Lessons from managing 12,500 iPads

SAP was an early advocate for and adopter of the iPad. Its CIO shares what he's learned

The majority of corporations has adopted iPads to some degree, but most are piloting the devices and/or allowing informal use by employees. SAP is not one of those companies. The ERP giant was an early believer in the iPad concept and now has more than 12,500 in use -- both those issued by the company and those brought in by employees. Even for a company as large as SAP, that's a huge pool.

I met recently with SAP CIO Oliver Bussmann, and we chatted for more than an hour on his company's use of iPads and other mobile technologies, as well as the issues that arise when you adopt post-PC technology. Much of what SAP does is unsurprising -- it uses policy-based mobile device management (MDM) to ensure access security and monitor usage -- but the company did surprise me in its open-mindedness and flexible approach to new technology.

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Before I get into those nonobvious approaches and views, it's important to go back to February 2010. Within days of Apple announcing the iPad, SAP chairman Hasso Plattner told his executives -- Bussmann in particular -- that he believed the iPad would be a huge factor in business and SAP should be a first mover on the use of and support for the device. This was before anyone actually had touched an iPad, when the reaction from most pundits -- certainly most corporate and IT leaders -- was that at best the new Apple device would be a media tablet (Gartner still calls it that, in fact) suited for watching videos and couch surfing; it would never be a business device.

It's also important to remember that Apple had not yet brought in mobile security and management into iOS; that didn't happen until iOS 4 was released in July 2010. Today, Bussmann estimates that half of all iPads sold are used in business. But at the time, the notion of a business-oriented vendor supporting the iPad was just weird. Even Apple had no expectations, or even interest, in the iPad's use by business, Bussmann recalls.

An open mind leads to value creation
As SAP got its hands on iPads, it began exploring what it could do with the devices in terms of using them both for running SAP apps, such as ERP dashboards, and as general-purpose computer replacements or supplements. Employees bought the devices themselves and brought them in unofficially.

SAP did not try to determine an ROI or use case upfront for iPads, as Bussmann and others believed experimental usage by employees -- as well as by IT -- in various areas would reveal where the iPad had utility. SAP also figured employees would work with them anyway, so why not augment, support, and learn from that behavior rather than try to circumscribe it? The principle was to not get in the users' way but instead facilitate them.

Today, SAP has more than 12,500 iPads at work across all departments and functions. Bussmann notes that for many employees, the iPad has largely replaced their laptops, though he believes it will be some years before tablets can completely substitute for the laptop of today.

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