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Making Smart Handoffs

SAP’s “follow the sun” approach speeds software development by linking teams in Europe, the U.S., and Asia.
March 29, 2011

When SAP, the large business software provider, needs to complete a project quickly, it takes advantage of its global reach, along with collaboration tools that make it easier than ever for people in disparate areas to work together.

The approach is called “follow the sun.” As the name implies, it’s an around-the-clock operation. At the end of the workday in Germany, where SAP is headquartered, software developers and other project experts hand off work to counterparts in California. Eight hours later, the California teams hand the work over to teams in Asia. It’s not ideal for every situation—such as when SAP is developing an application for use in one market. But it can be useful when time is short and SAP has to develop software that works all over the world.

SAP put a follow-the-sun plan into use when it tried to help customers deal with the Japanese triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. Big companies that use customized SAP software to run their operations needed SAP to quickly develop new applications to help them deal with the temporary loss of key suppliers.  For instance, some of SAPs clients depend on Japanese semiconductor plants, known as fabs, that make the customized chips for smart phones and other electronics. When those fabs were shut down, their customers needed to reconfigure their supply chains to account for new shipping routes from alternate plants.

That brings a cascade of challenges—navigating the customs laws at different ports, avoiding ports with big backlogs, and adapting to other crises around the world, such as clashes in the Middle East that threaten oil supplies and shipping lanes. All this has to be taken into account when SAP modifies its supply-chain software.

To do this, it followed the sun. European developers can make use of local experts, such as people who know the vagaries of European ports. They might know, for example, that it will take 20 days to clear customs at one port but just two at another, and they can get the supply-chain software to take that into account. Other experts might have the latest on how events in the Middle East could affect the Suez Canal, potentially forcing ships to take longer routes.

The German team passes off the project to colleagues in North America and Asia; each in turn can make use of local experts. “The response time, and having people with the right knowledge, is absolutely critical,” says Oliver Bussman, SAP’s chief information officer. Handing off from one country to another also allows the company to test the product on the fly, to make sure it works well for people in different cultures and settings.

Follow the sun has become an increasingly popular approach for large, international companies and the smaller ones that work with them, says Tom Eid, a research vice president at Gartner. One twist at SAP is that the company uses its own software, known as Streamwork, to manage the process. When developers and others working on the project get to the end of their workday, they can connect with their colleagues using the system, which lets them hold videoconferences and exchange instant messages. They display all the work in progress, and assign specific tasks to appropriate people.

Streamwork also tracks updates to the software under development, to avoid the confusion that can come from multiple people working on software with a million lines of code, and to make it possible to retreat to an earlier stage if needed. It tracks decisions made, including who made them and why, to help a new team get up to speed on what happened in the previous shift.

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