What started out as a family business has now grown into a highly successful life sciences company focused on manufacturing microfluidics and printing microscope slides, among other products. Scientific Device Laboratory, Inc. is an Illinois-based company that serves 1,000 customers worldwide. Part of doing business requires the company to remain compliant with medical-device regulations in the U.S. and in every country where it serves customers.
ASUG discussed some of the challenges these regulations present from a technology perspective with CIO Steve Lipton. When he took on his current role, he inherited responsibility for the company’s instance of SAP Business One—along with some technical debt left behind by his predecessor.
A CIO and Educator in Chief
Fortunately, Steve can lean on his background in educating adult learners to use technology, as well as what he describes as “work in user experience before there was an official name for that.” Today, he keeps his skills sharp and shares his knowledge with others on a variety of tech topics through LinkedIn Learning and other training outlets.
Steve connected with ASUG for a webcast earlier this year to discuss our research on SAP Business One customers. We continued our discussion in an interview where he described his team’s efforts to remove remaining technical debt and change cloud providers while completing the groundwork to prepare to adopt SAP Business One 10.0. In the meantime, he shared his tips on how to help users accept new features while explaining the secret superpower of documentation in change management and as a way to future-proof your IT program.
Ann Marie: Could you tell us a little bit about what Scientific Device Laboratory does?
Steve: We’re a medical device manufacturer of diagnostic products for microbiology and mycology laboratories. We’re a supplier of several products for the detection of tuberculosis, as well as a manufacturer of custom slides for use in laboratories and as an OEM component in devices made by other companies.
Ann Marie: How long has Scientific Device Laboratory been using SAP Business One? And what do you use it for?
Steve: We started using SAP Business One 8.8 back in February 2012, at the beginning of our fiscal year. We have updated since then to version 9.3. SAP Business One is used by almost all of our departments, including customer service, accounting, purchasing, and shipping. The reports from SAP Business One are part of our corporate strategy team meetings.
Ann Marie: What other systems, if any, do you currently integrate with SAP Business One?
Steve: Outside of add-ons, we have been very conservative with our integrations for a lot of reasons—especially security. We’ve made a few attempts to bring in CRM systems, but none of them have worked out the way we would have liked at the right price. We do have a few add-ons, including Boyum B1 Usability Package, which I can’t believe anyone could live without. We also have credit card processing and shipping running through an add-on.
Ann Marie: What else would you like to integrate, if possible?
Steve: In the future I’d love to see better integration with the shipping process. It’s very rudimentary right now. I’d love to see a better system in place that goes directly into FedEx and UPS instead of only halfway, as it does today. And I’d like to see more support for our warehouse. That’s still a digital desert for us.
Ann Marie: What are your plans to adopt version 10.0? What do you see as the pros and cons of moving to the latest version of SAP Business One?
Steve: I am planning for a probable 2021 adoption. COVID-19 pushed back many of the infrastructure changes necessary for version 10.0. But I’d like to wait until 10.1 comes out, if possible, because any version 0.0 always has problems with bugs. I don’t care what the software is—I prefer not to work with something that’s buggy. We may experience even more bugs this time because this is the first mandatory 64-bit version of SAP Business One. Being on 32-bit now, we’re going to have a plenty of changes which may affect add-ons or the software itself. For all of these reasons, I have a long-term plan for moving to 10.0, but it’s not something that will happen in the short term.
Ann Marie: What are some of the things you’re excited about in 10.0?
Steve: The tab authorizations in the master data is going to be a really big thing for us. I’d love to keep my customer service people out of the accounting data, for example. There are a few approval process changes that I think sound really great. But what most intrigues me are the changes to the user interface. I’d love to see these changes go further than already planned. The user interface in version 9.3 and earlier has huge accessibility problems for people with bad vision. Expanding the font works—however, you then lose the ability to see certain information. I would love to see the user interface continue to modernize in 10.0, 10.1, and forward.
Ann Marie: What are some of your most important technology initiatives this year? How have you had to adjust those, given the current business conditions?
Steve: I’ve had an ongoing technology initiative for two years to remove technical debt. That involves updating some of our old hardware and software to newer versions that support the tools that we’re using currently. I am getting a lot of good documentation on our customized reports that we have in the system. That also includes cleaning out some of the old ones that nobody uses. I also have a regulatory-related project that requires several layers of technology.
My last initiative is getting a new cloud platform ready for SAP Business One. Our current service is great for someone who wants to use zero systems administration and leave everything to the vendor. It’s safe, secure, and robust. However, more control is necessary in our case and we now need a better cloud solution.
Ann Marie: How have you had to adjust these initiatives, given the current business conditions?
Steve: Most of my initiatives are on track, except for the servers. The pandemic put the brakes on that. I really don’t want a new server when I have three quarters of the people who are going to be using it at home and not in the office. It will require a lot of user support when they report that this or that doesn’t work, and I can’t just run to their desks and help them.
Ann Marie: Talk about a time when you need the cloud, right? A fair number of respondents in our SAP Business One research said that they’ve been looking at the cloud. I think that will accelerate.
Steve: I seriously don’t want to think about what I would have to deal with if I had a server on site. That would have been a real disaster. I don’t have the infrastructure to have 15 lines or whatever I would need from the external world into my server and to manage the security along with everything else. I am very happy that that security is somebody else’s problem.
Ann Marie: How do you use the technologies you have to adapt to changing regulatory requirements within and outside the U.S.?
Steve: One of my biggest current regulatory nightmares is barcodes. This year, I need to make sure all of my products that are considered medical devices have their own barcodes with their own unique identifiers on every label. We must do this for every product that goes out the door. That requires a larger technology initiative because you can’t hand-code a barcode. We’re integrating portions of this function with SAP where we are tracking the individual barcodes in our inventory data and, at the same time, moving that data into other platforms to actually create and print the labels.
Ann Marie: If you could wave a magic wand, what would be the one or two things you would change that would help you make the process of complying with these regulations better?
Steve: One is so magic that I’m never going to see it. It would be great if there were some way that I could say that the set of software we are using is so standard that regulatory agencies are OK with us using it and will validate it without us having to go through the validation process. If you do something weird with it, then yes—you have to validate it—for example, a customization. But I’m never going to see that happen.
The other one is a real possibility. I would love to wave a magic wand and find modern barcodes in SAP Crystal Reports as one of the output options. Right now in SAP Business One, there are two relatively antique barcodes, but not the kind of stuff that is being required by the regulatory agencies to put on our packages. I’m not seeing this yet. And it isn’t just one-dimensional barcodes. There are now so many 2D barcodes, ranging from QR codes to Aztec codes, or Data Matrix barcodes, which is what I’m using. All of those are used in transportation, logistics, and the like. You can’t get those out of SAP in any way, shape, or form. And it would be lovely if you could.
Ann Marie: What are some of the business processes you are looking to automate?
Steve: One area is warehousing and pick and pack operations. I’d love to see more control over those parts of the business than the manual systems we have in place now. We have a very talented crew here. Our purchasing and warehousing people do everything in their heads, so I’d like to see better recordkeeping on what’s happening in our warehouse. That way the people who are picking, packing, and shipping could more easily confirm what’s going on in our inventory on a much more real-time basis than we can do now.
Ann Marie: How do you use the cloud today and what benefits have you received from being in the cloud?
Steve: Well, I am a die-hard cloud fan. My overriding reason to have SAP in the cloud is that our data is not stored on site. I like the accessibility and the safety of the cloud. One of the problems with having an onsite server is that if anything goes wrong in our building—a natural disaster, snowstorm, power failure, or a million other issues—once that situation happens, we would be dead in the water. If SAP were not in the cloud in the first place, I never would have been able to support the kind of full operations that we were able to move when we made everyone 100% remote. We moved lightning fast. Except for some hardware configuration, this went amazingly smooth versus what could have happened.
The other side of the cloud is the support. Let’s say I’m at a conference and there’s a problem—I still have the accessibility to our systems from anywhere in the world. There are so many servers that there are a lot of copies of your data in various places. It’s very hard for it to completely disappear.
Ann Marie: I know you are planning move to a different cloud provider. What are you looking for with this change?
Steve: At the moment, if I were to have an employee who had access to the system and was fired, I could not change the server password fast enough. That requires me to send a ticket to my provider, then my provider sends in another ticket to escalate it to the cloud team, and then the cloud people make the password change. So, it could take three or four hours for a password change to happen, and that’s three or four extra hours someone has access to my system and could negatively affect it. That’s just one simple security situation where, if I had control of that password, I could change it before that individual walked out the door. We’ve never had a situation where that was a problem, but I want to be ready for it.
Ann Marie: What advice would you offer other SAP Business One customers who are struggling with the pace of technology change and the effort to help both their employees—and even their own customers—adjust to those changes in technology?
Steve: I saw a session at an SAP Business One conference about a simple button that lets you find on a map a business partner—and the audience went absolutely wild. One of the reasons I bring that story up is that sometimes new technology doesn’t fit the users who are using it.
While we’re busy playing with AI, which I don’t see in as many practical use cases—I don’t think that’s where people really need to be now. One thing I would ask: Is this really something that you need in the first place? That shiny thing may not be what you need, but there are lots of little things you can do to really improve the experience for your users. Like I said, accessibility is high on my list of enhancements because it means we can hire more people in diverse roles in our organization. The kinds of things that get people excited are the things that make their work lives easier and better.
Ann Marie: How do you help your end users adapt when new features and technologies come out?
Steve: Fortunately for SAP Business One, a lot of changes are incremental, even in huge updates from version 9.0 to 10.0. One of the things that I tend to promote when these changes happen is a really cool little feature that will make one person’s job easier. If there’s a customer service representative function that lets users change addresses in an instant from one person to another, they’re going to love that, and they’ll go for that. If it’s something for production to get new types of reports out, they’ll be more excited about that. They’re not going to be excited about some fantastic new system functions that no one will ever use but me.
When looking at the user’s needs and what they do on a regular basis, you can learn a lot from your users about what’s really important and what leads to big productivity gains. If they find something that does not give them so much drudgery, then that’s a good thing. I try and sell this as solving a problem that they have.
Ann Marie: What types of things do you do to help your users navigate that change?
Steve: Make sure you have really good documentation that fits the context of your organization and that is designed directly for your organization. I write training materials about SAP Business One for LinkedIn Learning. I’ve got three video courses and another three on the way. I can teach you exactly how to do things from an ideal perspective. But when I get into a business that has certain idiosyncrasies about how they’re going to put together a sales order, an invoice, or a production order, that’s where everyone is different, and you need to have that documented as part of your organization’s specific training materials.
Ann Marie: Sometimes documentation becomes an afterthought. The budget runs out, time runs out, and everyone’s excited to get their hands on the new product. What’s the importance of documentation when it comes to helping with change management?
Steve: Well, I think you’re wasting large amounts of time without good documentation. It’s actually even a bigger problem when it’s not a new toy anymore. You make customizations and don’t add comments about your intent, what you were doing, and how you did it. Then you have to sit there and read code later on to figure it out.
It makes a huge difference in change management when you have to dissect the system before you can even fix it. Having that information available in comments or on paper will speed up the process of making changes. Sometimes people want to just get the job done and they think it’s a luxury to have documentation. I don’t think it’s a luxury. I think it’s an investment that will end up adding to huge interest on your technical debt if you don’t do it right.
Ann Marie: In our research with SAP Business One customers this year, fewer than 10% of customers said that they needed help with training and onboarding employees to use SAP Business One. At the same time, other customers told us they’re having trouble understanding how to use the technology themselves. What can organizations do to resolve this disconnect?
Steve: Let’s say Margo comes in as a new employee and Susan who sits next to her is going to teach her everything and there is no true training going on. That’s cheap for the business. But what ends up happening is that a whole bunch of bad habits pass from one person to the next. Then you eventually end up with an entire office of people who could be doing the wrong things. You end up with a bad culture, which makes this an HR issue more than even a tech issue.
Think of how it would help to make a video of someone using a system for an internal set of training documents. Having that documentation with the real stuff people need to know is critical. The other problem is that there may be one person who knows it all, but that person leaves or can’t work because they’re in an auto accident and they’re out for four weeks. You’re in real trouble because you don’t know the details. Getting good training and documentation in place means that you have an insurance policy and you’re not going to lose any of the really good wisdom you have.
Ann Marie: What are some of the areas where you would like to innovate?
Steve: One of the areas I would like to push is dashboards. I would love to see a graphic way of showing how we’re doing, both for internal consumption among the executives and a more public one for employees to show that we’re doing great. I would like to push this data out to our signboards, which we are still not able to do yet. Those kinds of innovations are really cool, and I would love to see us automate that process. To say, we’re cranking it out like crazy—that builds enthusiasm and teamwork.
Ann Marie: Thanks so much for giving us a view into how you’re using SAP Business One. Best of luck with your upcoming projects and your efforts to get rid of technical debt.
Register today for the virtual ASUG Best Practices: SAP Business One, Oct. 27–29, at no charge. You’ll hear Steve share his presentation, "Creativity: It’s not Only for 'The Gifted' Anymore," along with stories from other SAP Business One customers like Scientific Device Laboratories.