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Stuart Browne26-Jan-2023 12:33:447 min read

SAP Product vs Process: Why your S/4 thinking is too woolly

My daughter is wonderful.

I know every Dad says that. But mine really is.

She's smart, determined, engaging, fun and confident.

I'd hope at least one of these attributes is from my DNA.

Alex is at Uni in Edinburgh and loving every minute of it - studying, socialising, working part-time and investing time in her hobbies, which include Jewellery making, crochet and now, following a flurry of Christmas presents from her well curated gift list, knitting.

That's right, she's 20 and knits.

Once the pastime of retired pensioners (remember Shreddies) knitting is now something the Gen Z cool kids do while they watch Tik Tok.

Alex was only home for 4 days over Christmas, so I'm not 100% up to speed on how her knitting is going. And, the conversations I do have with her are asynchronously spread across a number of different messaging services, so it's hard to piece together the true details of her life, but I think she's knitting a Jumper right now.

This makes Alex a Product Knitter.

There are two types of Knitter you see - Product Knitters who make stuff, and Process Knitters who do it for the skill and the craft.

From Yak Yarn & Knitting :


The process maker spends hours luxuriating in the act of knitting, selecting the perfect needles, the perfect cast on, ritualising the moment – the right chair by the right window with the right lamp. They collect project bags, pour over patterns, sharpen their pencil to mark out the steps. They wander round yarn stores, sniffing and squishing skeins, holding them next to each other to work out what colour goes with what.

The product maker is a little impulsive. Desperate to get the thing done so they can wear it and they’ve probably thought they could get away without a swatch. Are you the kind of person that says manically “I’m coming, just one more row!”. Do you get more of a thrill from the finished thing rather than relishing the making? The product maker cannot wait to get to the cast off, in fact the nearer they are to the cast off the more likely they are locked away in a room somewhere until they can emerge declaring with delight “it’s finished!”.

During a Christmas drive back North from London I was distantly listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme, enjoying the voice tones more than the content. It's one of the reasons I love Radio 4 - things like the Shipping Forecast and Gardener's Question Time are wonderful as background soundscapes, even through I understand around the 5% of the content.

It's only the The Archers theme tune that has me frantically reaching for the volume dial to quell the irritating country bumpkin bollocks that follows, breaking my otherwise peaceful trance.

Anyway, on this drive I was subconsciously aware of velvety voice tones and the click-clack of knitting needles as I trundled along the M40 when I heard the phrase "the whole Product vs Process debate in Knitting".

I think I involuntarily dabbed the brakes.

Only moments earlier I'd been thinking about Product vs. Process.

Was Radio 4 spying on my thoughts?

I instantly got-it though - Product vs. Process is such an obvious dichotomy in knitting, even if you don't know what casting off even is. In fact, it was an annoyingly clear dichotomy compared to the Product vs. Process debate I was having with myself as I passed the Banbury junction.

You see, my internal discussion related to IT.

Over the years, we've advised dozens of large organisations who run big complex IT solutions on how to optimise the way they build and run their technology stack - specifically ERP technology like SAP.

We've been doing this for two decades now - somehow the cardigan wearing Nicholas Coburn and I became experts in this field in the early 2000s. Now, every week we get companies from all over the world asking us for help and advice - massive global corporations in Europe, North America, Asia, Australia - it's mental.

Google "SAP Centre of Excellence" you'll find our thinking and a downloadable toolkit, in the unlikely scenario that you're remotely interested.

Even though the principles we discuss has remained the same for 20+ years, the specific challenges people face have varied with the times.


  • In the early days (1999 - 2005) people wanted to set up in-house capabilities - large teams of people with captive skills to manage their SAP solutions.
  • Then 2006-2010 a 'knit one' drive to reduce wage costs, followed by a 'purl one' of finance market crash austerity led to a wholesale push to outsource and offshore expensive SAP skills. CIOs gained their badge of honour on tours of Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi.
  • By 2011, wage inflation in India and a general malaise for offshore had kicked in, and SAP customers had started to re-consider their delivery model again. How do I unravel outsourcing contracts and bring some things back in-house? The business aren't happy and feel we've under invested in our ERP system which is now impacting business processes and performance.
  • By 2018 Agile for SAP had really caught the CIO imagination, bookended by a shift to cloud and change in SAP's technology stack. Plus, SAP had put their product suite in the kitchen blender to see what might come out before asking customers what they actually wanted.

The current pattern of questions we're asked by curious SAP customers these days include:

  1. What skills do I need for S/4HANA and SAP's cloud based solutions?
  2. How do I deal with my ageing workforce?
  3. I don't want to outsource again, what are my options?
  4. How do I do Agile with SAP?


It's the last point that had me thinking about Product vs. Process alignment before the serendipitous Radio 4 knitting moment.

You see, ERP solutions like SAP are essentially big boxes of business processes. They're built to run things like Finance, Procurement, Inventory, Sales and Supply Chain.

Agile was invented to help technology teams quickly iterate from MVP to a successful commercial product - to get something out in the hands of customers and then use their feedback to adapt it to their needs.

Agile was created to accelerate product / market fit. Agile is for situations with vague requirements that you expect to emerge over time.

But finance month-end isn't vague with emerging requirements. Ask your CFO.

Taking sales orders and doing stock checks aren't vague either, nor are scheduling deliveries, planning manufacturing or running MRP.

They're really concrete things, with clear requirements.

Often, these Agile SAP Centre of Excellence conversations involve a person saying something like...

"we're moving to a Product aligned world and I've been given SAP as a product..."

I mean, conceptually they're right - although SAP is technically a vendor who sells 'products' like ECC, S/4HANA, Ariba, Success Factors and a ludicrous range of disintegrated other stuff that's confusing the hell out of customers at the moment.

But they're not right in that the bundle of SAP solutions they've licensed are a very different kind of 'product' than the original Agile interpretation of a commercial product with a need to iterate via sprints from MVP to achieve product / market fit.

ERP solutions run businesses. ERP underpins business processes. Discarding process alignment and crucially, process ownership in favour of 'product alignment' just to satisfy Agile terminology is nonsense.

In a world where ERP solutions are becoming more composable and less integrated, delivery models definitely need to adapt and change. There's a more of an emphasis on knitting multiple technology 'products' together - meaning that modern integration methods and slick cross-solution data analytics approaches come into sharper focus.

This is part of the reason we're fielding a constant stream of enquiries for advice at the moment. But the answer definitely isn't as simple as labelling SAP as a product, assigning a Product Manger then implementing Jira and hoping for the best.

If you're still wrangling the big ball of tangled wool that is your future S/4HANA roadmap, don't be a Product Knitter like Alex.

Stick to your Process knitting instead.

Bring processes to the front of your mind and technology to the back.

And, if anyone replies to this mentioning Signavio, I'll hunt you down and stick a knitting needle in your eye.


Stuart Browne

Stuart has held leadership roles in the SAP ecosystem over an 25 year period, spanning consultancy, delivery management, practice development, sales, marketing and analyst relations. He writes regularly on Linkedin and for ERP Today magazine. With an eclectic mix of skills and one of the largest SAP networks in the UK, Stuart has established a formidable reputation that has enabled Resulting to guide SAP customers through complex challenges.