SAP Ariba: using collaboration to unlock the power of the ecosystem
Progress is a cyclical journey. Creation leads to hype, which leads to a bubble, followed by a return to earth and, finally, true adoption and advancement of the market. With the perspective of over 20 years in the business intelligence leadership space, Sean Thompson, Senior Vice President of Business Network and Ecosystem at SAP Ariba and SAP Fieldglass, is familiar with the process. Having witnessed and been deeply involved in major technological cycles like natural language processing, ecommerce and now the Big Data boom, Thompson is well aware of the key strategies that help push the envelope and work towards lasting growth. “As the gray haired guy in the room, looking around and having seen different cycles unfold, "It's an amazing time to be alive in the software business,” he reflects. “My career has been a journey that has, in many ways, come full circle.” We sat down with Thompson to discuss a career spent at the forefront of business intelligence, and how SAP Ariba’s new partnership with American Express highlights one of his core teachings: embracing collaboration to unlock the power of the ecosystem.
Thompson’s own entry into the software ecosystem began in the early 1990s at professional services giant Deloitte. “Back then, process re-engineering was all the rage,” he recalls. “We were consultants helping companies figure out their business processes and how to make them more efficient.” Thompson took to this prototypical form of digital transformation with even greater enthusiasm in 1995, when he moved to Seattle and was assigned to the installation of a then lesser-known business intelligence (BI) platform at Microsoft. “My boss and I later laughed about the fact that we had no idea what SAP was,” recalls Thompson. He quickly recognized the power of SAP to build connections and facilitate an interconnected business. “It was a pleasure to help companies leverage software and technology to change the way they did things in order to drive true collaboration,” remembers Thompson, who wasted no time in telling his boss that he wanted to fully commit to working with SAP’s products, later going on to run Deloitte’s Northwest SAP practice.
The years that followed saw Thompson work with multinational market leaders like Microsoft, as well as serving on the boards and executive teams of groundbreaking startup firms. Always passionate about the potential applications of new technology, in 2012 he co-founded a natural user interface company called Nuiku with Barry Padgett, a long-serving executive at Concur (bought by SAP in 2014 for $8.3bn). Thompson and Padgett quickly became friends and collaborated over the next few years on natural language interfaces for sales ERPs. “Think of it as Siri for Salesforce,” explains Thompson. The mass adoption of the smartphone and the introduction of automated natural language assistants into products like the iPhone signalled to Thompson a new cycle of technological adoption. “We started a company that was based on the concept of taking that paradigm to the enterprise. My experience installing SAP systems and being at Microsoft was always that in the enterprise, when we go to work, the experience we have with the applications we use at work is not nearly the delight that we have as a consumer,” he says. Padgett and Thompson built up Nuiku for five years before selling the company, but their collaboration was fated to continue.
“In the spring of 2016 I, after the sale of Nuiku, I was thinking about what the next project was going to be when I got a call from my buddy Barry, who had just been appointed as president of the SME business unit at SAP,” recalls Thompson. "He said 'there's nobody I'd rather go on this adventure with than you'." Thompson joined as CRO, and just over 18 months later, the pair moved over to SAP Ariba. “That’s where the job came full circle. Procurement is near and dear to my heart because it's where I originally fell in love, in terms of the concept of saving money to fund core systems implementation.”
The move couldn’t have come at a better time for Thompson, who sees SAP Ariba as at the forefront of two major trends in the business intelligence space: data and collaboration. “At Ariba, we think a lot about it. We have a treasure trove of data – $3trn in annual commerce that flows through us. The technology is available, the computing power is available, we have the data and now, all of a sudden, I think we are poised to provide businesses with insight into enterprise performance that is similar to the way Google provides insight into search,” he enthuses. “It's just a matter of good old-fashioned execution.”
The power of the information revolution, Thompson believes, lies in its ability to further facilitate collaboration between enterprises and customers, enterprises and one another, buyers and suppliers – the entire ecosystem. “In the past, collaboration was point-to-point. Now, at Ariba, we’re approaching this as a network to achieve true business collaboration. We’re breaking down the silos and fostering more collaborative relationships, in terms of being able to have companies interact with each other, as if they were within the same four walls – within the same firewall, if you will,” he explains.
Thompson and Padgett have, over the past 18 months, changed the course of SAP Ariba, redirecting the business towards the promotion of the business ecosystem. “The Ariba you knew a year ago is very different to the Ariba of today,” he says. “We've changed our strategy and culture, helping everybody within the company understand that if we are open and embrace the third party ecosystem and the creative genius that can come from that, amazing things can happen.” One of the first steps that Ariba is pursuing in its campaign to unlock the power of the ecosystem is rebalancing the buyer-supplier relationship. “The buyer has become the hero, to a point where we've spent so much time building value for them that we've left the supplier on the side of the road with their suitcase wondering what their value is to the network,” admits Thompson. As such, improving value proposition for the supplier is a key element of Ariba’s strategy.
Announced in April 2019, SAP Ariba’s new partnership with American Express will, among other things, work to rebalance the buyer-supplier relationship throughout the procurement process. “In the corporate space, the single use account virtual card is a very compelling offering, which allows a buyer, through integration of Ariba and American Express’ systems to generate a single use account authentication or authorization key from the virtual card provider,” explains Thompson. “The buyer is able to leverage virtual card protection and efficiency. At the time of purchase order (PO), the buyer creates a PO, attaches their virtual card, and the supplier pays using that.” Value is created for the supplier as they are paid at the time of order, rather than having to invoice the buyer, which saves time and reduces error. Thompson views the American Express partnership as a collaborative win that is enabled by, and will enable, further data based digital projects. “About half of our buyers are also American Express corporate card users,” he says. “On the supplier side, there's also an opportunity for us to offer loans and financing to suppliers through our Amex partnership. The more we know about suppliers, the more the financial institutions like American Express knows, we will be working with them to offer financing opportunities for suppliers outside of the normal payment process.”
Going forward, Thompson is confident that SAP Ariba’s early embrace of the open ecosystem will see it in good stead. “We will have an open approach and the different relationships that we have will each play a unique role, if you will, in that open ecosystem. Ultimately, it's about choice. Buyers will be able to choose the financial institution that they want to work with and, if we do it right at Ariba, we'll be able to shape the ecosystem around us for years to come.”
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.