Inspire innovation, acknowledge challenges, and share practical lessons from customers and SAP experts in cloud migrations. That’s Timo Elliott’s plan in his session during the August ASUG Best Practices: SAP for Cloud conference.
For Elliott, SAP Global Innovation Evangelist, the August virtual event provides the opportunity to trace broad business, technology, and industry trends; present lessons learned in people and practical process; and emphasize the importance that peers and ASUG member connections can play in SAP solution implementations and success.
ASUG recently connected with Elliott to get an early view of his session. An edited version of the full interview follows. For conference information and registration, visit https://www.asug.com/events/asug-best-practices-sap-for-cloud.
Question: What do you plan to bring to the audience at the SAP-ASUG Cloud Conference this year?
Answer: I am an innovation evangelist for SAP, so my role involves working with organizations on the leading edge of innovation, gathering the lessons learned, and then trying to share that with as many people as possible so that we can all be more successful.
Q: As an evangelist, do you have a special focus area?
A: My job is to try and help provide an overview of the big trends and how we can help. Moving to the cloud is one of the biggest trends. In particular, I do a lot of evangelism about innovation and the SAP Business Technology Platform. And recently, I've been involved with the SAP Innovation Awards. It’s a program where we invite organizations to explain how they have been transforming their business with technology in their own words. My presentation at the conference use many real-world cases—what people are actually doing, the lessons learned, and advice to others.
Q: How about some hints about those real-world business cases of innovation and a few of those lessons learned?
A: I'll be starting with the big trends. For example, IDC has said this is the year technology architecture becomes business architecture. We've heard it for several years—every organization is becoming a technology organization, being more flexible, and being able to innovate faster with a business technology platform that's inevitably running on cloud technology.
And think about digital transformation. It's less about a particular technology and more about turning innovation into a business process that can be optimized, where you learn and constantly improve and do things better.
Q: Will there be particular businesses or industries that you'll focus on?
A: It will be cross-industry and focused on general business/IT themes. With all the customers I talk to, I see three themes that are particularly big right now:
One is sustainability. It's a new theme that has been around for a while, but it's becoming more urgent, and organizations want to do more. Even reluctant organizations are going to do a lot more because customers want more sustainable products, employees want to work for more sustainable enterprises, and governments are putting in place sticks and carrots to ensure people do the right thing. Even investors are responding by valuing companies based on their sustainability, which ultimately filters through to the bonuses of all the key executives.
Every company I've talked to talks about how sustainability is a big and growing part of their strategy. Ultimately, it’s about building sustainability into core decision processes. For example, we’re working with one of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies. They're facing new plastic taxes and regulations. So, they want to give all that information to their designers so they can make the forward-looking choices about materials.
The second theme I see is artificial intelligence. There are many great real-world examples of people using it to automate complex processes and get rid of all those repetitive decisions that typically are the most tedious parts of people's jobs. The most interesting involve augmented intelligence, where people and computers work together for more optimal outcomes. For example, there's a lot of uncertainty out there, and people are combining algorithms with expert knowledge to try to reduce uncertainty by looking at different scenarios of what might happen and figuring out the most optimal choices. Sustainability is one of the cases for this: Of all the things we could choose to do, what's the best option to optimize profits and the planet?
The third theme is business user empowerment. One of the biggest barriers to innovating faster has been the divide between IT people and businesspeople. But increasingly, thanks to artificial intelligence and the cloud and these other technologies, there's a fantastic opportunity to let businesspeople do more of the innovation themselves in their area of expertise, without IT and technology being a bottleneck—but in a governed environment. And with robotic process automation and new low-code/no-code solutions, we've got some fantastic examples of organizations starting to deploy these technologies.
Gartner contends that up to 80% of technology innovation will be done by “citizen technologists” in the years to come--people who weren’t hired to do technology development but are increasingly responsible for extending existing processes and creating new ones. The hard part, of course, is enabling that and giving up some control while making sure that we don't end up with Frankenstein monsters where each business goes and does its own thing, and you end up with complete chaos.
Q: Will you be talking about SAP Business Technology Platform?
A: In general, I'll be talking about how our customers have done cool things, and by the way, they're using SAP Business Technology Platform. I'll mention what parts of the platform they have used to do whatever they've been working on.
Q: What are a couple of the lessons learned you plan to share?
A: Over the last couple of years, I’ve done a series of interviews called “Better Together,” where we discuss projects and what could have gone better. Three things make the top of the list. The first is data: people vastly underestimate how long it will take them to get the data together to innovate effectively. So to take a big step forward, organizations find they have to take a small step back and fix some of that plumbing. It's not very glamorous, but once you've done that, it makes it much easier to do things like implement artificial intelligence algorithms.
Q: You need clean data and trusted data?
A: Right. If you have large quantities of high-quality data, it's quite quick and easy to put in place these algorithms. Unfortunately, a vast majority of companies find they don't have that in place.
The second area is process. Organizations have the technology, but you actually have to integrate the technology into a business process for anything to happen. We're pretty good at doing that for the big processes that everybody knows SAP for—purchase-to-pay, hire-to-retire, etc. But the vast majority of work happens in much smaller, ad hoc types of business processes. That's where the new business user empowerment comes in, and it must be part of a bigger rethink of how processes are created and standardized in the organization.
And the last, of course, is people. Undoubtedly, people are the most important, intelligent “innovation technology” inside organizations. Sometimes I try and explain it to IT organizations by saying, “Look, forget that it's a person. Imagine it’s a robot—every time a business user accesses the system, they actively add value to anything they’re doing, assessing the information, and making decisions. So you should consider them part of your information infrastructure.” And that means organizations need to think about and invest in optimizing that “technology.” So training and cultural change and organization and incentives are all really important. Inevitably, when digital transformation goes wrong, people are underinvested in this area.
Q: Maybe we can make some headway?
A: I'm a hopeless optimist because technology's always improving. I know it sometimes feels like we don't get better at these things but the reality is we absolutely do—it's just that businesses then move on to the next level of complexity and the next level of things they want to do. I sometimes use the analogy that we're walking up a down escalator. We have to keep walking up just to stay still in terms of the expectations of the business.
Q: If there is one idea you want the audience to walk away with, in your hopeless optimistic mode, what would that be?
A: Ultimately, the biggest takeaway is since ASUG organizes this event, please take advantage of the SAP community because it is out there, and it is a massive ecosystem. There are people out there in your industry and line of business who have already thought about the future, tackled these kinds of problems, and made mistakes that you don’t have to repeat! And so please leverage the user group and all the other community opportunities so that we can all do better — improving customer outcomes, cutting costs, and helping make the world a better place!