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SAP TechEd 09 keynoters: Managing change today like trying to board a speeding train

Managing change is getting harder, say SAP TechEd 09 keynoters, with social media applications and mobile technologies taking the world by storm. When technology is on an exponential growth path, it takes a futurist to figure out where we'll be in a year.

PHOENIX -- Society is in the middle of a once-in-a-generation type of change, and this is creating issues in managing change, according to keynote speakers here at SAP TechEd 2009.

The change is coming from many places. There are social media applications, like Twitter. "Today there are 7 million users on Twitter, which wasn't even around two years ago," said Vishal Sikka, CTO for SAP, during his keynote entitled "The Accelerating Pace of Change."

The change is also coming from SAP users, who need a widening breadth of functionality in SAP Business Suite: applications encompassing financials, logistics, SCM, supplier relationship management, CRM, performance optimization and so on.

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The change is coming from the pace of technology – having tens of thousands of application screens that must contend with new mobile technologies such as iPhones, Blackberries and a multitude of Google applications.

SAP has even created a name for an application's ability to be rendered on many different user devices: a multiheaded application, which entails the idea of having different types of user interfaces able to access content and talk to applications.

It's like trying to hit a moving target – or, as co-keynoter, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil said, trying to get on a train that's moving faster and faster. When you're starting on any project, he said, you need to factor in the pace of change.

"You need to measure where these technologies will be when your project is finished, because the world will be different in two to three years," he said. In fact, he said, it will be vastly different, because technology usually proceeds on an exponential growth path, rather than a linear growth path.

Kurzweil explained this concept in many graphs charting the predictability of the curve showing the evolution of technology trends, but the one that explained the concept best may have been his analogy. "If you take 30 steps linearly, you've taken just that: 30 steps," he said. "If you take 30 steps exponentially, you've gone a billion steps."

The concept of change resonated with Burton Osterweis, who heads up the Westborough, Mass., SAP consultancy Osterweis Business Consulting, which specializes in SAP Business Warehouse and planning implementations. He related Kurtzweil's discussion to other areas in his life in addition to the rapid march of technology.

"I own several rental properties, and I pay monthly principal and interest on each," he said. "Those are two different exponential curves, so Kurzweil has helped me realize that small monthly incremental changes in those curves will result in large changes in the future -- even though current changes appear to be small," he said with a smile. "I can't wait."

Other attendees were just as positive on the address. Many felt that it was less of a sales pitch than some addresses in the past and focused on interesting issues. SAP's take on cloud computing, development and other technology trends caught the ear of Brad Vanover, programmer and analyst with Kindred Healthcare in Louisville, Ky.

"I thought it was great to hear from the CTO of the company to really get a feel for his vision and direction," he said. "It touched on what the future holds not just in the SAP world, but outside as well."

Another attendee had similar feedback. Sikka's discussion of advances in analytics technology, such as in-memory databases, and cloud computing were of particular interest to Suraesh Bala, SAP systems specialist with Madison, N.J.-based Wyeth.

"I always like the keynote," Bala said. "It gives you a broader perspective of things, more than just your one area. I like [Kurzweil's] speech, because it talked more about the big picture and how technology is progressing."

Joe Terhaar, technical fellow with Conagra Foods, called Kurzweil's keynote "intriguing" and said that he was a longtime fan of his work. However, Terhaar said there was a scary moment during Kurzweil's talk.

During the keynote, Kurzweil, giving an example of how healthcare has become an information technology, cited a patient with Parkinson's disease who had a device implanted in his brain to help fight the disease through software updates. But Kurzweil said that there were fears that the device could be hacked.

Paul Hunsaker, who works change control for Lockheed Martin, said he took note of buzzwords like clarity and sustainability that were mentioned throughout the keynote, but also appreciated Kurzweil's presentation. "It wasn't really meat and potatoes," Hunsaker said. "It was all so conceptual."

Hannah Smalltree and Matt Perkins contributed some of the interviews to this article.

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