The SAP user group for years has been handled by the association management group SmithBucklin, but last year the 50,000-member organization took several steps toward self-management. In August, the group appointed its first CEO, Steve Strout, and subsequently hired a number of other manages to round out its executive suite—including hiring Craig Lathrop as ASUG's first chief information officer.
Before joining ASUG, Lathrop was the chief technology officer of Kaplan Professional, the learning and certification company. Prior to that, he was the CTO at Dialog, a provider of online information, where he led the implementation of an SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
Lathrop spoke recently with CIOZone Chief Content Officer John McCormick. This is an edit version of their conversation.
CIOZone: How did ASUG wind up with its own CIO?
Lathrop: It's an interesting organization. It's very active. It has a great reputation with its members and with SAP. It's served its members really well for a number of years.
But I think it's gotten to the point where it's so large that it gets very difficult to have continuity with its volunteer board, who really kind of cycle through in one- or two-year terms. So, what has tended to happen, is that there might not have been much emphasis on long-term strategy, long-term direction. It was time to put a full-time organization in place.
CIOZone: And how did you wind up as the group's full-time CIO? Did they reach out to you, or were you looking for a new challenge?
Lathrop: No, they reached out to me. I had worked with (ASUG CEO) Steve Strout a couple times before, so I know him well. He talked about what he was trying to do. I have a lot of trust, and a lot of respect, for him, so I jumped on.
CIOZone: ASUG created a whole new management layer—with all new players. How is the organization structured? What are the reporting lines between you, the CEO, and the other executives?
Lathrop: There are five, full-time direct reports to Steve. So, in addition to myself, we have a chief marketing officer, chief operating officer, chief learning officer and we have a head of sales.
CIOZone: And you have a peer relationship with those executives?
CIOZone: And what about staff? Are you looking to hire a staff?
Lathrop: Yes. But that will take some time. I have a couple of key roles that I'm looking to fill. But bringing on 10 or 15 or 20 people—I don't think we're quite ready for that or that it's needed until I spend some more time on our roadmap and our long-term direction. Then we'll decide which SmithBucklin services we'll continue to use, what outside services we'll use, and what we might use from our partner community.
CIOZone: I'm assuming that at ASUG you're looking at pretty much a green-field opportunity. There isn't a lot of infrastructure, correct?
Lathrop: Yeah, that's very true. It's almost like a start-up, although the business has been here for 20 years.
CIOZone: A lot of CIOs probably wish that they had a green field to work in. You can go out and basically do what you think the organization really needs without being hamstrung by a bunch of legacy systems. But how do you make sure that you're moving in the right direction?
Lathrop: It's not the first time I've done a green field, although I haven't had one as wide open as this one before.
I'm trying to understand what we want this to look like in two or three years and how it should be structured. Quite a bit of work has been done on our overall strategy for ASUG—Steve and the rest of the team have done quite a good job of putting out a long-term business plan. How IT aligns with that, and what pieces of technology need to be built, is what I really need to absorb before I know what we'll need to build next.
CIOZone: Alignment is critical for all CIOs and business leaders. How are you going to make sure that you're in lockstep with what the CEO wants?
Lathrop: I might bend that question backward a bit.
Steve and I really see eye-to-eye and have for a long time on how we would work an organization and what kinds of things we want to do. We spend a lot of time together. I don't see us having a lot of conflicts.
But I think we're really going to have to make sure that we're aligned with our member community and our volunteers and that we get their input, their buy-in, and their approval. These volunteers are really passionate about their organization and what they've built and what they want it to do. So it isn't as if we have to go pull that information out of them. They're very vocal about what they're looking for in their organization.
CIOZone: So what are your first steps? How are you going about building up the ASUG infrastructure?
Lathrop: First of all, ASUG itself has never been an SAP customer. So we started implementing SAP's Business ByDesign software—an on-demand ERP offering for midsize companies—and that's really a good match for an organization this size.
It started with the rollout of the financials. Then we move on to customer-relationship management and a number of the other pieces that we need.
There are a lot of solutions that we can use in that product suite to drive our membership, our data about members, and data about our associate members and consulting groups. There'll be a lot of foundational things that need to be done. A lot of that will be based on SAP technology.
CIOZone: When you said the organization wasn't an SAP customer before, what was supporting the organization's activities? SmithBucklin's systems?
Lathrop: Exactly. Their internal systems—many of them are homegrown. But we needed to step up our efforts. SAP's goal, which everyone seems to believe they'll hit, is to have 100,000 customers in 2010.
CIOZone: Since you're the SAP user group, I would think there would be a tendency to use SAP products wherever they made sense. But what if you can't find an SAP product to fit your needs?
Lathrop: Certainly, if there's not a fit, or if it's a stretch in order to make something fit, we're going to make the best decision for our members and our customers. But there are a lot of SAP offerings—a lot to choose from. But, as you know, SAP doesn't have any authority over us, so we can certainly choose whatever we wish.
CIOZone: But I would think that, all things being equal, SAP would get extra consideration.
Lathrop: Yeah, if it's an even selection. But, remember, the ASUG organization is also a member of the user group—we're now a customer—and we're interested in SAP products.
CIOZone: What else are you working on? I heard there was an upgrade to the Web site in the works.
Lathrop: We're implementing a Web site redo, which will allow our members to look at their calendars, create blogs, check out discussion forums. I think it will be a lot more user friendly.
CIOZone: What's the Web platform?
Lathrop: So far the redo is all .Net 2.0 software running on an SQL Server database system. But that's just kind of the underlying foundation. Going forward, we'll decide whether or not we'll do a whole new foundational piece from scratch. I don't know the answer to that yet.
CIOZone: So what do you see as your biggest management challenge?
Lathrop: I think, first of all, it's to deliver on all of our projects. And there hasn't been a great track record of delivering those things on time or with the quality that the members expect. Many members of ASUG are technologists themselves, so they're used to seeing good technology solutions. So one challenge is to create the kind of project management, the kind of scoping, and the kind of project plans that will make our effort successful.
Second is understanding what we can do with our member community, and how they can help, because they very much want to be able to help. And I'd like to have their input and their help. I haven't figured out yet how to set up that exchange of information with the member community and the volunteers.
And then really trying to engage more with our consulting companies and our associate members and trying to serve them as well as we have served the installation members.
CIOZone: What do you see as your biggest technology challenge going forward?
Lathrop: I'm really looking forward to getting the back office and the ERP solution in and established. And we're doing it pretty quickly. Then we'll have a good foundation on which to build some things.
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