic role that we play, of all becoming a better community.

Q. Given the joint focus of this conference, what would you say about the relationship between the Center of Excellence and the Enterprise Architect?

A. As I look at my CoEs globally for SAP, and I see different changes around the globe that come back for CoE support, one thing that really sticks out—and it's contributed to the success of RISE with SAP, the product shift from R/3 to S/4—is the changing need for architects, from enterprise architects to solution architects. If customers do proceed with a transformation, they look for help figuring out where to go. From a technology perspective, what do they need to model to support their transition vision? The requests for architects have doubled, tripled, and still become much higher.

In the SAP CoE, we have done upskilling and targeted hiring activities to improve our capabilities around enterprise architectures. We need more people to meet the demand, but we asked, “How can we perfect a model meeting the demand with standardization automation? What are the common themes that we see customers looking for, and what can we do to fill potential knowledge gaps in the network, from customers and partners to SAP itself? How do we bring this back into the community in a scalable way, fashioning our portfolio around this architecture knowledge?” We evolved to address the needs in a more scalable way.

If you look at today's work in the CoE that I’m heading up, it is very much shifting from safeguarding to providing, at the beginning of a journey, advice on where to go, what to look out for, and building a plan that is one to five years ahead. I see the same also in customer CoEs, the demand for change from customers is much greater and much more consistent, and COEs have to respond to it if they want to continue to be a guiding factor for their own business customers and their companies. They can, of course, also then fall back on the CoE from SAP to provide them with advice, which many do. Together, as a community, that's what we strive for—to understand the ultimate success of transformation that customers are looking for.

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