On SAP and Zombies
I worked for many years in Exxon and Shell and noticed something curious about large (are there any other kind?) SAP implementations: something odd happens to the people on them. Previously reasonable people would start to view the world entirely through the eyes of SAP, as though by using the software they had joined some secret society or cult. Despite any evidence to the contrary, it was as if these people had their critical faculties removed when discussing SAP applications – which could do no wrong even when there were clear problems or issues. If, for example, you mentioned some issue with the software or project, a glazed look would come into their eyes as of they were extras in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049366/combined
I noticed this for the first time after being involved in an SAP roll-out at Exxon in the late 1980s, one of the first large-scale SAP projects outside of Germany. The project was justified because Esso UK (where I worked) had very old transaction systems that needed replacing with something, and a previous attempt to implement software from Walker had been a fiasco. The business case rested on getting rid of all the accounts clerks who raised invoices and processed orders, the idea being that the rest of us employees would do this instead using SAP. So if you wanted anything from stationery to a new part for petrol station, you would use the system instead of involving people from finance. Unfortunately SAP at the time was still partly in German, and had a quite complex user interface that involved remembering various esoteric codes to do anything like post an invoice, so although we were all sent on training, things did not go well. After a period of denial, it emerged that Esso’s suppliers were not being paid to such an extent that there were issues about the company’s credit rating, and so all the old finance clerks (and more) were re-hired to sort out the mess. To save face, they were distributed around the business lines in order to not make it look like there were now more admin and finance staff than there were before the system. This was the first instance of denial around SAP that I observed – the project was “too big to fail”.
A little later I moved to Shell UK and was invited to a presentation by a gentleman from Shell Centre who will remain nameless; let's call him Roger. We were to hear about Shell’s new IT strategy. Flanked by consultants from PWC, Roger proceeded to explain that Shell was going to implement SAP. The bulk of the presentation was done by PWC, and was light on details e.g. the only business case seemed to be “er, other big companies are doing it”. When I mentioned that the Esso UK implementation had not delivered its promised benefits there was another zombie-like experience, with Roger saying that he had been on exotic trips to all sorts of companies in warm locations in order to research the area, and there would be no problem. I asked “Have you ever seen an SAP screen” to which the reply “I don’t need to” was not the comforting response I had hoped for.. If you were about to spend a large but unspecified amount of money on a system and you were in charge of the recommendation, would it not have been prudent to have cast a quick glance at what was being bought? Apparently not. Fortunately the consultants from PWC, who at the time got 11% of their worldwide revenue from SAP implementations and so were utterly objective advisors, saw no problem at all either.
The space-out stares continued when we were selecting a finance, time-writing and billing system for Shell Services International, the internal IT arm of Shell at the time (1998). Despite that fact that SAP was designed for manufacturing companies and not services companies, and despite the fact that none of the consultancy firms implementing SAP used it for their internal tracking, SSI management selected SAP for this purpose. What was required was very simple and could have been done in a dozen commercial packages, or indeed probably an Excel spreadsheet on steroids, but SAP it was. The cost of this, for an organisation with under USD 1 billion in total revenue (and loss making at that) was estimated at USD 50 million i.e. 5% of total revenues, which should have set off some alarm bells (most big companies spend less than 2% of their revenue on IT, never mind one project). Not a bit of it, and the project duly clanked into life. What did it cost? Not a popular question, and eventually someone admitted that it had cost USD 70 million “up to the time they stopped counting”. Did anyone get into trouble over this? Far from it. Were the customers happy with their new billing systems? I can assure you they were not.
So what is it that causes such odd behaviour? I can only speculate that once a project reaches a certain size then it indeed cannot be seen to fail – too many senior people had their name on the decision to implement, and so problems dare not be acknowledged. The people on the project, comforted by the sheer scale of the thing going on around them and concentrating on delivery, have trouble seeing the wood for the trees. The scary thing was the inability to even raise issues for fear of being labelled “not a team player”. I’m not sure if this is something that occurs on any very large IT project, as I doubt there is anything peculiar about SAP that induces such lack of objectivity. However it is an odd experience, seeing those around you who you formerly trusted seemingly oblivious to all issues and suddenly incapable of critical reasoning. I felt like Kevin McCarthy’s character Miles Bennel in the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” movie at the end, running around shouting: “you’re next, you’re next!”