SAP: Uneasy on the EyesBy Baselinemag | Posted 2006-01-14 Print
SAP says 10,000 companies use its Business Warehouse software to analyze sales data. But is the software too complicated for ordinary employees to use?
SAP's business intelligence tools have the brains. Can they get the looks? The German company says 10,000 customersincluding Nestléuse its Business Warehouse software to analyze sales data and crunch other business performance metrics.
Customers like that it taps right into an SAP enterprise resource planning system, without requiring translation into another format. But there's a common complaint about SAP's business intelligence tools: that the software is hard for ordinary employees to use.
Consider the experience of Mold-Masters. Two years ago, the Canadian maker of plastics manufacturing equipment installed SAP Business Warehouse to provide sales and finance reports from its R/3 enterprise resource planning system directly to business users, without requiring the company's SAP administrators to compile the data.
But Val Swift, Mold-Masters' manager of information technology, soon realized SAP couldn't provide everything she needed. The Business Warehouse system was just too complex for business users, she says: "It's powerful, but it can be intimidating."
For example, according to Swift, SAP's reporting tools cannot easily be configured to package data differently for different groupsi.e., staffers have access to every piece of data in the system, regardless of whether it pertains to their job function.
So, Mold-Masters bought Cognos' ReportNet to deliver weekly sales information in a format that salespeople can easily customize. For example, ReportNet can show members of the U.S. sales team all figures in U.S. dollars. "SAP's user interface has never been their selling point," Swift says.
Ditto, says Mike Masciandaro, manager of business intelligence technology at Rohm and Haas. The specialty chemicals manufacturer has 3,500 employees tapping its SAP Business Warehouse 3.5 system, which handles 70,000 inquiries about sales and customer data each month.
According to Masciandaro, the advantage of using SAP Business Warehouse is that everybody in the company works from exactly the same set of data, pulled from R/3. But Business Warehouse still has some "annoying" features that make it hard to work with, he says: "You have to dig around to manipulate things the way you want."
For example, the text-entry function included with the software's Web reporting template confusingly pops up a box with no explanation of what someone is supposed to enter. A clunky interface, Masciandaro notes, "doesn't allow you to capture the hearts and minds of the executives"in other words, the CEO probably isn't going to spend a lot of time using it.
Last year Rohm and Haas used SAP's Web development tools to create graphical dashboard displays for top managers. The dashboards show 10 key performance indicatorssuch as year-to-date sales for a given business unitalong with a "green-yellow-red" stoplight based on a comparison of actual data with what the company previously forecast (to show visually whether sales targets are being met).
Masciandaro says his team had to create those reporting functions without help from SAP, whose tools for creating such dashboards he characterizes as immature. "SAP hasn't completely embraced the concept that usability can yield good results for them," he says.
For its part, SAP says it's taking specific steps to make its business intelligence tools easier to use, starting with bundling them into NetWeaver, its data-integration system (see sidebar).
In addition, later this year the company promises to deliver Visual Composer, a wizard-based system that steps non-technical workers through analyzing data and creating reports without writing a single line of code.
Visual Composer "will provide a visually appealing, rich experience," says Lothar Schubert, director of NetWeaver solutions marketing at SAP. "We expect a strong uptick in the number of end users, because it's very intuitive."
But note that SAP doesn't make its bacon on business intelligence tools. For the first nine months of 2005, sales of NetWeaver and related products, including business intelligence applications, were $127 million, or about 7% of its $1.9 billion in total software revenue. SAP's enterprise resource planning software accounted for 40% of the pie.
Ultimately, many customers find SAP's business intelligence tools valuable because they're close family relatives of the company's core enterprise resource planning software stack.
JCB, a construction and farming equipment maker, uses Business Warehouse "because we've standardized on SAP," says Paul Limon, the company's manager of information systems. His team, he explains, doesn't have to worry about creating or managing hooks to a separate business intelligence system: "All of the tools necessary to bring that data into one format come right out of the cereal box."
Now, it seems, SAP needs to make the bits of cereal that pour out look more appetizing.