Two weeks ago I was the guest of SAP at their annual North American ecosystem conference – Sapphire Orlando (there’s also one in Europe, but it conflicted with Mesh, where I’ve spent the last two days connecting with the best and the brightest from Canada’s web community).

I’m always pleased to be at these events; I enjoy hearing what SAP is doing and where they’re going as an organization, and it’s a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues. Here’s a selection of some of the things I had the opportunity to hear and learn about while I was there, as well as something that came out of the Berlin event as well.

From the Communities (SDN, BPX) session lead by Zia Yusuf and Mark Yolton:

There was a good discussion around what constitutes success in the community space. Naturally, the easiest (and most unequivocal) measure of success for any organization is an increase in profitable revenue. I think it was Mark, however, who pointed out that there are also soft gains that should not be ignored, and which tend to arrive first; “I have the roller skates, you have the key”-type connections made between community members.

One of the challenges in assessing the ROI of these kinds of platforms and initiatives is that it is very difficult to track ideas as they move through organizations. An idea generated by a connection made through an SAP community may eventually implant and sprout into a profitable project or partnership. How can you practically tie that back to the community? Is an overzealous insistence on ROI, ROI and nothing but ROI both not subtle enough to embrace the real benefits and a potential risk factor?

Underfunding community and collaboration initiatives will have negative economic impact, especially given the rapidly accelerating pace of innovation. A thought that occurs to me as I write this: perhaps instead of insisting on demonstrating ROI as the only meaningful metric (don’t get me wrong – it is meaningful, but it’s just not the only meaningful one), what about a calculation that establishes negative ROI? What revenue are you missing out on if you don’t invest in communities of innovation?

Probably the most interesting keynote of the three-day event was the final one – Hasso Platter, SAP’s Co-Chairman and Chief Software Advisor, (assisted by the amusing Ian Kimbell, who always seems to find a way to mention David Beckham) gave us a charming and substantive run-through of some of the new Business Objects functionality (widgets!), Business By Design and the new Blackberry CRM app, but most interestingly for me, repeatedly asked the crowd for feedback on SAP products in order to improve them.

I wondered, however, how exactly users would be able to provide this input? Frankly, the importance Plattner placed on user input in developing solutions that met business needs fairly screamed out for some sort of official social media channel, whether it’s a robust public collaboration space like the ones used by Dell, or Starbucks (in need of some SEO help, BTW) or a softer backchannel via product manager blogs. Except that SAP doesn’t (yet) have any of those things outside of SDN, which is developer, rather than user-focussed.

This week, something I came across as I watched my colleagues broadcast content from Sapphire Berlin really made me wonder if the senior leadership at SAP have a good understanding of Web 2.0 and its potential. James Governor of Redmonk was tweeting SAP CEO Henning Kagermann’s keynote a few days ago, and posted the following excerpt,

“i am not buying into the Web 2.0 thinking you can build a business to run your entire business on without some complex systems thinking”

Kagermann is obviously making the point that companies need infrastructure providers like SAP in order to run properly, but to make (what appears to be) a fairly negative and broad statement about the value and legitimacy of Web 2.0 in general is an interesting signal. Is he suggesting it’s just a fad, not worth SAP’s attention? Impossible to know without the context of the entire speech, but I hope not (for SAP’s sake).

Finally, I also had the pleasure of attending a session with Marty Homlish, SAP CMO, Susan Popper, SVP of Integrated Marketing Communications, and Chris Powell, Vice President, Global Marketing Strategy, Planning and Marketing Intelligence in which they debriefed us on Chris’ recent project that saw the entire global marketing organization invited to a two-day virtual online event. By all accounts it was very successful, and I look forward to more conversations with Chris about some of the metrics gathered and the analysis conducted. That meeting was worth an entire post all its’ own; one will be forthcoming in a week or so.

[Full disclosure: SAP is an SMG client]