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Acting Squirrelly: If SAP could make R/3 easier to use they would do it, right?

Status: [CLOSED] comments (80)
By Robert X. Cringely

I have this theory about the behavior of squirrels and how they are like certain large software companies, especially SAP, the giant Enterprise Resource Management vendor headquartered in Germany. But obviously the most interesting part is the squirrels, so let's start there.

You are driving down a street in your car and up ahead there is a squirrel at the side of the road eating a nut. You aren't on an intercept course, there is no way you are going to hit that squirrel. So what does the squirrel do? At the very last possible moment, rather than watching you drive by, THE SQUIRREL DARTS STRAIGHT FOR YOUR CAR, passing inches in front of or behind the front tires.

Why does he do that?

Obviously I'm a guy with too much time on my hands because I've given this quite a bit of thought.

From a purely metabolic perspective, whatever its motivation the physical advantage clearly lies with the squirrel. Sure, my car is bigger and faster, but the squirrel is smaller and quicker, with a heart that beats up to 700 times per minute. To the squirrel I seem to be driving by in slow motion, and whether he goes in front of the tires or behind or in front of one and behind another is strictly a matter of style: once the squirrel has my vector, Victor, he's in command.

But judging by the number of squirrels squished on the road, there must be some risk to this game, so why does he do it?

The answer has nothing to do with cars because squirrel psychology predates both cars and men. For the squirrel, in fact, there may be no difference between my car and an ice age saber-toothed tiger.

The squirrel doesn't trust me. Sure, it looks like I'm not even chasing him, but he's a tasty squirrel and I'm a saber-toothed tiger. By waiting until the last possible moment then running TOWARD me, the squirrel is rushing the net, moving the confrontation effectively forward in time in such a way that the squirrel is pushing his tactical advantage.

As a predator, I'm simply not supposed to expect this squirrel to be running toward me, rather than away. He's using the element of surprise to confuse me. And it works, because I've never hit a squirrel with my car.

SAP and companies like it do something similar by making powerful software that is quite deliberately difficult to use. They could make it easier. Heck, the capability to make it easier is shipped right with the software, though never pointed out to the customer. I used to think this was a matter of geek machismo, where higher value was placed on processes that were more difficult to command simply because it could be used to maintain for the techies an upper hand against management. But now I think it's much simpler than that and SAP just wants its software to be more difficult to use because that maximizes revenue. It is more nuts for the squirrel.

If you aren't familiar, Enterprise Resource Management is the process of tracking everything that flows through a business, including money, materials, people, and of course time. Building an ERP system is a HUGE and expensive undertaking. Companies think they need ERP systems when they decide it is time to kick-start their business. Perhaps a competitor is underpricing them, or is more profitable. Perhaps they are losing market share and customers. The real heart of the problem is the executives don't have a full understanding of what is happening in their business, so they can't make informed decisions to improve that business.

Sometimes ERP systems come about as a response to inadequate IT, but more often it is just a very expensive alternative to walking around and talking to employees. Putting in an ERP system isn't going to improve the business by itself: you still have to figure out what the data means and make decisions.

Implementing a big ERP system -- any ERP system -- is expensive. The problem is there is not enough return on investment from the ERP system itself to justify the cost. You need more. The real savings must come from improving your firm's business processes. So a huge business redesign project is often coupled with many ERP projects.

This is not just a matter of buying an SAP license and getting data flowing from one end of the company to the other. Somebody has to make some sense of the data. And that sensibility can come only through an understanding of context -- how the data relates to the real functions of the business. Which is a long way of saying that every SAP customer probably needs a different view of the available data to be in the best possible position for acting on that data. Unlike standardized financial statements, the most powerful ERP screens and reports will vary dramatically from company to company, so the ability to customize SAP is vital to obtaining the maximum possible benefit from the software.

That's why there are so many SAP consultants. And that's why SAP, itself, makes 40 percent of its revenue from providing consulting services -- revenue that would be significantly less if the software was easier to customize and easier to use.

If SAP software was easier to customize and use, SAP the company might get a few more customers but would have significantly less revenue. Or that's the fear.

There is a product called GuiXT that is an interface builder shipped for free with every copy of SAP R/3. Pronounced "gooey-x-t," this client-server application sits on top of R/3 and can be used with almost no programming to customize and integrate R/3 screens as well as add certain overlay functions that aren't readily available in R/3, itself. The point with GuiXT is to not mess with the underlying R/3 code, which means an SAP installation can be less customized on the back end, installed cheaper, and be up and running quicker.

So when you, as an SAP customer, call up your SAP consultant to ask for customization, that consultant will often show you the next day a GuiXT implementation that does exactly what you asked for but is presented as a mock-up. Once you've signed-off on the look and feel then the SAP consultants can dig into R/3 itself and spend a few weeks implementing what you asked for. OR they could simply run the GuiXT app that took them an hour to build.

Are you starting to see the picture?

GuiXT comes from a Foster City, CA company called Synactive. The base version of the product is shipped for free inside R/3 because, of course, it is so useful for showing the potential of R/3 customization. Ironically, GuiXT IS R/3 customization, and can be used overnight to make functional changes that previously required weeks or months.

Synactive is in business to make money, so of course there are additional modules you can license directly if you want to go beyond just switching screens around, like their Input Assistant, View, and Designer modules. You can even use GuiXT to see what's happening in your business in real time over your mobile phone.

GuiXT customers, which include lots of big companies like Shell Oil, Tyson Foods, and Nike, LOVE the product. They love it.

The squirrel dives for your front tires because by ice age rules that's the thing to do, though at an obvious cost today in squished squirrels. Similarly, SAP deliberately hides the power of GuiXT thinking it could hurt consulting revenue when, in fact, it could INCREASE sales revenue by broadening the market and making R/3 less scary for companies to install and run.

Both the squirrel and SAP do what they do because it appears to work, though a safer and easier course was there all along.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (80)

I always assumed we were the first customer to implement SAP (a year ago). Everyone else must be faking to protect their jobs. "Really, nobody's had to import customers with email addresses before?", etc.

What's more incredible is the longer people work with SAP, the more they accept bad interface design. "That's the way ABAP/SAP works" is my least favorite answer.

GuiXT has gone a long way to addressing this stuff (though it's not without it's quirks either).

Lee | Jul 16, 2008 | 7:18PM


I could care less about SAP, but all my life I have wondered why squirrels do that (even though growing up in Michigan and now living in Calfornia I rarely ever even see a squirrel anymore).

Now I know.


What was all that SAP stuff, anyway?

aric caley | Jul 17, 2008 | 4:11PM

Here I always thought that the squirrel's hiding spot was on the side of the road they were running to.

Mark | Jul 18, 2008 | 3:40PM