There was a guest post on the Forbes Magazine blog last month that I can’t get out of my head: “For Enterprise IT, Time to Move Beyond SAP.”
For the record, I am an ERP dilatant — I know about it but don’t follow it with the same passion that I follow CRM. And as far as SAP is concerned, I have rarely met a bunch of smarter business people who are also rather nice. I have no issues with either, but as an observer of macro trends, this was a surprising article for several reasons.
First, someone else wrote it. The headline sums up my observations about ERP, but until I read the post by Dave Yarnold, CEO of ServiceMax, I thought I was unique in that line of thought. Glad I am not.
Second, and more interesting, is Yarnold’s assertion that legacy ERP has been an impediment to business, at least in recent years. That really got me, because I thought that was my mantra.
Third, it points to the cloud and modern technologies as the emerging solution.
The Service Factor
It all goes quickly to the business model of the 21st century: services on demand. Vendors — at least the smart ones — are looking for ways to convert their product-centric businesses to services for some very good reasons. When you sell a service, like software for example, we all know the customer is liberated from the need to purchase hardware, operating systems, middleware, database and applications. Customers are also liberated from the need to hire high-priced talent to administer and maintain all that technology.
I hate to sound happy about reducing demand for all those talented people in the middle of a recession (I know it ended a while ago, I’m just waiting to feel it). But that’s what businesses and economies do. If something can be shown to be extraneous to the business’ core mission, you must reduce or eliminate it or you will become uncompetitive as a result.
It’s not just software that comes as a service either. Some of my favorite examples are the companies that were profiled in The New Yorker about a year ago that provide wardrobe as a service. If you like Gucci bags or designer clothes but can’t afford to own, these companies will provide articles of clothing as a subscription.
Stamping Out Creativity?
But let’s get back to the impediment for a moment. According to Yarnold, who was speaking about a colleague, “He’s an IT veteran who has been running SAP software since the ’90s, who came to the realization that the efficiencies it afforded them have completely eliminated the creativity, growth and innovative thinking the company once prided itself on.”
That’s bad enough, but Yarnold goes on, “Companies had to conform their business processes to the way SAP’s rigid software ran. Much of the uniqueness that enabled companies to differentiate themselves was squeezed out in the name of SAP. I can’t even guess at the number of meetings I’ve had with senior company leaders over the years where creative new business ideas were shelved because ‘it didn’t fit into SAP.’ Is it possible that this long-term adherence to the SAP way has in some way been at the root of the lack of creativity, competitiveness or the loss of manufacturing jobs we now bemoan in our economy?”
I wouldn’t go that far — you can’t lay everything at the feet of SAP, and this analysis does not take into account life before SAP. Companies bought it because it solved a business problem (let’s call it “legacy ERP” because there are other vendors in the space, like Oracle).
Legacy ERP, like all products you can mention, was designed and built for a particular place in time, specific business needs and processes tied to manufacturing. If legacy ERP no longer meets the need, it’s because business changed. We’re a services economy today, and about 70 percent of GDP is tied to services, not manufacturing. Companies like Zuora go even further and have called the present model “the subscription economy.”
Subscription vs. ERP
Subscriptions enable businesses to change more rapidly, and the above-mentioned “creative new business ideas were shelved because ‘it didn’t fit into SAP'” are a reality.
The subscription economy is real. In this world companies like Workday and Zuora have taken prominent positions, and the marketplace is taking note. This morning, Zuora announced its Series D financing as well as increasing its footprint in Europe. The company raised US$36 million in new funding, including money from Dave Duffield, founder and coCEO of Workday, and Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com. Also, in the first three quarters of this year in which Zuora had a presence in Europe, the company announced that it has $2.5 billion in contracted revenue from its early customers.
Legacy ERP might still control the market, and it may take a long time for the upstarts to gain significant share. A comparison with Salesforce is instructive. Salesforce was a key reason Siebel topped out as a $2 billion company, though it was many years before Salesforce gained the same revenue level. In the same way, the presence of Zuora, Workday and companies like them indicates the high water mark for legacy ERP.
Legacy ERP is ill-suited to the demands of the subscription economy, and it is comparatively expensive. As the ERP replacement cycle gains steam, no vendor, incumbent or otherwise, should take its position in an account for granted.
Mark Twain once quipped, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” We could say much the same about legacy ERP, but now it appears that there are credible alternatives coming on line.