Is AI a distraction???

AutomationI was recently in an exchange with a respected industry analyst where they stated that AI is not living up to its hype – they called AI ‘incremental’ and a ‘distraction’. This caught me a bit my surprise, since my view is that there are more capabilities and approaches available for AI practitioners than ever before. It may be the business and tech decision makers approach that is at fault.

It got me thinking about the differences in ‘small’ AI efforts vs. Enterprise AI efforts. Small AI are those innovative, quick efforts that can prove a point and deliver value and understanding in the near term. Big AI (and automation efforts) are those that are associated with ERP and other enterprise systems that take years to implement. These are likely the kinds of efforts that the analyst was involved with.

Many of the newer approaches enable the use of the abundance of capabilities available to mine the value out of the existing data that lies fallow in most organizations. These technologies can be tried out and applied in well defined, short sprints whose success criteria can be well-defined. If along the way, the answers were not quite what was expected, adjustments can be made, assumptions changed, and value can still be generated. The key is going into these projects with expectations but still flexible enough to change based on what is known rather than just supposition.

These approaches can be implemented across the range of business processes (e.g., budgeting, billing, support) as well as information sources (IoT, existing ERP or CRM). They can automate the mundane and free up high-value personnel to focus on generating even greater value and better service. Many times, these focused issues can be unique to an organization or industry and provide immediate return. This is not the generally not the focus of Enterprise IT solutions.

This may be the reason some senior IT leaders are disillusioned with the progress of AI in their enterprise. The smaller, high-value project’s contributions are round off error to their scope. They are looking for the big hit and by its very nature will be a compromise, if not a value to really move the ball in any definitive way – everyone who is deploying the same enterprise solution, will have access to the same tools…

My advice to those leaders disenchanted with the return from AI is to shift their focus. Get a small team out there experimenting with ‘the possible’. Give them clear problems (and expectations) but allow them the flexibility to bring in some new tools and approaches. Make them show progress but be flexible enough to understand that if their results point in a different direction, to shift expectations based on facts and results. There is the possibility of fundamentally different levels of costs and value generation.  

The keys are:

1)      Think about the large problems but act on those that can be validated and addressed quickly – invest in the small wins

2)      Have expectations that can be quantified and focus on value – Projects are not a ‘science fair’ or a strategic campaign just a part of the business

3)      Be flexible and adjust as insight is developed – just because you want the answer to be ‘yes’ doesn’t mean it will be, but any answer is valuable when compared to a guess

Sure, this approach may be ‘incremental’ (to start) but it should make up for that with momentum and results. If the approach is based on expectations, value generation and is done right, it should never be a ‘distraction’.

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Not your father’s SAP

This week’s SapphireNow was eye opening for me. My interactions with SAP were primarily from implementing BW in its early days (1999 V1.2B) and being the CT for the EDS side of relationships with large outsourcing arrangements that used SAP R3.

It was clear just walking around the SAP area that things have changed significantly. There were no SAP GUI screens visible, everything had a clean modern look. The UI customization demos were both easier to perform and actually possible for the end user with little customization. Granted they were not doing anything too complex.

Integration options seemed to be more intuitive and actually possible for a range of other systems, supporting bi-directional information flow.

Even the executive dashboard (sorry for the reflection in the picture but I took it myself) seemed to be something an executive could actually use with relatively minor training. I’ve always been fascinated by executive dashboards! The person I talked with said it is even relatively easy to extend the display using HTML 5 techniques.

SAP executive dashboard

I am sure there is still quite a bit of work ahead for SAP to get all the functionality (especially industry) over and running at maximum efficiency to S4 HANA, but what was shown was impressive. Likely the first thing any organization contemplating the move needs to do is triage their customizations and extensions. The underlying data structures for S4 HANA are much less redundant, since the in-memory model removes the need for the redundancy to hit performance. The functionality also seems more versatile, so hopefully many of the customizations that organizations ‘just had to have’ can be eliminated.

I’ve always said the first rule of buying 3rd party packages is: “don’t do anything that prevents you from taking the next release”. With the new approach by SAP those running S4 HANA on the cloud will be getting the next release on a continuous basis. Those with an on premise approach will be getting it every nine months (or so).  So the option of putting of releases is becoming less viable.

I’ll get a post on Diginomica next week with more of an enterprise architect’s perspective.

Measuring simple in a conference like #SapphireNow

As I was walking around the SapphireNow event and interacting with attendees, I began to really look at where they were from. A significant percentage didn’t really have money to spend on their own, they were service and support organizations needed to help others.

Yesterday, I mentioned the surprise I encountered with the philosophy shift embedded in the approach of SAP’s new online store. One of the likely outcomes of this approach is less hand-holding and more empowered employees actually generating value for their business using the new capabilities.

One measurement to watch over-time is the mix and background of the attendees. If the utilization is truly becoming simple there will be less ‘facilitators’ and more people with money to spend and value to generate directly in the business.

I remember back in 1989-1991, I worked as the technical architect of an emergency response system and corporation to react to oil spills, after the Exxon Valdez. One thing we had to do was make the entire interface simple to use and operate. There was definitely complexity behind the scenes – it was just that in an emergency any unnecessary distraction is costly. We knew that most of the people who would use the system would not have the option of training. We had to target the needs of the consumer of the system.

If SAP’s systems are really becoming simple, the attendee mix should reflect their ability to consume solutions directly. But that might be just my perspective.

I survived my first day at SAP #SapphireNow

The one area that both surprised and interested me most on the first day had little to do with the analytics or IoT space (although I did have some interesting discussions in those areas too). It was the SAP approach to their on-line store.

They have had many on-line stores in the past but now they are taking a different more ‘digital’ approach that is focused on selling direct to the consumer. This will change the relationship with the user and the enterprise based on consumption. This could disrupt their traditional buyer, the SAP sales force as well as their partners that perform system integration and consulting. It will be interesting to see if this level of change can take place without too much disruption.

By selling tools like Lumira with a free version, then a low friction purchase option with a credit card a business could easily see this tool enter into its portfolio of resources without their knowledge. They have implemented the purchase process so that if a feature of a premium version is needed you are dropped into the store. Anyone who has done on-line gaming recently has likely run into this behavior. This kind of stealth selling is inevitable and will accelerate the kind of shadow IT has been discussed for years.

I asked the people at the booth about what happens when someone buys it on their own version and the company purchases a master agreement. The answers varied a bit but the individual has a choice to roll into the agreement or continue to pay on their own. Look to the terms and conditions (that no one reads typically) for the details.

There is also the concern about who will support anything that gets created once the business becomes addicted. Everyone likely remembers the years of Excel Hell. Hopefully that will not happen but I am still checking into how change management elements can be put in place for end user developed elements.

My greatest concerns is that the traditional command and control IT organization will be very frustrated by this, while the digital purists will be confused by the resistance – it may be just outside their contextual understanding. SAP stated they will be opening these capabilities up for 3rd parties to sell their capabilities and that will have its own problems. Service providers usually sell apps as a mechanism to facilitate up-sell into consulting and integration. SAP is trying to ensure what gets into the store is valuable on its own. Some of the service providers will likely have a hard time understanding these implications as well.

It was stated (many times) in the first day that business models are changing and SAP seems to be doing its part to be disruptive, even if most of its customers haven’t internalized the implications.