Book retailer spins its tale of SAP tips

Some people look into the mouth of danger and smile. Doug Caldwell, chief technical officer (CTO) of Indigo Books & Music Inc., might be one of them.

When the media retailer researched companies using SAP AG software — Indigo was considering the tech vendor’s offerings to improve its merchandise assortment planning, among other things — Caldwell called an old friend working at Sobeys Inc., the Stellarton, N.S.-based grocery distributor.

A few years ago, Sobeys made headlines for dropping SAP’s software because of performance problems. If Caldwell could get the inside scoop on the situation, he’d have some seriously valuable data to inform Indigo’s decision.

“I called a gentleman I used to go to school with who’s an executive at Sobeys,” Caldwell said during an interview at Sapphire, SAP’s user conference held in Boston last month. “I said, ‘You hear all the horror stories in the press. What really happened?’”

Caldwell learned that Sobeys had been using an early version of SAP’s business software; there were bugs, but the grocer and the tech firm worked together to solve them. Caldwell also learned that there were internal matters at the grocer that affected the SAP system’s success.

Caldwell said Sobeys took some of the responsibility for the trouble away from SAP. “They felt they had ownership of the problems.” Armed with this knowledge, as well as details about SAP implementations at other firms and technical details, the IT team decided that SAP was right for Indigo. “Not only had SAP fixed the problems that they had…they’re investing 10 per cent of their R&D dollars here in the retail space,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell employed a tried-and-true tactic for research in his SAP investigation: work your contacts. Talk to people who’ve done what you’re thinking of doing. Stay connected. “If I were to call the CIO of Sobeys I’m sure he’d pick up the phone and chat. People don’t mind sharing the good, the bad and the ugly.”

That connected attitude is just one of the best practices that SAP’s users offered at Sapphire. Canadian IT experts were particularly forthcoming with anecdotes and advice that could help others ensure that their tech projects stay on track. Sobeys reps told a group of SAP attendees that testing is crucial. “Make sure it works” before you put software into production, said William Cheung, vice-president of applications.

Michael Moreia, senior technical consultant, IS architecture at ATI Technologies Inc., a graphics equipment manufacturer based in Markham, Ont., said it’s important for enterprises to lean on software vendors for support. That’s what ATI did to smooth the bumps in its SAP implementation.

That said, Moreia did have a criticism for SAP and its experts: bring some more support people to Canada. The SAP advisors helped ATI, but calls to Germany happened late by Eastern Standard Time. Local help might have spelled more reasonable go-home times for the ATI staff.

There were probably days when Deirdre Stirling wanted to go home early. The City of Ottawa’s manager, business application management, Stirling and the SAP software her team was trying to install across the city’s IT infrastructure became something of a lightning rod for staffers’ anger, upset as they were about the unsettling municipal amalgamation process that the national capital region was undertaking at the same time.

“There were times I couldn’t get into the elevator because people wouldn’t let me in,” Stirling said. “I survived.” So did her project. The $40 million that Ottawa spent on SAP software has saved $2 million in operational costs. The new financial, HR and property apps are on track to save the city $8 million a year.

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