Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert – Alexander Greb

Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert – Alexander Greb

Eursap’s Ask-the-SAP-Expert article is a feature designed to give you up-to-date information on the latest SAP news, featuring key thought leaders in the SAP space, as well as regular interviews with the best SAP consultants in the business.

This month, we have a real treat for you. We feature Alexander Greb, recently from the heart of the SAP mothership. Alexander was the Customer Advisory Lead for the SAP S/4HANA Middle East and Europe regions. As such, he has often been seen in attendance delivering keynote speeches at conferences, as well as being a thought leader and trusted advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations in their digital transformation journey. In addition, Alexander is the founder and host of the hugely popular “SAP Experts Podcast”. If that wasn’t enough, he is now Vice President of Digital Transformation Consulting for Westernacher Consulting.

Welcome Alexander and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to us. For those readers who don’t know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Twenty years in the IT/strategy consulting space, I joined SAP in 2010 as project and program manager, managing the usual customer implementations, and had in 2014 the chance to manage the first HANA implementation at a large enterprise customer, then SAP S/4HANA implementation. I was asked at that time to build up the S/4HANA customer advisory with a team of black belts. Then Customer advisor lead until 2021, in which I was basically responsible for explaining the value proposition of SAP’s application to customers as c-level advisor or keynote speaker.

In 2019 I founded the SAP Experts Podcast which I hosted for 63 episodes and quickly became a huge success with Apple top 20 charts tech podcast accolades. Since 2021 I’ve been at Westernacher as Global Vice president for Digital Transformation, and am responsible for ensuring customers who do SAP projects with us turn into intelligent enterprises.

You have a rich background with SAP. How did you first get into the industry?

I didn’t start out as an SAP enthusiast. My background is rooted in process consulting and a significant focus on strategy implementation. Unlike the typical SAP professionals who often operate within the IT department, my playground has always been the business departments. I consider this unique education to be a substantial advantage because it has equipped me with the ability to easily grasp individual customer scenarios and craft tailored strategies based on that understanding.

My journey into the SAP realm began when a former boss displayed remarkable tenacity in convincing me to join the SAP community.

Let’s talk a little bit about your current role, as VP of Digital Transformation for Westernacher Consulting. Tell us a little bit about how Westernacher Consulting operate in the SAP space.

In the face of the 21st-century’s formidable challenges, it’s imperative that we rethink our approach to adopting new technology. At Westernacher, our vision is to lead the way in Digital Transformation consulting, becoming the trusted advisors who view themselves not merely as system integrators, but as guides for our customers. We aim to lead them toward the generation of real value by implementing and utilising SAP technology effectively.

A significant number of SAP S/4HANA live customers have treated migration as a technical exercise, essentially replicating their legacy processes from SAP ECC. However, it’s crucial to recognise that these legacy processes are not inherently the only way to operate in their respective industries. Rather, they are the result of strategies implemented 15 years ago, using technology from that same era. When we engage in a pure technical migration, we essentially transport the limitations and constraints of old technology into a realm where they should no longer exist if the migration were approached strategically.

At Westernacher, our mission is clear: we’re dedicated to preventing SAP initiatives from following this well-trodden path. We’re committed to guiding our clients towards a future where SAP technology is harnessed to its full potential, enabling innovation and unlocking true value.

What prompted you to leave the SAP mothership and strike out with a company like Westernacher?

Large corporations come with their set of advantages and disadvantages. While, in theory, they possess the resources and potential for substantial achievements, the reality often presents obstacles in the form of sprawling structures, bureaucratic red tape, and perhaps the most significant challenge of all, the insular bubble within which they operate. Despite the efforts of large corporations and their brand marketing to suggest otherwise, it’s natural for massive organisations to expend considerable energy revolving around their internal workings.

For those who aspire to make a meaningful impact and drive progress, Westernacher represents a compelling middle ground. It strikes the perfect balance, being sizeable enough to facilitate significant endeavours and equipped with a robust infrastructure that supports strategic initiatives. Yet, it remains compact enough to enable efficient and nimble decision-making processes that can alter the company’s course.

At Westernacher, the opportunity to spearhead initiatives and contribute to the growth and success of a 1,000-strong organisation is not just a possibility; it’s a reality. This level of influence and involvement would often be challenging to attain within the confines of a colossal corporation. Westernacher offers a dynamic environment where your contributions can truly leave a lasting mark.

In your work for Westernacher, what do you see as the one thing SAP customers are struggling with, that you can help with?

Addressing the challenge of extracting maximum value from SAP application implementations is a significant hurdle within the SAP ecosystem. Simply implementing a high-end enterprise application doesn’t automatically translate into substantial value creation. This conundrum is often referred to as the “trapped value gap,” representing the disparity between the potential value that can be unlocked and the actual value realised.

Our mission is to bridge this gap effectively. We do this by breaking free from the confines of IT departments, which have traditionally served as the comfort zones for SAP and its implementation partners. Instead, we venture into the domain of business departments, where we engage in candid discussions about their strategic objectives and the challenges they face. From these discussions, we discern the necessary capabilities and proceed to construct an architectural framework that ensures a high level of value generation.

Our commitment to utilising SAP Signavio in conjunction with Lean IX,  positions us as early adopters of innovative tools, further enhancing our ability to drive meaningful value for our clients.

Let’s move on now to your role within SAP itself. You were there for just over 11 years. That must have been a superb learning journey from a personal perspective.

Certainly. After six years of valuable experience at two consulting firms, I embarked on a new chapter by joining SAP in early 2010, assuming the role of a project manager. During this tenure, I predominantly engaged in conventional SAP implementations, acquiring a deep understanding of the intricacies involved.

However, a pivotal juncture in my journey arrived when I was entrusted with the responsibility of serving as the program manager for the first-ever HANA and S/4HANA implementation at a prominent large-scale enterprise. This unique opportunity allowed me to amass exclusive knowledge and expertise in this cutting-edge technology.

Recognising the potential and impact of this expertise, I was subsequently approached to transition into a role within the sales organisation. Here, I was tasked with spearheading the establishment of SAP Customer Advisory for SAP S/4HANA. This role became a conduit through which numerous SAP S/4HANA customer initiatives flowed. The intensive interactions with a diverse array of customers enriched my perspective significantly and deepened my knowledge of best practices in SAP approaches. Naturally, this exposure also brought to light various suboptimal ideas and approaches.

This multifaceted journey has endowed me with a comprehensive understanding of SAP’s ecosystem, best practices, and the intricacies of successful SAP initiatives. It has been a journey of growth, learning, and continuous improvement.

Give us an insight into the kind of things you did in your role, especially regarding keynotes ad pitches.

One of my central focuses revolved around elucidating the value proposition of SAP S/4HANA to our customers. To facilitate this, we developed the “Why, What, How” methodology early on, aiming to provide customers with a clear pathway to grasp the potential of these new technologies.

It became evident quite early in this journey that while SAP had traditionally excelled in explaining the “What” (the features and functions of the solution) and had made strides in clarifying the  “Why” (the types of problems the solution could address), there was still a gap in comprehending and articulating the “How.” By “How,” I mean not just the technical tools required for migration but also the approach to effectively implement a solution like SAP S/4HANA in a manner that is tailored to the unique customer context. Moreover, it’s about fully harnessing the technology’s benefits.

I use the phrase “not prepared” because within SAP there was a predominant perspective that viewed customer IT as the primary partner. However, this viewpoint had evolved into a comfort zone. In reality, modern applications – particularly cloud ERP – are fundamentally business topics. Therefore, they must be approached from a business perspective, aligning with the customer’s strategy and implementation plan. Success hinges on embracing the customer’s strategic vision and deploying the technology with a keen focus on leveraging the capabilities essential for achieving that strategic success.

And the podcast! How did that start? The download statistics are impressive. Would I be right in assuming that this is the most listened to SAP podcast in the world?

Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told. Frankly, the numbers were nothing short of astonishing, especially considering that it all began as a personal project, a grassroots initiative, rather than a meticulously planned marketing endeavour, which seems to be the norm today.

The inception of the podcast was driven by a belief that the “official channels” weren’t quite hitting the mark when it came to focusing on the right topics. While many podcasts were fixated on the “What” aspect, almost to the point where they could all bear the same title, “the 30-minute solution brief,” I saw a more pressing need to delve into the “Why” and “What.” I aimed to explore these dimensions alongside renowned experts to uncover best-practice approaches.

What truly left a lasting impression, even more than the impressive numbers, was the feedback pouring in from a vast community of SAP customers. Many shared how this guidance had not only set their SAP S/4HANA initiatives on the right course but had also breathed new life into stagnant transformation endeavours. Moreover, I was delighted to discover that the podcast had become a favourite among college students, who expressed how it had provided invaluable orientation through expert insights.

And honestly, that’s just incredibly rewarding.

In July of this year, I noted that you presented at the SAP S/4HANA & BTP Summit 2023. How is the BTP model evolving to meet customer’s needs?

The SAP BTP is the key that made the SAP Cloud ERP fly. Unlike cloud-native companies such as Salesforce and Workday, SAP S/4HANA doesn’t confine itself solely to commodity processes but also encompasses differentiating processes. In this context, the cloud ERP required the PaaS (Platform as a Service) sidecar, a space where customer-specific coding could find its rightful place.

Recognising its significance is paramount, as it not only facilitates custom coding but also plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of private cloud and on-premises deployments. Surprisingly, the SAP BTP often remains one of SAP’s most underestimated products.

It’s heartening to see that it’s now an integral component of offerings like Rise with SAP and Grow with SAP, underscoring its pivotal role in the SAP ecosystem.

Let’s come to SAP S/4HANA now. I’m sure our readers would be interested to find out which area of SAP S/4HANA you would say is the most exciting, now and in the future, for organisations?

I wouldn’t confine this perspective to just one component or an end-to-end process; instead, I’d place the public cloud variant in the top spot. Despite a somewhat shaky beginning, it has evolved into a formidable contender, steadily gaining more adopters.

Nevertheless, the most substantial challenge, both for adopters and implementation partners, lies in embracing the essential cloud mindset and discipline required to align with a genuine fit-to-standard approach. Those who successfully navigate this path undoubtedly surge ahead of the competition.

If we think about current ECC6.0 clients, many haven’t yet made the move to S/4HANA but take up is ramping up slowly. Which areas do you see as holding organisations back from making the leap to S/4HANA?

Organisations are not different to people: Just like people, there are those organisations that exhibit curiosity and a knack for swiftly adapting to new circumstances. They learn to appreciate the advantages of modern technology more rapidly. Conversely, some organisations are slower in this regard, finding it challenging to translate the benefits of innovation for their specific needs. This divergence is quite natural since organisations are, at their core, comprised of people. Therefore, they exhibit deeply human behaviours.

Furthermore, the motivations driving these organisations vary greatly. Just as some individuals might readily embrace the benefits of modern running shoes, others require external incentives to prioritise their health. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that even state-of-the-art running shoes won’t transform everyone into a Usain Bolt.

The crux of the matter is that many organisations grapple with the “Why” and, more critically, the “How.” This underscores the imperative for the SAP Ecosystem to improve its ability to elucidate the benefits of technology and tailor them to individual customer contexts.

One remarkable superpower for excelling in this endeavour is honing one’s proficiency in customer interactions. This isn’t a skill that can be acquired solely through formal training; it necessitates genuine experience. That’s precisely why, in today’s landscape, gaining an in-depth understanding of each customer’s unique situation is more vital than ever before. It’s time to step out of the comfort of our home offices and engage in actual, “old-school” customer interactions to truly connect and make a meaningful impact.

Where do you see SAP moving forward in the years to come? If you had a crystal ball and could tell me right now what an ERP would look like in ten years from now, what would you see? More artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and machine learning perhaps?

SAP’s success has been built for the last few decades on the core, which became for customers the central nervous system of their company. You don’t throw that away so easily and switch to another ERP vendor. But times have changed and the offerings of cloud native companies have attacked SAP on the edges, and the services of the Hyperscalers and flexible cloud ERP offerings attack the core. So, SAPs future success comes to rest in three areas:

1. Achieving the move to the cloud of the installed base so next-gen capabilities like sustainability and AI can be leveraged by its customers
2. Making a composable architecture happen
3. From its identity, tone down the marketing and becoming again the problem-solver for its customers.

Do you think that, with all these capabilities, organisations are making best of them right now? If not, what do you see is the reason for this?

Absolutely not. If we take a closer look at the majority of SAP S/4HANA adopters who have opted for migrations, it becomes evident that many of them continue to operate within the confines of their legacy processes, using the classic SAP GUI interface. They aren’t fully leveraging the transformative capabilities that SAP S/4HANA has to offer. This situation directly correlates with a fundamental weakness within the SAP ecosystem—a failure to effectively communicate the “Why” and the “What” to customers.

While there is some improvement among adopters who have opted for greenfield transitions and embraced the cloud, there is still significant room for enhancement. The root cause of this challenge lies in SAP’s over-reliance on marketing efforts, rather than genuine one-on-one customer engagement. Moreover, the implementation partner landscape often sees itself primarily as system integrators, viewing their role as the execution of technical services with a focus on resource leasing, rather than embracing their role as true value-added partners.

To truly unlock the potential of SAP S/4HANA, a shift is required towards more personalised customer interactions and the recognition of implementation partners as strategic allies in driving value, rather than mere service providers.

Traditional SAP consultants have focused on skills such as ABAP, functional modules, basis or security for example. These kind of skills, though important, will not be enough. What different skills do you think consultants in the market will need in the years to come?

It all boils down to purpose. In today’s consulting landscape, simply possessing technical prowess (like the ability to execute ABAP programming) isn’t sufficient for achieving success or commanding higher compensation. The most successful and well-compensated consultants are those who actively drive value generation for their clients.

Long-term assignments can sometimes make it challenging for consultants to stay attuned to the latest developments, innovations, and SAP’s evolving strategies. Therefore, it becomes imperative for them to proactively stay informed about these ongoing developments.

Also, it’s not solely about technical competency; it’s also about the ability to effectively communicate one’s value. This facet is vital for personal development, as consultants often have a prominent presence on the customer side but may struggle to establish visibility within their own organisation. This lack of visibility can potentially hinder their chances of advancement and promotions.

Furthermore, embracing a genuine sense of ownership in your daily responsibilities can be a game-changer. Becoming known as the person who consistently gets things done is a rare and highly valued attitude. Employers tend to appreciate individuals with this not-so-common approach, and it can significantly enhance your professional standing.

I’m going to throw you a curve ball now! We’ve all made mistakes in our careers and in our roles as SAP consultants. You’ve been on the sharp edge of SAP implementations from a selling perspective. Can you give me an example of a mistake you have made and what happened?

Three major mistakes. First one is on personal development. As already mentioned above, it is not only important to do great work on a customer site, but you also have to take care about communicating the value you give. It sounds logical because your boss is not there when you “save the world.”

Secondly, to develop yourself and your career you must own either a number or a topic. If you more own the sales side, try to get a “number” that you own and can improve via your sales activities. If you are a consultant or an advisor, you should look for a topic to own, which means you collect a lot of knowledge and your own best practices on it. I realised that too late.

Third one: I never really had a mentor. This is something everybody should look for as early as possible because this gives such a valuable outside perspective that we need in our respective bubbles. But beware: the mentor shouldn’t be your boss.

Having been involved very closely with SAP customers for many years, you have a unique insight into the SAP job market, especially in Europe. What is your take on the market now? Do you see the global economic slowdown affect the demand for SAP jobs?

Not at all. In fact, the demand for SAP consultants remains substantial and is potentially on the rise. However, the greatest hindrance to future growth for SAP is the limitation in consultant capacity. Presently, most SAP partners are operating at maximum capacity, and this demand is only expected to increase.

Nevertheless, a concerning trend has emerged in the past 3-5 years within the industry—an inclination towards what might be termed “pseudo advisory roles,” which are essentially marketing roles masquerading as advisory positions. This trend is poised to be a dead-end street. Instead, those who possess genuine customer experience and can draw upon it in their daily work will likely enjoy more significant career opportunities and more substantial compensation packages.

On a personal front now, I notice you are a keen mountain biker. Some of your adventures have made me tired just reading them! What interests away from SAP do you pursue?

I always tried (more or less successfully) to keep interests which have nothing to do with my business live. That’s why I enjoy craftsmanship such as wood working, house building stuff or mechanics. In the past I was quite active in motor sports (Endurance races on the Nürburgring and Race karts) but I had to tone that down due to time and budget constraints.

Mountain biking and Downhill shredding is something which I enjoy most at the moment, because when you are active in a people business it is a great thing for your mental health if you enjoy activities that quite often do not include other people at all (even if you enjoy other people’s company like I do). And climbing mountains with a bike, enjoying the nature, quietness and rawness is something that really helps you with your brain hygiene.

On the family front of course, there are the kids, and they are very keen on football so I help out as an assistant coach (I played myself in younger years) and enjoy cooking.

And finally, the question we always ask our experts: what advice would you have for new SAP consultants just starting out or established SAP consultants facing new challenges?

There are two key aspects to keep in mind:

Passion for Your Work: In the wise words of Steve Jobs, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” It’s essential to find that genuine passion for what you do, as it fuels your commitment to achieving excellence.

Maintain Perspective and Learn: It’s crucial not to take yourself too seriously, nor should you place undue seriousness on others (remember that even your bosses can be mistaken at times). Cultivate the art of listening attentively and permit yourself to make mistakes. Mistakes are valuable opportunities for growth and learning.

Alexander Greb talked to Jon Simmonds.