Forrester analysts attended SAP’s key customer event, Sapphire, this year in Barcelona and Orlando. In 2023, “digital” and “AI” were the two keywords used in almost every presentation … sometimes maybe abused.

Two things caught our attention:

  • Digital hubs as a business enabler. SAP estimates that 80% of B2B transactions will happen via digital channels by 2025, according to global head of digital Sam Masri’s speech at the digital hub in Barcelona. With its 15 digital hubs around the world, SAP is trying to better leverage its remote workforce and dispersed expertise to speed up the decision-making process of its clients. SAP claims that it will be able to eliminate the need to put together big teams that have to travel long hours and in person to reach customers at their sites. This vision from SAP has somehow an oxymoronic taste, though. Putting together hundreds of employees in a digital hub to deliver value to the client remotely makes one indeed wonder whether the digital hubs are at all necessary to enable the vision or if a simple, remote collaboration solution would suffice. The underlying question: Are digital hubs a true differentiator for serving clients, or are they modern and fancy offices meant to delight and retain talent? In 2025, we will know how the strategy has worked out.
  • Human-driven AI to improve productivity. The 22-page brief introducing new offerings sent to analysts and media reps before Sapphire mentioned “AI” 47 times. The AI capabilities presented at Sapphire 2023, though, were more a collection of advanced automation solutions than a holistic AI solution such as Google’s Bard or ChatGPT. During the keynote, SAP executives presented the use case of a chief people officer leveraging the “AI” embedded in SuccessFactors and its integration with Microsoft Copilot to respectively generate a job description and refine its language according to diversity and inclusion criteria. The use case cast some light on the art of what is possible with SAP’s AI but highlighted its limitations, too. While genAI should bring a 15% increase in employees’ productivity, according to the SAP executives’ keynote, this does not take into account the work required to manually check what the AI has produced. An obvious bottleneck is just around the corner and being deliberately disregarded, despite the notion of human-driven AI used to describe SAP’s AI value proposition.

SAP’s important themes this year also included a stronger commitment to the cloud and to standardization of the core ERP system, a new focus on sustainability with the green ledger, the SAP Business Network for Industry offering, and the announcement of SAP Datasphere.

Cloud Calls For More Standardization With The SAP Clean Core

“There is no way that S/4HANA will ever replicate all the features of ECC” — this was a bold statement from SAP’s management in a panel with CEO Christian Klein, reflecting the state of the art and the path ahead for this offering. Customers who expected S/4HANA to become some sort of cloud-based ECC quickly now know for sure that this won’t happen. This vision for S/4HANA also makes SAP’s commitment to stop the support for ECC6 in 2027 more credible.

The move to the cloud is forcing more standardization of the core system (the so-called “clean core”), as opposed to the high level of customization characterizing some ECC implementations in the past (sometimes up to 70% and more). Having a standardized core system represents an opportunity for SAP’s customers. These can leverage purpose-built solutions for their use cases instead of complicating their ERP core with heavy customizations that, in turn, increase the cost of maintenance. Breaking the ERP monolith for SAP means cutting the offering into modules and leveraging an ecosystem of solutions ranging from human capital management (SuccessFactors) to process management (Signavio).

According to SAP’s executives, greenfield implementations are getting the lion’s share while brownfield implementations are losing traction due to a need for faster implementations and accelerated cloud adoption by end-user organizations. For SAP’s clients, this translates into a trade-off: A) Go brownfield, and reduce the change management to a minimum — as well as the benefits from the transformation or B) Go greenfield, with an extra effort on change management, and maximize the benefits (if organizations do manage to get through the transformation in one piece). The report Select Your Path To SAP In The Cloud explains the available options and what end-user organizations should consider when embarking on a cloud journey for SAP’s solutions.

Green Ledger Connects Carbon And Financial Accounting

SAP also announced solutions to support carbon accounting, helping companies toward building and maintaining a “green ledger.” With this move, SAP’s sustainability offering becomes part of RISE with SAP and GROW with SAP for SAP S/4HANA Cloud, public edition. SAP sees sustainability as part of a CFO role’s key delivery as financial reporting expands to include nonfinancial ESG metrics and disclosures.

While several analysts at the Sapphire Orlando event asked SAP executives whether they have seen more skepticism in the US due to severely divisive political opinions on ESG, SAP appeared to be dismissive. That may be because it does not see its products themselves as directly producing content to meet ESG reporting requirements such as the EU’s Climate Sustainability Reporting Directive and the soon-to-arrive stringent climate disclosure requirements in the US. SAP reiterated that its experience working with firms in the US and globally has been quite the opposite, as there is huge interest in having ERP systems cover sustainability tracking and measurement capabilities. But SAP is still just a year or so into this, and it’s yet to be seen how their clients can successfully use their green ledgers to meet long-term sustainability goals.

In the US specifically, with the SEC’s ongoing rule proposal that would require US publicly traded companies to disclose annually how their businesses are assessing, measuring, and managing climate-related risks, along with disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions, there’s clear reinforcement of why this would fall under the CFO umbrella, really underscoring why SAP’s approach to developing a “green ledger” is probably the right one in response to market forces.

SAP Business Network For Industry

SAP Business Network for Industry leverages the existing SAP Business Network and aims to help customers in specific industries. Its goal is to improve and extend key business processes with trading partners and suppliers. SAP has already supported its clients in the automotive sector, exchanging data within the Catena-X data space. SAP is now creating a similar data space with Pfizer. Among the expected benefits, SAP is listing improvements for its clients such as addressing objectives in line with scope 3 by using its infrastructure to reduce the carbon footprint of these data spaces. The creation and support of industry data spaces is an interesting play for the German vendor in Europe and is casting new lights on data space initiatives. Expect to see further collaborations between SAP and specific industries to meet the burgeoning increase in data sovereign spaces for exchange of sensitive information.

SAP Datasphere

SAP also launched SAP Datasphere, a comprehensive data service that enables every data professional to deliver seamless and scalable access to mission-critical business data. In addition to the SAP Datasphere (formerly SAP Data Warehouse Cloud) product enhancements, SAP also announced exciting partnerships with Collibra, Confluent, Databricks, DataRobot, and Google’s BigQuery. These partnerships will help customers reduce complexity in their data landscape to provide secure and governed access to data and will drive business outcomes, thereby evolving SAP Data Warehouse Cloud toward a business data fabric.

Integration between SAP and non-SAP systems is a top focus area for a large portion of SAP clients, with several stating that master data maintenance, governance, and integration are top challenges. It has the potential to deliver meaningful data to customers across cloud, hybrid, and on-premises SAP and non-SAP systems and environments, with that data’s business context and logic intact. For clients with investments in various vendors such as SAP, Microsoft Azure, Salesforce, and Oracle, this is a powerful takeaway. The coming year should really show how big of a differentiator Datasphere ends up being to its predecessor.