SAPPHIRE 25 years ago – the early years of SAP´s international user conference

Do you have any idea what “SAP’s Perennial Highly Integrated R/2 / R/3 Exchange” is? This is, in a word, SAPPHIRE, SAP’s annual customer conference. I was lucky to be one of the SAPPHIRE pioneers. Before founding Nytro, I played a key role in the organization of the first SAP international conference in 1989 – back then, still known as the “International R/2 User Conference.”

The international conferences were purposed to bring international users together to exchange experiences, see where SAP is going and have some fun. It was quite an innovative concept at that time.

The first SAPPHIRE had the quite boring and factual name of “R/2 User Conference” and was organized in Lausanne (Switzerland) in 1989.

SAPPHIRERebranding the conference to a name that made IT history

The idea for the first ever SAPPHIRE came up in the Restaurant ‘Sonne’ in Scheunenberg (Switzerland) some twenty six years ago. That day, the CIO of one of SAP’s major customers, CIL, Clive Weightman, met up with Hans Schlegel, SAP Executive Board member and responsible for SAP’s international business.

CIL had established the name “SAPPHIRE” in 1984/1985 as their internal Project Name within the company. SAP asked Clive Weightman if they could use the name “SAPPHIRE” for these global forums as they began to emerge. ‘We immediately agreed’, mentioned Clive.

After two successful R/2 User Conferences, the renamed SAPPHIRE was organized in Princeton, New Jersey (United States), and Nice (France) in 1991. Since we didn’t have an e-mail system yet, the invitations were sent out by mail or fax to the few hundred participants in each location.

The participants did not just discuss software and business processes at the conference – actually, it turned to be a Davos forum for SAP users all over the world. At the SAPPHIRE USA in Princeton, for example, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a big topic, and there was a heated debate about the events in Germany.

From mystery quizzes to “you name it, we´ll develop it next week”

The evening events were still very low-key compared to these days. We played a few rounds of a murder mystery quiz with the customers. However, SAPPHIRE began to become more and more popular. More than 1,000 participants visited the conference in Nice, as customer representatives from over 30 countries came to France in spite of the Gulf War.

Even back then, technological trends were set at SAPPHIRE. Hasso Plattner mentioned SAP R/3 for the first time there. And Alvin Toffler, one of the thought leaders in the industry, talked in 1991 about the Internet, something most of the participants knew nothing about.

SAP’s customers and partners have made a significant contribution to the success of SAP R/2 and SAP R/3 and all the products which followed afterwards. At SAPPHIRE in Nice, 1991, during a break-out session, one of the customers asked Klaus Tschira (SAP founder): “‘why don’t we include this function in the system?’ And Klaus replied: ‘Okay, we’ll start developing it next week.’

Rebranded as “SAPPHIRE NOW and ASUG Annual Conference” to stay in tune with the new digital trends, the conference still attracts over 15’000 customers each year and hundreds of thousands follow it online.

The SAPPHIRE model to connect with customers became an industry standard around the world and nowadays literally every major ITC company uses such a platform to connect in an intimate way with its customers.