Melissa Di Donato, SAP: On intelligent ERP and how AI can change society

James has more than a decade of experience as a tech journalist, writer and editor, and served as Editor in Chief of TechForge Media between 2017 and 2021. James was named as one of the top 20 UK technology influencers by Tyto, and has also been cited by Onalytica, Feedspot and Zsah as an influential cloud computing writer.

When Melissa Di Donato, chief revenue officer at SAP S/4HANA Cloud, was going through the interview process at Walldorf, the company’s home town, she was asked whether she had been there before. Di Donato took the opportunity to reveal the SAP watch she was wearing, issued the better part of two decades ago, which showed she was a certified consultant through her work at PwC.

While the company had never appeared on her CV per se, starting with a dean at business school who suggested getting into ‘this SAP thing’ as it ‘may catch on’, through consultancy, to a hosting partner, to even the other side of the fence with IBM, Oracle – “as one does” – and Salesforce, SAP has been very close throughout Di Donato’s career.

Hence moving to the company towards the end of last year, to help accelerate the cloud ERP business, felt like coming home.

The message is now around ‘intelligent cloud ERP’. As this publication reported in February, SAP is looking to S/4HANA, its public cloud offering, and adding artificial intelligence (AI) to ERP, helping customers to adjust and adopt business processes based on real-time data and insight.

Earlier this month, this went up a notch with the general release of CoPilot, a ‘digital assistant for the enterprise’ as the company’s annual SAPPHIRE conference. Bernd Leukert, executive board member, summed up SAP’s roadmap for attendees. “Openness is the game-changer, driving new business value,” he said. “Openness in every part of the company allows you to reach completely new levels of business process excellence.

“You can inject data and derive insights across every layer of your company, like traffic and other data into logistics, machine learning data into your maintenance plans, and social data from your customer profiles.”

Di Donato puts it this way. “It’s a big, big release for us, and a change I think to the industry,” she tells CloudTech. “Effectively, [CoPilot] learns to become aware of business context, is able to drive efficient collaboration, quickly is able to recognise and connect to business objects, and offers in-context chatting. It’s fast learning and embeds a lot of machine learning, and a lot of new innovative technology that’s intelligent… [to] truly transform the way ERP is.”

SAP illustrates the product’s capabilities in various videos. One looks at monitoring and extending purchase contracts. Di Donato says that by 2020, the company is aiming for many financial functions to become ‘completely automated’. “At the end of the day, when I go out and speak with customers and say to them ‘what are you looking for in ERP?’, what can we give you to transform your business besides being less expensive, being less expensive is not the crux of where our customers are looking for benefit,” she says.

“The international finance reporting standards requirements are so extensive and so time-consuming that something basic – i.e. I want to close my books – is quite complex when you’re dealing with international reporting standards,” Di Donato adds. “Being able to offer faster time to close your books, taking away a lot of the functions and steps necessary with machine learning is hugely beneficial…detailed data in context to be able to make fast decisions…those are real business benefits that folks are seeing and asking for.”

Mention artificial intelligence in a business context, and while much of the conversation will discuss the potential benefits and efficiencies, another thought naturally occurs: will it affect my job? Back in January, Japanese company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance made headlines after announcing it would replace more than 30 of its staff with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI.

The more optimistic view, as cited by respondents to an Adecco survey in April, is that AI will remove the duller, less palatable tasks and free up employees to be more creative. It’s a view with which Di Donato agrees. “It will be beneficial, and do I think they’ll be letting people go and that there’ll be a huge turn of events, saving money by not having people in the company? No, that’s not how we think necessarily at all,” she says.

“What we want to do is be able to allocate the mundane tasks to machines and machine learning technology, whilst taking the people and making them much more impactful on the business…giving them strategic roles, high impact roles, roles that can touch customers and service customers in a way that a machine can’t. It’s a reallocation of intelligence, if you will.”

Moreover, the rise of AI may represent a great opportunity for enhancement. Di Donato frequently speaks with young people, and the consistent message of the earlier the better in learning technical skills comes through. “I think we have the ability as a society to increase the value that everyone has to bring and bear,” she says. “When we take the mundane tasks away, it’s a perfect opportunity for our society to be upskilled and to learn more.

“Whilst yes, 99% of jobs are ‘mundane’, I venture to believe that not 99% of people want to do mundane tasks. We just have to do them, and we get used to them.”

SAP is also looking at other emerging technologies, with many coming under the banner of Leonardo, an innovation portfolio. This includes blockchain and the Internet of Things (IoT) – or not quite, as Di Donato explains. “I came on board and I was like ‘yawn’, I’m so sick of hearing about IoT,” she explains. “It’s not the Internet of Things anymore anyhow, it’s the Internet of Everything.

“What is true is that there are components of the Internet of Everything, IoT, machine learning, that the enterprise has not been able to consume,” she adds. “The problem was everyone talked a good game, but it wasn’t anywhere being used, and I think the difference now is that it was educational for 10 years, and now it’s consumption.

“We went from hypothesising about the business benefit of what IoT, and machine learning, and AI, and all of these things can do for the enterprise, and then all of a sudden it’s become embedded into our ERP.”

Picture credit: SAP

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