Are there hidden benefits to SAP?
November 2, 2009 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Are there hidden benefits to SAP?

I work for a medium-sized, semi-disorganized company. Three years ago, our customer service and sales functions were switched to SAP, along with most, but not all, of the top-level financial stuff. The project I work on (for a different part of the company), is based on Oracle (with a pretty, friendly web interface for regular users, as opposed to db folks). At one point, it seemed possible that we might be asked to move to SAP, but this didn't happen because of the general level of unhappiness with our SAP implementation.

Ever since then, I've wondered - did we just get a bad SAP implementation? Are there benefits of SAP that aren't evident from my limited perspective? Or is SAP just, well... bad? So many companies use SAP, it seems that it must offer unique advantages.

Here are some of the frequent complaints about how SAP is run in my company.

1. The speed of development, particularly for changes involving database structure. On the project I work on, we can pretty much implement any approved change request, even if this means adding new tables to the database or changing how they're used. But structural changes that the SAP developers have been talking about making for years don't seem to happen.

2. Similarly, it seems like there is a lot of difficulty getting data in and out. For instance, there are certain reports that can only be accessed as hard-copy print outs (they basically run out as scheduled jobs - they can't be triggered directly from within the interface). Is this normal?

3. The interface requires a lot of training, and does not seem to have been designed to be intuitive. For instance, users have to memorize reports named with random strings of letters and numbers. Did my company just fail to set these up properly?

4. Does SAP usually come with a web-based interface? Currently, users need to access via our inefficient intranet, and outside access for those working from home is not supported (except via VPN). Because the server is located on a different continent, this leads to a lot of complaints about system speed.

This isn't really an urgent question or anything, but it's been something I've been wondering about for years. Very high-level people in the company consider SAP useless because the particular report they want to run still hasn't been added to the system, or because they don't realize the report’s been added because it's named "DZ37489". Are we just using SAP in a stupid manner, or is it just not a good tool for our type of users? What SAP benefits are we missing out on?
posted by GraceCathedral to Technology (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What industry are you in?
posted by mazienh at 5:50 PM on November 2, 2009

Response by poster: Periodicals publishing. We're mostly using SAP to track lists of subscribers, generate renewal notices, take new orders, etc., plus high-level financial reporting.
posted by GraceCathedral at 5:53 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: When I was in publishing we switched to SAP too. It was a disaster, the way I've heard it best described is that SAP is best suited to companies that make things like widgets (where the product doesn't change) and not publishing (where is each book will have different characteristics). That was about 9 years ago though.

Sounds like the same/similiar issue though.
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:23 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: My husband works in SAP, and has for 12 years. He's very, very good at what he does. He says:

It sounds like you got a bad implementation, but you also might be too small a company for SAP. It's not worth installing it if you only use bits and pieces. Why not use all of it? It's a one system package that does everything. If you're interfacing with Oracle, it's not worth it. That said, here are answers to your specific questions:

1. Development can take a long time if your developers aren't any good. SAP requires years of experience.

2. Not normal.

3. Yes, your company failed to set up properly.

4. Out-of-the box, no, but you can get one, called My Workplace.

So, it's hard to say without an in-depth analysis, but it sounds like you're not using SAP to its full benefit but it's hard to do so with a bad implementation. SAP can do pretty much anything any other system can do, when implemented properly and with good developers and configurers.
posted by cooker girl at 6:23 PM on November 2, 2009

I use SAP at the soap factory where I work, which is part of a very large company with tens of thousands of drones like me in SAP at any given moment. I am not a developer; I am a humble End-User. I wouldn't have the knowledge or access to massage it into giving me what I want -- but I don't need to. It works fine. I've bookmarked the transactions I use, so it isn't necessary to memorize CS15 and QA33. I don't know, of course, how much better I could have it with some other system -- if there are very many usable on my company's Cthulhuesque scale -- but it seems to me that your system is harder to use than it needs to be, and that is probably not inherent to SAP.
posted by Methylviolet at 7:19 PM on November 2, 2009

Best answer: "So many companies use SAP, it seems that it must offer unique advantages."

There are benefits to using an ERP, and SAP is the dominant ERP in the market, so it's usually easier to just get that instead of a different ERP.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:05 PM on November 2, 2009

Getting data in and out of SAP is currently a good part of my job, and I don't find it particularly difficult. And while knowing the transaction names can be useful, you also can get to most stuff via the menus.

One of the benefits of SAP that I didn't see when I started working on it is that huge parts of it basically open source. They seem rather quiet about this, but you can essentially go and read the pretty straightforward ABAP code for tons of things. It really makes my life as a troubleshooter very easy. I also find it very well documented.
posted by dhoe at 1:00 AM on November 3, 2009

About ten years ago when working for large telco SAP implementation brought immediate saving for the first few quarters. Nobody with the exception of few secretaries knew how to purchase anything (generate POs, approve, etc.), so spending went down considerably [for a while anyways].
posted by zeikka at 6:26 AM on November 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers so far, especially cookergirl and Jacqueline. I feel a bit silly admitting this, but I guess I don't really understand the benefits of an ERP, as opposed to just storing all your data in a relational DB and building applications on top for the users and processes you need to support. It seems like this is cheaper and more flexible in the long run, but maybe this is only true for smaller companies? And you have total control to choose how open- or closed- source you'd like to be.

cestmoi15, maybe you're right and publishing companies in general are sort of the wrong shape for this kind of thing. We are (supposedly) one of the top five in our industry, but this is still probably pretty small compared to something like a soap company or widget company. And a lot of our needs are in areas that SAP doesn't specialize in, for instance file versioning, XML-based editing, online publication, etc. (Or at least, if these features are offered, they don't seem to be part of the package we bought).

Thanks for all of the answers so far - please keep them coming if anyone has more insights into the benefits of SAP and other ERPs.
posted by GraceCathedral at 8:02 AM on November 3, 2009

I have had only superficial experience with SAP, but from my understanding, you can think of it as a programming environment. It has a language, but then more importantly, lots of built-in functionality like a database, workflow management, etc.

The problem comes when you go to do deployment, and the components are connected in ad-hoc or stupid ways. Or when your business process isn't understood, causing years of "bugs" in the workflow modules (when in fact, it's just that the wrong assumptions were put in).

End result is that you have an infinitely flexible system that can have deployments go horrifically wrong and go way over budgets. But if you get capable teams, you can run gigantic companies with relative ease.
posted by cschneid at 12:21 PM on November 3, 2009

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