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The SAP Business Network effect: Putting it all together

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At Sapphire Now 2021, SAP took pains to plot a way forward after COVID-19, mapping out a future of improved sustainability for itself, its customers and their global partners.

SAP went into its second virtual Sapphire Now conference with a tailwind: 15 months of a pandemic that proved remote work and e-commerce are not just viable, but in many cases preferable, thereby also demonstrating the indispensability of cloud computing.

The pandemic also showed once and for all just how interdependent the world's people and their economies are, and the fragility of supply chains when their links are broken by factory shutdowns, trade restrictions and lockdowns. The SAP Business Network, the biggest "new" thing to come out of Sapphire, was billed as a tool that could help inoculate SAP customers against similar threats and carry them through this suddenly digitally transformed landscape.

Is SAP Business Network really new?

The SAP Business Network is an amalgam of the SAP Ariba procurement network, SAP Logistics Business Network and SAP Asset Intelligence Network. If not exactly new, the network should bring new energy to SAP's push into environmental sustainability and its Rise with SAP cloud-migration service, both of which merited announcements of their own at Sapphire. Five new Rise offerings target vertical industries, including consumer products, utilities and automotive. Two new software packages help manage the sustainability elements of product design and lifecycle management, while a "control tower" application promises a commanding, end-to-end view of supply chains.

Together, these SaaS platforms and networks will bring customers and suppliers together in a community that spans 5.5 million organizations, according to SAP CEO Christian Klein.

But some analysts expressed a sense of deja vu, having heard similar pronouncements for SAP B2B networks at past Sapphires, and this month's unveiling was indeed short on specifics. SAP did say the dashboard for the SAP Business Network is available now, while integration of the three component networks will follow later this year.

The carping is not unjustified. The sustainability theme echoed that of Sapphire Now 2020, Klein's first Sapphire as sole CEO. Back then, he set a new tone for SAP as a more forward-thinking company whose technology could serve a greater good. Unified networks of SAP-enabled intelligent enterprises would be the means.

With that history so recent, Klein's characterization of the SAP Business Network as the most important driver of the vendor's sustainability efforts is more aptly characterized as following through on a promise than setting a new direction. But follow-through has not always been a strength of tech vendors.

In a press and analyst Q&A, Klein expounded on these broader themes, stressing the importance of achieving "zero waste, zero emissions and zero inequality." He sounded genuine and passionate about using SAP technology to reach those perhaps unattainable goals.

On a more mundane level, the relaunched SAP Business Network serves as a new enticement for customers to move to the cloud -- in particular, to the SaaS version of the latest ERP platform, S/4HANA Cloud. It also bolsters SAP's pitch for its intelligent enterprise and business transformation offerings and lets it show progress in integrating the B2B networks it acquired.

SAP marketer-in-chief makes her debut

The conference was also noteworthy for the debut of Julia White, SAP's first-ever chief marketing and solutions officer. White introduced Klein during the opening keynote and was never far from the spotlight. She came to SAP just three months ago from the Azure division of Microsoft, which had been the primary partner in SAP's initial push in 2019 to make its software available on public-cloud hyperscale platforms. SAP has started to broaden the choices for customers, relegating Microsoft to a less lofty role -- that is, equal to competitors like Google Cloud Platform. At least, SAP executives appeared acutely aware of the leveling action during Sapphire, judging from their practiced responses to questions about the new Azure arrangement.

At several points, White suggested SAP needs to do a better job of blowing its own horn. "We've been largely talking to the world about the brand of SAP, but not necessarily the depth and the capability behind it," she said. Bringing those strengths to the forefront is clearly one of her mandates as SAP's newest messenger.

In fact, SAP now seems more determined to build on its strengths than to invent something new, but as its rhetoric about global communities and business networks suggests, sometimes putting together things that were formerly separate is the creative act. Some would argue it is how most innovations come to be.

In this podcast, Brian McKenna, business applications editor at ComputerWeekly, and Jim O'Donnell, news editor of SearchERP and I discussed SAP Business Network and other notable developments from Sapphire Now 2021.

To hear it, click on the podcast link above.

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