User group strengthens ties with SAP

The Americas' SAP Users' Group is performing a neat balancing act, continuing to boost its ties with SAP while at the same time maintaining its status as an independent, nonprofit, volunteer-run entity, according to ASUG executives. Topping ASUG's list of ongoing concerns is ensuring return on investment (ROI) for SAP software users along with encouraging the vendor to provide a full range of support services.

"We have a very strong partnership with SAP," Mike Perroni, president of ASUG, said in a recent phone interview. "From what we've seen in the marketplace, other user groups don't have the same level of partnership that we have." ASUG is self-funded based on membership dues.

ASUG hasn't been as vocal in the past as other user groups, being less willing to comment publicly on SAP issues. The group has now decided to speak up in the hope of attracting more SAP users to join its ranks, according to Perroni. "We're definitely in growth mode," he said.

Established in 1990, ASUG has more than 45,000 individual members and over 1,300 customer and partner companies, according to Perroni, who is also vice president of IT at energy services provider Halliburton.

Halliburton has one of the largest global installations of SAP's enterprise applications with users of the vendor's software numbering more than 30,000 in 350 field operations in more than 100 countries.

One of ASUG's main missions remains answering a key question from users, according to Perroni: "What is the next best release for each customer to go to?" In Halliburton's case, the company is looking to move to MySAP ERP 2005 in 2007, he said, and is currently running the 2004 release of SAP's enterprise resource planning software.

ASUG is a prime mover in influencing SAP to continue supporting older releases of its software so that users aren't forced to "rush off" a particular version, Perroni said. "You don't hear much noise [from users] about moving to the next release," he added.

ASUG isn't always happy with the speed at which SAP has released certain components of its software, according to Perroni, but he ranked that failing as a "pretty minor" criticism.

The suggestion to collocate the ASUG annual user conference alongside SAP's Sapphire 06 U.S. customer and partner event originated from user group members, Perroni said. ASUG members raised concerns over the timing of the individual events. Typically, the ASUG conference took place in May, with Sapphire in June, but those dates had been drawing closer. A survey of ASUG members revealed that they favor having the two events the same week.

This year, for the first time, the two events will be collocated in Orlando, sharing a show floor. ASUG will run May 14 to 17, while Sapphire will run May 16 to 18. ASUG and SAP have already decided to run the events that way in 2007, Perroni said.

"They attract slightly different audiences," he said, with companies including Halliburton tending in the past to send different members of its staff to each event. The ASUG conference would draw project teams and support staffers, while Sapphire appealed more to managers and chief information officers (CIOs). Collocating the events should provide ASUG members more access to SAP, Perroni said.

With SAP combining its North and Latin American sales operations in January into a single unit -- SAP Americas -- ASUG is now investigating ways to reach out to SAP users in Latin America, according to Perroni. Currently, the vast majority of ASUG users come from the U.S. and Canada. "We do believe that ASUG needs to look at SAP's collapsing of two regions into one as an opportunity," he said. Users from North America and Latin America have a lot to learn from each other through online and in-person exchanges, Perroni added.

The user group's focus has changed substantially over the past five years from a primary focus on its annual conference to include quarterly executive forums bringing together SAP and end users face-to-face, regular product seminars and a host of virtual meetings, Perroni said.

He's happy with SAP's more "evolutionary" strategy of mostly growing its software internally versus rival Oracle's aggressive acquisitive approach which he characterizes as more "revolutionary" with Oracle set to bring together a number of products from different vendors in Project Fusion. "I wouldn't want to be an Oracle customer," Perroni said. "I don't think anyone's waiting on SAP," he added, praising the company for good communication of its product roadmap to its users. ASUG tends to help SAP craft its messages to users about the benefits of new releases of its enterprise applications, according to Perroni.

"The user group has always been the best kept secret in the entire SAP ecosystem," Rod Masney, executive vice president of ASUG, said during the phone interview. He's also global information and technology architect for O-I, formerly known as Owens-Illinois in Ohio.

Glass packaging company O-I is currently changing its corporate identity from a holding company into a global enterprise bringing together 22 subsidiaries around the world, Masney said. "SAP is a key part of that transformation," he said.

At present, O-I is working on a global rollout of MySAP ERP 2004, starting in Europe and moving to Asia-Pacific where it's been using R/3 4.6. In the U.S., the company has a "hodgepodge of stuff," he said, including SmartStream applications, now owned by Infor Global Solutions, and J.D. Edwards software, now part of Oracle.

Of particular interest to O-I as it changes its organization is SAP's recent move into providing hosted CRM, according to Masney. "We're actively looking at it," he said. "It would give us a short-term quick hit strategy." Over the longer term, O-I is likely to implement SAP's full enterprise CRM software, he added.

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