Doug Shirra: Big data, marketing and simplicity (part of the SAP CMO series)

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You can tell the first time you talk to Doug Shirra that one of his strengths as an executive is an ability to get something done efficiently in the nicest way possible. And he advocates that management style. Despite an increasingly B2B chaotic marketing technology environment, in the many trends and forecasts for marketers in 2015, he thinks it all boils down to one thing: simplicity.

“Frictionless is key,” Shirra says.

The Director of Enterprise and CMO Marketing for global giant SAP thinks the growth of data will not stop in 2015, but that the ability to control and manage that data will catch up. Inputs may be complicated; it’s up to the business and the business user to understand how to simplify the outputs and make them applicable. “Your business needs to function in a way that you can do what you need to continue easily and without friction,” he explains. “Data can’t complicate it, it needs to enhance and streamline. We like to say we can help customers simplify everything so they can do anything.”

Having completed his post-graduate studies in public relations at Humber College in Toronto, Shirra believes simplicity is also at the core of good communications, and that that is a discipline. There’s a confidence that comes from operating with an understanding of PR. “I’ve said this for years, that it’s a strong bonus to come at the marketing discipline through a public relations discipline,” he explains. “That’s because of the strength that you build in communications through a PR or corporate communication-type program, and having that perspective as an underpinning to a marketing career has served me very well. It taught me the most powerful messages are the simplest ones. I would recommend anybody pursue it.”

This message of simplicity might seem incongruous coming from a software monolith with an offering that is by definition complex. If you are not familiar with SAP, it’s a giant, with seventy percent of the world’s GDP touching an SAP system. Roughly 253,500 organizations use SAP, and, to quote a report from Forbes, “many businesses literally could not function if their SAP ERP system went down.”

But the focus on simplicity at SAP is not just lip service, but strategic, right down to their M&A. The company’s November acquisition of Concur Technologies includes over 50 million users in the cloud. Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, said at the time that “(w)ith the acquisition of Concur, we are expanding this network and delivering on our promise to help companies run simple. Business travel and expense management are notorious business challenges for companies worldwide.”

Shirra re-emphasizes the centrality of simplicity to SAP, and to business in a broader sense. “When you go into a discussion like Concur or any other cloud-type conversation, I do think that’s where you’re getting the ability to run simple,” Shirra says. “It allows you to build things faster, quicker, cheaper, reduce total cost of ownership, and go to your audience quickly, so I think that’s why you will see SAP go in the direction of a Concur and others who are similar.”

Shirra says SAP has compiled “a very strategic group of cloud acquisitions that is creating a business network.” Together, that group will be “powering a very large number of consolidated, previously silo’d transactions on an annual basis,” so the drive to cloud computing is really a drive toward simplicity.

SAP capitalized on the opportunity to make a more public name for themselves earlier this year when they partnered with the German soccer team at this year’s World Cup. Using a tool called Match Insights, the team looked at video data from cameras on the field and captured thousands of data points per second; that information was put through an SAP database, which then provided analytics that allowed what a July report from the Wall Street Journal called “target performance metrics for specific players,” as well as feedback, provided via mobile phones. The team analyzed statistics relating to ball possession and cut it down from roughly 3.4 seconds to 1.1 seconds.

Shirra says the team’s success has implications for other areas of business. “We’re seeing it in the medical community, the farming community, the retail community. A lot of businesses are doing this type of thing. You need to simplify your environment so you have the tools to do these things.”

The massive amount of available data is, according to Shirra, “the cornerstone of the change that’s going on in how businesses are operating today. […] There’s billion of people on social networks; this data comes at us fast and furious, everybody is now convinced we’re in the age of the customer, and embracing data, and more importantly, turning data into something more important and useful, which I call insight, is the critical next step for everybody who wants to be successful in business.”

A key part of that success means constantly innovating, but embracing innovation is still a challenge for many businesses.

“They need to figure out what innovation means,“ Shirra says. “It doesn’t mean going in a laboratory mixing chemicals to find something new — it means you need to change your approach based on your individual business and what you’re currently doing. And you can’t innovate unless you have a simple environment.”

In terms of Canadian businesses, Shirra says that despite some setbacks, one has to “give them real credit that they are at least on par and in some ways more innovative than their peer companies in other countries. I think Canadians are doing a lot with omnichannel marketing, they’re working hard to figure out what big data means to them and how it is they’re going to capitalize on that opportunity.”

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