Looking for Mr. Cloud: The Benioff Scale and SAP’s Cloud Leadership Conundrum

Cloud computing, the artist formerly known as SaaS, has always been a proving ground for dynamic leadership. The standard – brash, outspoken, ubiquitous, successful – was set once upon a time by Marc Benioff, and ever since it’s been easy to measure cloud leadership by what I call the Benioff Scale. On a Benioff Scale of 1-10, where 1 is Ginni (Ginni who?) Rometty of IBM, and 10 is Marc himself, measuring cloud leadership by how many Benioffs a particular leader generates is as good a method as any.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos clearly rates 10 Benioffs, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella gets a 10 as well. Larry Ellison – how about if I pass on that one? Meg Whitman – 4 or 5 at best. Larry Page gets a 10, of course, though his enterprise cloud score would be much lower. Infor’s Charles Philips get an 8 for sincerity and vision, but the continued lack of customer momentum towards the cloud drives his overall score much lower.

The point is that the cloud is a marketer’s market, and the higher up on the Benioff scale an executive can go – the more brash, outspoken, ubiquitous and successful the leader is –  the better his or her company’s cloud marketing efforts will be.

Which is why SAP’s current cloud position isn’t looking as good as it could, despite an alignment of assets and strategies that clearly place SAP in the top tier. SAP’s problem with cloud leadership is fundamental: it lacks a Mr. or Ms. Cloud who rates a leading score on the Benioff scale. Absent a leader with the requisite level of internal and external clout, SAP as a whole rates at best 6 Benioffs¸ underperforming its potential by several points.

Not that there aren’t strong contenders inside SAP for Mr. Cloud. (Sorry, I’m struggling to find a prospective Ms. Cloud in SAP’s leadership lineup – despite the company’s honest attempts at diversity, senior leadership at SAP’s is still largely a men’s club.) But the worthy contenders all struggle with the siloing of SAP’s cloud strategy, which yields too many Mr. Cloud contenders, and waters down the company’s overall Benioff score.

So far, the most visible Mr. Cloud is SuccessFactors head Mike Ettling, who wears the mantle with solid authority and credentials, but not enough overall company responsibility to claim the title. On his own I’d give Mike something north of an 8, but because he’s part of a fragmented SAP, he’s dragged down by the company’s overall score. Steve Singh, the SAP board member with the biggest cloud portfolio and a legitimate Mr. Cloud contender in his own right, simply isn’t visible enough to make it to more than a 5 Benioffs score, if that. Bernd Leukert, who waxed eloquent about cloud and HANA Cloud Platform at SAP TechEd in Barcelona last month, is getting higher and higher individual marks, but his technology bailiwick at SAP waters down his ability to raise the company’s overall average. Alex Atzberger, who runs Ariba, has decent Mr. Cloud potential, but his cloud focus is distracted by Ariba’s on-premise customer base and the same fragmentation that lowers scores across the company. And CEO Bill McDermott has too much responsibility for the non-cloud part of SAP – the part that so far actually makes the company’s quarterly numbers work for Wall Street – to be even in contention for Mr. Cloud.

It’s important to bear in mind that Mr. or Ms. Cloud isn’t just about putting a public face to a company’s cloud aspirations, and the Benioff scale isn’t just about feeding at the trough of public opinion. Top scorers on the scale get those numbers because they have internal cloud clout as well. Bezos, Benioff, Nadella – there’s no doubt they run the cloud show at their respective companies, and while each is surrounded by a coterie of lieutenants (almost all men, sorry again, Ms. Cloud wannabes) who own various business units and other parts of the cloud story, no one inside or outside these companies has any doubt who’s running the cloud show.

Not so at SAP, much to its detriment. SAP has nine major cloud properties or assets – S/4 HANA, HANA Enterprise Cloud, SucessFactors, Ariba, Concur, hybris, Fieldglass, C4C, and HANA Cloud Platform – and the lack of a unified, cohesive strategy is SAP’s greatest challenge right now. Much like its customers, SAP is struggling with a siloed cloud approach that is turning out to be an impediment to growth, and, counting the low Benioff scores, market leadership as well. At a time when companies at the top of the Benioff scale are poised to reap enormous benefits from a sudden acceleration to the cloud, SAP – which is definitely reaping serious cloud benefits every quarter – is finding its own cloud structure, or, more concisely, lack thereof, getting in the way.

Don’t think for a moment that SAP is alone is having a surfeit of disjointed cloud properties and strategies – all top Benioff scale companies do too: it’s an artifact of the incessant acquisitions and side bets that cloud vendors have made in order to keep moving the needle. But the command and control structures that run Salesforce.com, Microsoft and Amazon mean that rationalizing these companies’ surfeit of clouds can be undertaken without having to fight the kind of rear-guard, tilting at silos battle any Mr. Cloud at SAP would face even to be allowed to take the crown, much less wear it.

But the fight would be worth it. SAP needs a rational, cohesive cloud strategy – articulated loud and strong by Mr. Cloud – in order to push not just the above-mentioned cloud assets, but its new strategic initiatives as well. IoT lives and dies in the cloud (and lately it looks like SAP wants to live or die by IoT, which is going to a little more difficult than it may appear), machine learning isn’t something you install on premise (though I’m sure someone somewhere has tried to buy one of them shiny new Watsons to put in their data center), and that developer-friendly platform strategy that SAP needs to execute is based on something call HANA Cloud Platform after all.

Whether SAP is talking to itself, its partners, individual users, ASUG and other user groups, or its competitors, the need for a unified, cohesive voice to the cloud market has never been greater. I’m pretty sure SAP has got a deep enough bench to make Mr. or Ms. Cloud a reality. But it needs either a lot more courage or a lot more fear to take this step. Right now both are lacking, and an abundance of both, frankly, should define SAP’s mindset for 2017: cloud leadership is there to take, and it’s there to lose. The coming year is going to be a pivotal one, and without a single, strategic cloud voice, the pivot for SAP risks going in the wrong direction.