For the June 2011 edition of the Letter from the Editor, SAP Business Analytics Community BI Newsletter, I recently sat down with BI Platform product manager, Derek Wang, to talk about the journey to the SAP BI 4.0 launch. 4.0 is the first major release after the SAP acquisition of Business Objects, which meant that there was much learning and sharing on both sides in order to combine their respective best practices. From the Business Objects side, they had to learn how to produce a product that was compliant with industry leading SAP standards, such as security. In return, they shared their experience for simplifying the processes such as for product standard compliance.
Challenges and Decisions
One of the key challenges that Derek and his team of nine product managers faced with the 4.0 release was how to be well-integrated within the SAP landscape yet still maintain (and increase) the presence in heterogeneous environments, where Business Objects has traditionally been and continues to be very strong. It was not an easy goal to achieve but he and his team are pleased with the results that they achieved. Resource constraints were and are always a challenge, requiring trade-offs with design optimization. While Derek and his team were able to find a happy medium, one instance where they had to make trade-off was with the Solution Manager (a tool for support). The dilemma was about how to create the best out of box experience for traditional SAP customers familiar with SAP landscape and tooling, while not introducing a lot of new tools and bigger package for the traditional Business Objects customers who may not have other SAP systems. While it would have made integration easier, they decided to ship Solution Manager as an optional component.
Another dilemma the team faced was with respect to SAP Enterprise Portal integration. The goal was to make BI a key part in the portal (that is, as native as possible) but they were not able to tightly couple the product because of the different release cycles. BI, in general, has a much more iterative release cycle, therefore the decision they faced was how to enable customers to access the BI capabilities – does the team create a customized visualization for the portal, for instance? In the end the team decided to make the BI launch pad accessible in the portal, thus avoiding the requirement to have lock-step development with the portal. Having it loosely coupled also enables shorter release cycles.
Working in a geographically-dispersed team across time zones is always an ever present challenge. To adapt, the team has continued to learn how to be leaner and faster – providing direct feedback, granting trust, and providing support to each other. Much of the positive team culture is a direct result of what Herve Couturier, Executive Vice-President, Business Technologies and Research, has put into place at SAP. The team also values being transparent to stakeholders (what they are developing and whether they are on track), understanding the business priorities, and importantly, executing them well. Product managers are very hands-on and live with the product to get a clear understanding of what the customer experiences (and their potential pain points).
The SAP ramp up process has presented a sometimes steep learning curve not only for the BI platform team and developers, but also for traditional Business Objects customers. That said, Derek cites that the key benefit has been more direct involvement with customers has resulted in much more and better feedback. The typical beta programs tend not to be long enough for customers to provide as much quality feedback.
Feedback from Customers
At the time we spoke, the team had already received significant and positive feedback about the 4.0 BI Platform from many customers, including the more than 100 customers who are in ramp up. For example, customers have responded well to the new semantic layer, seeing it as a welcome addition to the product suite. The increased administrative capability, such as monitoring system to check the health of the system, and life cycle management (LCM) capability have also been well received. That said, the BI Platform team acknowledges that they need to communicate more to customers about the platform and its new capabilities.
From a personal point of view, Derek is most proud of the new BI launch pad in the 4.0 release. The XI releases had InfoView but for the 4.0 release, the team spent significant time up front on usability studies to truly understand what customers want in a front-end client. Using user centric design, they built the launch pad from the ground up and like the new semantic layer, administrative capabilities, and LCM, it has also been very well received by ramp up customers. The BI Platform team learned so much from user-centric design that they have decided to continue using it in future development.
What was not included in 4.0 that they wished they could have had? At the top of his list is embedded analytics which can help customers bridge BI and business processes. For subsequent releases, the team is working on more capabilities to “close the loop between insight and action”, where the users of BI can quickly and seamlessly invoke the next logical step of the business process after doing the analysis and decision, with all the business data context passed along. Pique your interest? Stay tuned for new capabilities that Derek and his team creating for their customers!