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The future leadership of SAP AG is being forged now just ahead of the installation of the enterprise software company’s sole CEO taking over.

On Sunday the German company announced that its long time technology head, Vishal Sikka, had left the executive board immediately for personal reasons. He had been head of products and innovation.

Bernd Leukert will seemingly replace him on the executive board with responsibility for the global development organization. Described in an SAP news release having “long been one of the company’s foremost technologists and solution visionaries,” Leukert was elevated last year to SAP’s global managing board (one step below the executive board). He will now lead the global development organization in redefining business applications on the SAP HANA Cloud platform.

Also named to the executive board was Robert Enslin, up from the global management board, who will continue to lead global customer operations.

The switch comes as Bill McDermott prepares to become SAP’s sole CEO on May 21. He had been sharing the CEO job with Jim Hagemann Snabe since February 2010. But last summer it was announced Snabe would be leaving this year and going upstairs to SAP supervisory board (akin to a board of directors).

Sikka’s sudden departure surprised longtime SAP-watcher Paul Hamerman of Forrester Research. When SAP announces someone is leaving for personal reasons “usually means anything but personal reasons,” he said in an interview this morning. Hamerman believes this suggests there was a power struggle.

Sikka was SAP’s chief product evangelist, Hamerman said, in addition to running product development. It was clear SAP founder and chairman Hasso Plattner had chosen Sikka to push the company’s Hana in-memory database platform and was “grooming him to move up the management chain,” the analyst said.

With McDermott coming from SAP’s sales side and an articulate spokesman for products from the business side, Hamerman thought Sikka complimented him with his technology background.

While Leuker has product development experience – SAP noted he was promoted to the managing board after orchestrating the development and delivery of SAP’s Business Suite on Hana – Hamerman thinks temporarily SAP will suffer.

“I think in the short term it makes them weaker because they’re losing their chief technology evangelist … It signals either a power struggle at top, or some issues with product development — and I haven’t seen any evidence of that.”

As part of the management change SAP also announced two new members of the global managing board: Helen Arnold and Stefan Ries, “to strengthen the next generation leadership team of SAP.

Hamerman isn’t the only industry observer to be caught off guard by the changes at the top. Bloomberg News quoted a financial analyst as also being surprise by the the move.

In March Bloomberg reported rumours that Sikka and outgoing co-CEO Snabe clashed over whether SAP resources should be going to developing new software or spreading current technology to new customers.

 

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