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What is an SAP Intelligent Enterprise? Don't look for a clear answer

What does Intelligent Enterprise actually mean? If the SAP term confuses you, you're not alone. Learn what the experts say and why the concept might matter more than you think.

More than a year ago, SAP unveiled its Intelligent Enterprise concept, a nebulous vision for how companies can get real-time insights from data. The concept is partly strategy and partly technology, but experts disagree on what, exactly, an Intelligent Enterprise is and what companies need to do to get there.

SAP Intelligent Enterprise strategy

SAP offers an Intelligent Enterprise Framework, which provides guidance to companies that want to start their journey.

SAP holds that an Intelligent Enterprise isn't just about the technology; it also requires a shift in the organization's culture and its processes, said Geoff Maxwell, global head of business strategy and execution for Intelligent Enterprise solutions at SAP.

"The Intelligent Enterprise is about, 'How do I run my organization in a way that is capable of responding to the outside world and leverages everything I have available?'" Maxwell said.

That means bringing operational data and experience data into one platform that allows companies to manage the two and glean insights from both, he said.

Instead of just basing decisions on the financial effects, the Intelligent Enterprise also incorporates customer experience and employee experience into decision-making. For example, when business leaders need to make decisions about HR, they not only understand how the hire will affect them financially, but gauge the effect on customers, Maxwell said.

Analytics play a large part in the Intelligent Enterprise, Maxwell said. For example, an airline might have two planes delayed on the runway and need to decide which one takes off first. Instead of just analyzing the basic financial cost of Flight A taking off before Flight B, an Intelligent Enterprise approach would mean using systems to bring in customer data and use predictive analytics to figure out the effect on customers and the cabin crew, using structured and unstructured data from multiple sources.

SAP Intelligent Enterprise technology

Experts agreed SAP's intelligent enterprise vision is a great one.

SAP's Intelligent Enterprise is achievable, as long as companies keep in mind that it's a journey, not a destination.

"This idea of no front end and no back end, and everything is customer-facing, everything has experience value, that is all really, really good," said Paul Saunders, senior director and analyst at Gartner.

However, the challenge for SAP lies in making it resonate with customers so it doesn't come off as a marketing pitch.

In terms of technology, the Intelligent Enterprise includes SAP S/4HANA, C/4HANA, SuccessFactors, the SAP Cloud Platform and Qualtrics, among other technologies for the digital supply chain and the digital core.

SAP is stepping up to assist its customers and partners with change management. The company is still synonymous with ERP, even though it offers 347 products. But it's starting to answer the question of why companies should move to the Intelligent Enterprise, what it means, what it looks like and how you do it, which is a step in the right direction, Saunders said.

Varies by industry or by company -- maybe

There's some disagreement on whether the Intelligent Enterprise varies by industry -- or by company.

The Intelligent Enterprise isn't industry-specific; it's organization-specific, Saunders said.

"What makes one organization an intelligent enterprise is not what makes another an intelligent enterprise," he said. "That's where SAP can't dictate what an intelligent enterprise is [and] needs to play a role in helping organizations become an intelligent enterprise."

However, others said the core functions are the same across different industries and functions. Where it differs is in line-of-business requirements, or in the supply chain, where consumer packaged goods would look very different than high tech, said Bob Parker, a senior vice president at IDC.

"The core technologies that get built in are relatively consistent across industries, [but] the way they manifest will be different by industry," he said.

You can start on ECC

One of the most popular inquiries Parker gets from his SAP customers is whether or not they can become an Intelligent Enterprise if they're still running ERP Central Component. Customers can definitely use some of the technologies in the Intelligent Enterprise before they move to S/4HANA, according to SAP.

The first wave of intelligent technologies, robotic process automation (RPA), provides an inroad that isn't really machine learning, but does let a company start using bots with some intelligence and some soft matches of data, Maxwell said.

Many enterprises still have people completing significant manual tasks that can be automated, he said.

"Fundamentally, much of RPA is Excel macros, [but it] still allows you to deliver significant business value," he added.

SAP's Intelligent Enterprise is achievable, as long as companies keep in mind that it's a journey, not a destination. That means being able to use analytics effectively and integrate data silos -- something that's been discussed for years and may end up being a reality, if SAP can convince its customers of the value of the Intelligent Enterprise, Saunders said.

"You have to become increasingly intelligent," he said.

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