I'm not at Sapphire Now, SAP's huge event taking place simultaneously this week in Orlando, Fla., and Frankfurt. Instead I'm having phone meetings with harried SAP executives (one of whom confessed he'd had 13 cups of coffee prior to our 11 a.m. call) and watching virtual presentations. (Kudos to SAP; the quality of those is excellent.)
It's the next-best thing to being there. Heck, in some ways it's better. I didn't have to wait in long lines at the airport, try to work with my laptop precariously perched on a tray table or issue long-distance reminders related to the care of my son, the dog and the family lizards.
But while I am keeping up with information, I'm not making any personal connections. At other conferences, I've initiated what proved to be lasting relationships while waiting in line for that 10th cup of coffee. Attending Sapphire virtually made me reconsider a reality of modern life: No matter how much online social networking you do or how many sophisticated collaboration technologies you use, sometimes there's just no substitute for face time.
SAP recognizes this. When I interviewed Mark Yolton, the SVP of SAP's Community Network, a network of five interrelated online communities that boasts more than 2 million members, he discussed SAP's efforts to extend its virtual communities to live events. Yolton has heard heard community members describe events such as Sapphire and TechEd as "family reunions" and he thinks it's an apt description. He said:
Many of us do the same thing in real life. We communicate with family members through e-mail and Facebook, but once a year we get together in person.
Members of the community welcome the chance to meet "heroes in their field," said Yolton:
They get to meet SAP product and solution managers, people who build the product for SAP and work with it every day. They get to meet experts from other customer accounts.
Official SAP events proved so popular that SAP offers its blessings and provides assistance to community members who want to host more informal events. When I spoke with Yolton, he was preparing for one such meeting that was to take place the next day at SAP's office in Silicon Valley. While SAP will contribute content on request and perhaps provide a speaker, Yolton said members can "run the event as they see fit, invite who they want."