ASUG secured the first interview with Muhammad Alam, the new president and chief product officer for Intelligent Spend and Business Network at SAP. Alam’s global scope includes mission-critical, cloud-based sourcing; procurement; external workforce management; travel; and expense management solutions, namely the SAP Ariba, SAP Fieldglass, and SAP Concur solutions; as well as the SAP Business Network, which includes Ariba Network, SAP Logistics Business Network, and SAP Asset Intelligence Network.

Alam discussed his current priorities, what he’s heard from existing and prospective SAP customers, what he needs from ASUG members, and how his organization will serve the ASUG mission to help individuals and organizations achieve the most value from technology investments.

This is an edited version of our conversation.

Q. On behalf of ASUG members, welcome and thanks for the opportunity to spend time with you. Let’s get started. You’ve spent the last several years in leadership positions at Microsoft. What prompted you to shift to SAP?

A. It was a really hard decision. It took me months to decide whether I wanted to come to SAP or not. The single biggest reason why I came to SAP was the opportunity and the ability for SAP, as an organization, to do something that could fundamentally transform how business applications work in the future.

If you step back and think about business applications—outside of going through some transitions from green screen to being client-based, to being browser-based, to maybe having some better, prettier screens—they haven’t really been transformed. For example, a purchase-order screen now looks like a purchase order in the green screen. But if you think about where the world is going and where the world is now ready to go, the concept of connecting to your trading partners in a real-time, collaborative way—one that could be safe and allows people to have control over their data—would really improve how collaboration works across the value chain. I think that has phenomenal implications on how business applications will work. That’s the single biggest reason I came to SAP.

If I look around, there’s no other company in the world that has the depth in business applications that SAP has, the complexity of business processes, and the class of customers that run SAP. No other company really knows the business application space as well. Then, if we marry that concept with what we’re doing with the SAP Business Network, that could be fundamentally transformative.

These reasons—coupled with SAP leadership, their energy, and their intellect—reminded me of how I felt during the early years at Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella, when the company started its transformation. So that was very attractive.

A final point is the SAP culture. If the people weren’t collaborative and respectful and trying to do the right thing; if there wasn’t a customer-first attitude, then none of this would be possible. If you’re able to really transform something that the industry hasn’t seen, you do it with a set of leaders who are committed and passionate about making that change in an environment that’s actually fun to work in, with highly talented folks. That’s what I’ve found here at SAP.

Q. What lessons and skills are you bringing from Microsoft that you’ll apply at SAP?

A. One is obviously transformation. I’m early in my SAP career, but if you look at my experience at Microsoft and what the company had gone through over the last few years under Satya’s leadership, it’s a holistic transformation. One that obviously begins with the products, looking at how and why the products are built, who the products are built for and how we engage with customers and partners—from how the engineering teams engage to how our support teams engage—as well as how we engage with the external world. So that transformation experience is one that I feel will be really relevant here as we look to the next chapter of what SAP can become.

All of that comes with a strong focus on fundamentals. We want to make sure, from a product perspective, that the user experience is something customers love. It’s about making sure the features are intuitive and add value to what users are trying to do. Providing UX reliability and availability, as well as making sure the products are integrated, ensure that the value they get from our solution is exponentially charged.

It’s about making sure we’re compliant, making sure the products are available in the geography where the customers are looking for them, and doing that in a way that’s customer obsessed. My experience with Microsoft’s transformation is extremely relevant here—the focus on fundamentals, upon which everything else rests.

Then, relentless innovation. At Microsoft, that’s one thing we did really well—driving product innovation for the sake of ensuring we can add value for our customers and help them through whatever challenges they faced. That relentless quest to guarantee that we can continue making our products better, more intelligent, and more value-based for our customers is something I hope to bring to the table here at SAP.

Q. Could you define the scope of your responsibilities?

A. I’m responsible for all product engineering globally for Intelligent Spend and Business Network. This includes all product management, engineering, and design teams that focus on building products for procurement solutions in SAP Ariba and SAP S/4, our travel and expense solutions in SAP Concur, our external workforce solutions in SAP Fieldglass, as well as the work we’re doing in the SAP Business Network with Ariba Network, Asset Intelligence Network, and Logistics Business Network.

Q. Please share your views on the strengths of the following solutions: SAP Ariba, SAP Concur, and SAP Fieldglass.

A. I believe SAP provides industry-leading solutions that are market leaders in each category of spend: Ariba for indirect/direct maintenance, repair, and operations; Fieldglass for services and external workforce; Concur for travel and expense; and S/4 for direct spend. Concur remains the world’s most widely adopted corporate travel and expense software solution, and according to IDC, has 51.5% global market share. SAP maintains the largest share of the worldwide procurement applications software market; again, according to IDC, it has a global market share of 32.8%—more than the next 11 vendors combined. With a 99% customer retention rate, SAP Fieldglass solutions are considered industry-leading for vendor management systems. These are also industry-leading for contingent workforce management, as considered by analyst firms, including Ardent Partners, Everest Group, and Gartner. Plus, we offer the SAP Business Network, a cloud solution that connects more than eight million businesses across the supply chain, from buyers and suppliers, to manufacturers, logistics providers, and service providers. With SAP Business Network, we are building the foundation for global commerce in the new networked economy.

With this, SAP will fundamentally change how business applications will work in the future. SAP Business Network will enable customers to extend beyond their four walls to manage collaborations with trading partners in near real time to elevate the value each can provide to the other.

Q. What further developments and improvements can SAP customers and prospective customers expect in each of those offerings?

A. We are focused on a few top priorities. I’ll outline three of them. First, we are working to enhance the overall user experience, not just the UI, but really creating a rich, end-to-end user experience for the different personas that engage with our cloud solutions.

Second, we are continuing to improve the intelligence and automation embedded within the end-to-end process. Third, we are continuing our work to improve integration across the Intelligent Spend and Business Network portfolio, as well as integration with other SAP solutions such as S/4HANA, Integrated Business Planning, and SuccessFactors, to support end-to-end source-to-pay, design-to-operate, and hire-to-retire processes.

Q. Business Network is an area where our members would like greater understanding and greater clarity on what the future holds. Can you address those pieces of the puzzle?

A. Let’s think about it in a super simple fashion. The world of business applications, in the world of ERP, has largely focused on making processes more efficient internally, within the walls of an organization. This allowed organizations to add a ton of value to the organization itself by being able to execute in an integrated, seamless fashion across processes that historically were pretty siloed. There was a lot of value there.

But the next change step comes when you can go past these organizational boundaries and can connect with your trading partners. These could be partners that you buy direct materials or services from, or they could do contract manufacturing for you—essentially any and all kinds of engagements. How do you create that environment, that network, essentially, where you and your trading partners can exchange the relevant information in a real-time fashion, and then be able to generate insights and efficiencies? Historically, this kind of exchange required either peer-to-peer custom integrations or a time-lagged way to communicate, or worse—no communication among trading partners, each working in their own silo and hoping everything else works.

It’s important to focus on how to efficiently connect with tier-one partners, but today’s business network really needs to go beyond that. It needs to go into the supply chain and the value chain, with visibility that goes beyond just the tier-one trading partners network, which I think is exponentially harder to do. Being able to know what risks really reside in your entire value chain; being able to drive a level of supply chain collaboration, a level of visibility, a level of transparency into who does what. And not just for you, but for your tier one, tier two, tier three, and so forth, until you get to the raw materials.

I’m excited about SAP Business Network because of its ability to extend beyond the four walls of an organization to enable true collaboration across the value chain. The set of use cases that can apply are as broad and as wide as the set of business processes an organization runs. It could be in how you plan, manufacture, source, and/or interact with your customers, or even how you manage your finances with working capital partnerships, with banks and financial institutions.

Who in the world can bring about a Business Network like that to fruition? I believe there’s really only one organization that can pull it off and that’s SAP, because we work with some of the largest organizations in the world, providing a breadth of business applications that help people manage some of the most complex business processes.

Q. In early customer conversations, what have you heard are the top needs, challenges, and opportunities?

A. There have been some very clear, consistent feedback and requests from our customers, even in an unpredictable world. Top of mind for our customers is ensuring business continuity, especially because of the volatility of the world we live in and the agility required to address any number of requirements, such as being able to source materials they’re suddenly challenged to find. Ensuring supply-chain resiliency while trying to take cost out of the supply chain is issue number one. Creating more resiliency in the supply chain starts with having the right visibility and transparency. This allows us to find alternative sources when there are risks to elements that companies depend on, and to plan collaboratively with their trading partners in a way that allows them future resiliency.

We’re also seeing an increasing need to ensure compliance with new and emerging governmental regulations. States around the world are going to engage more in creating that resiliency as well, for industries that are important to them, and certainly in the cloud. There’s also the new supply-chain law in Germany. And the U.S. government just announced a new supply chain endeavor. We can expect to see more regulation. These regulations will have implications on the data residency expectations of our customers, as they want the data to be in-country for all critical processes, if not all processes.

Sustainability is also a top priority for most organizations, making sure they can be a responsible organization that contributes to the sustainability goals of the world. That starts with being able to have visibility into what their emissions are, and what their current carbon footprints are, from what they’re sourcing, to what they’re spending on, and what they’re building. Organizations want to have confidence in their commitments to their customers and in the value chain. They want the ability to demonstrate that they are, indeed, a responsible organization that works in a sustainable, humane way across their value chain.

Another emerging trend we see is flexibility in the workforce. Organizations need to be able to add staff with the right skills, at the right time, and with the lowest level of risk. We see some customers experiencing labor shortages; they want to be able to tap into contingent labor. We see a lot of project-driven work that needs external workers with the right skill set at the right time to do the job.

These are some of the top concerns we hear from our customers. This is where we’re focused on ensuring we can deliver solutions for them.

Q. Given all of that, what are your top priorities for the first six months and the first year?

A. As you would expect, in my first few weeks here, I focused on understanding the product and our product strategy. I’ve had countless hours of product deep dives. I’ve spent time meeting the team, understanding from their point of view what’s working well and what could be done differently to create more efficiencies. I’ve been connecting with our customers to understand how they feel about our products, what’s top of mind for them, and what they expect of SAP.

One thing I want to make sure that the ASUG community understands is this change—my being here—is not a signal of a change in strategy for us in Intelligent Spend and Business Network. As a company, we believe we have a compelling strategy and a compelling set of products that are market-leading from a share perspective—products that a lot of large customers depend on daily. We’ll continue to drive our core strategies and core priorities, which include continuous improvement to the user experience, not just the look and feel, but moreover, with a focus on the workflow and on bringing more intuitiveness to our products to provide the modern, consumer-grade experience users expect. That will remain a theme you’ll see us focus on and invest in a lot.

Another theme is this: How do we really infuse and apply AI to the massive amount of data our customers have, to then provide insights and intelligence in the context of their business applications—not just insights for the sake of insights, but insights that will help the end user? You’ll see us continue to invest a lot in AI across the full spectrum of Intelligent Spend.

And you’ll see us emphasize what I call fundamentals: compliance, security, and placement—ensuring we’re in the right regions, offering reliable products and performance.

Q. Can the customer community expect more accelerated developments in the areas you’ve talked about, and if so, how?

A. Absolutely. We are focused on continuing to develop SAP Business Network to infuse it into the business processes that our customers use. Customers should also expect us to execute with urgency on improving the user experience and delivering the intelligence and insights they can use to drive their businesses forward. At SAP, customers depend on us to run mission-critical processes. With the data that that generates—with the right security and privacy controls—we can apply AI to those processes, making them more valuable and giving customers the insights, analytics, and recommendations for the next best action to take. That will help customers transform their operations.

Q. If you had one message or two messages specifically for ASUG members, where the ASUG mission is to help our members obtain the best use and value from their investment in SAP technology, what would you tell them?

A. I have one ask and then I’ll make one commitment. The ask is this: keep the feedback coming. Our number-one priority is ensuring that we’re building solutions that can help our customers with the challenges they’re facing today, that can help them prepare for future growth. We aim to stay grounded in what our customers are seeking.

My commitment is that if customers keep the feedback coming, I’ll make sure that every single engineering hour we spend will focus on delivering what customers need to improve their businesses.