I always thought that top executives are usually the most hard core evangelists for a company, sometimes to a fault. But not Hasso Plattner, co-founder and chairman of the supervisor board of SAP. SAP has long been one of our favorite targets, and we generally refer to it as the false god of the almighty algorithm. We once even told you how a whiteboard from Staples could do a better job that the multibazillion dollar software.
In a May 15th interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Plattner discussed the complexity of SAP software, and what customers think of that complexity. As Lee Gomes of the WSJ put it,
With its [SAP’s] success, however, has come a reputation for making cumbersome products that average workers find extremely hard to use.
Admittedly some of the questions were rather leading, such as "Why do you think SAP has such a bad reputation in software design?" To which Mr. Platner responded,
To a large extent it’s the consequence of success. The broader your software, the more people are using it, and pressuring the designers of the software to move in different directions. So the overall complexity keeps growing.
Wait a minute… does the complexity have to keep growing? Generally it does, but a very defined and robust software development strategy, with inputs (but not driven by) from the customer, can create tight software. Not worshipping the large company is difficult however, and that creates problems:
As soon as a large company came in as a partner, the complexity shot up like a rocket.
He doesn’t exactly compliment his programmers, and actually blames them.
Where you give software developers a choice of doing the simple thing or the more complicated thing, they go for the more complicated thing, because there’s more reward for doing it.
That’s interesting, especially after a much longer article in the May 11th Wall Street Journal on how SAP uses globalization to create sometimes nasty competition between software development groups. We often hear complaints that SAP’s algorithms don’t match up with production reality, let alone lean manufacturing methods, and perhaps the following explains why.
We don’t talk enough to the real end users. Even if we work intensively with the customer, we work with their IT department.
Mr. Plattner teaches a class on software design at Stanford, and said the following about the opinion his students have of SAP software.
A student has to hate it. You cannot, as a student, understand why enterprises are complicated.
Smart students. Enterprises don’t have to be complicated… they often evolve that way. Patch after patch on top of problems instead of finding and eliminating the root cause. That’s why value stream mapping is so powerful… you can strip away all the waste and get back to the real fundamental requirements of the process.
That’s also why a white board from Staples can often be a viable alternative to million dollar software. Perhaps SAP should take a couple steps back from the chasm of overwhelming complexity to try one out. They might realize how simple an enterprise can be.