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SAP managed services weed out IT complexity at Ball Horticulture

Ball Horticultural outsourced its SAP Basis administration to Symmetry when the complexity of its SAP environment grew, but internal change management was a challenge.

Managing an SAP environment can be daunting, particularly for small and medium-sized companies. Now, as the SAP technology stack expands, the task is getting even harder.

Ball Horticultural Co. found this out when the growth and complexity of its SAP environment overtook the capacity of its two-person team to manage SAP Basis. So the company looked for help and eventually landed on Symmetry, an SAP managed services provider, to handle its day-to-day SAP operations, according to Mark Morris, Ball Horticulture's CIO and director of IT.

Based in Chicago, Ball Horticultural researches and develops plants that are distributed to garden centers around the world, with most of its business in North America. The company relies on a complex supply chain involving live perishable seeds and cuttings of plants that need to hit specific delivery dates and time frames, Morris said.

The SAP environment grows more complex

Ball Horticultural is a longtime user of SAP ECC. And, for most of that time, IT could run the SAP environment on its own. The SAP Basis system administration platform was straightforward and easily handled by the company's two-person IT team, Morris said.

However, things changed when the company moved to a more complex platform, SAP NetWeaver, which brought SAP Business Intelligence (BI) and SAP Enterprise Portal (EP) into the environment. Both applications run on a Java stack.

"We expanded the Basis group by adding a third person," Morris said. "But we were still extremely small for what we were doing. Then, as things got more complex and we had more of a dependency, we lost our Java-knowledgeable Basis person."

Rather than try to replace the loss with another person, Morris said that they decided to bring in a managed services provider. Morris and his team chose Symmetry, a Brookfield, Wis.-based company that provides SAP managed services.

Mark Morris, director of IT and CIO, Ball HorticulturalMark Morris

SAP organizations have a difficult time with high turnover because the job market is healthy for positions like SAP Basis administrators due to the expansion of SAP's technology portfolio, which continues to add applications, according to Jonathan Sharp, Symmetry's vice president of products and strategy.

"IT departments -- particularly in large organizations that run SAP -- have to do more with less these days," Sharp said. "And they find that SAP is evolving so rapidly that it doesn't make economic sense for them to do it on their own. They want a partner to help when something goes wrong -- which it does -- [so they] can get to the heart of what the issue is."

The growing complexity of the IT environment and the SAP landscape, specifically, were the main problems that Morris wanted to solve by going with an outsourced SAP managed services provider. In addition to running SAP ECC, Ball Horticulture's IT team was managing several small, industry-specific applications, as well as SAP BI and EP. All the applications were integrated with Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Power BI for data visualization, and Esker for document management.

Ball Horticultural looked at several SAP managed services providers but decided to go with Symmetry because Morris believed it was more focused on smaller businesses and that it could provide more personalized attention.

Providing a deeper pool of resources

Outsourcing to SAP managed services with Symmetry not only helped Ball Horticulture deal with the growing complexity of its SAP environment, but it also provided the company with a deeper understanding of the SAP roadmap and added resilience to its infrastructure.

"We still have Basis people on staff, but I don't have to depend on them," Morris said. "If they get sick or are gone for a period of time, we can look to Symmetry to fill that gap."

Symmetry handles most of the day-to-day operations and monitoring of Ball Horticultural's SAP environment. The managed services provider also works on projects such as refreshing the quality assurance system and upgrading the operating systems and databases that touch the SAP environment.

Moving to outsourced SAP managed services can be a cost savings measure for some companies, but this was not the case for Ball Horticultural, as the company's IT team was already lean. However, the decision was a good one for the company, as it helped keep the mission-critical SAP environment running and it freed the IT team to work on other things, according to Morris.

"If you're busy chasing down the day-to-day support and monitoring, you're not looking at the next thing," he said. "For example, we're in year two of rolling out Power BI, and we wouldn't have been able to pull those people off and have them interacting with the Power BI environment if they were heads down on SAP."

Change management makes or breaks the system

Having Symmetry as an SAP managed services provider has been a positive experience overall for Ball Horticultural, but Morris maintained that there are some challenges in outsourcing SAP administration.

First, companies that outsource administration and other IT tasks should be prepared for turnover. Morris said it's unrealistic to think that a company can retain IT talent over the long term in today's employment market, especially for in-demand skills like SAP Basis management. On the flip side, Morris said companies should also be aware that it takes time and resources to get new people up to speed whether you're hiring in-house or outsourcing the job.

"There's always ramp up when you bring in somebody new. If you bring someone in on staff full time or if you outsource it, there's no magic pill to that," he said. "It takes time for people that have familiarity with your group, your system and your layout, and building those relationships takes time."

Morris also said that dealing with organizational change management is, by far, the biggest challenge with using managed services, as some internal workers may feel threatened by having critical functions outsourced. Putting new processes into place and getting new personnel up to speed on the technology is relatively easy, Morris said, but dealing with the people part is difficult, yet essential.

"Dealing with the emotions and the change management part will determine how well they communicate and whether or not they're collaborating on resolving problems versus looking to blame each other," he said. "So the change management is the one area that can't be underestimated."

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