If 2020 proved anything it’s that everything can change, fast. As businesses attempt to settle into the ‘new normal’, or at least equip themselves to weather further disruption in a more manageable way, many will be looking to tech leaders to demonstrate the way forward.
German multinational software company SAP has continually proven itself to be an essential enterprise partner and always one step ahead of the curve throughout its almost 50 years in operation. To find out how it has been maintaining its trademark brand of customer-focused innovation during one of the most difficult periods in recent history, we spoke to Nis Boy Naeve, Vice President of Platform Adoption Enablement and former Chief Product Owner, SAP User Interfaces.
Describing the role of his team as “helping SAP’s customers adopt our Business Technology Platform in a very specific environment,” Naeve is able to offer a very informed opinion on the topic of change. A trained physicist, he joined SAP over 25 years ago as a Developer and steadily gained experience from a range of projects, such as those relating to HR, “understanding how you can help run a business with programmes and digitalisation.” Eventually, Naeve began to learn more about the “other side”, namely how people actually interact with technologies themselves (user experience and user interface or UX and UI). “In my current role, we actually connect business technology platform services and other technical services and create business value out of that. In physics you learn how the world runs. With SAP you help the world run better,” he states.
The amount of change that SAP itself has undergone in the time since Naeve joined in 1995 seems emblematic of broader sector trends. For one thing, the company’s staff count has increased from around 6,000 employees to over 100,000 worldwide. For another, its digital transformation has unfolded before his eyes: from large ‘classical’ PCs with tube monitors that took up entire desks to smartphones and most recently the cloud. Alongside all of this tech transformation has been a culture shift that emphasises Experience, “[which] has become absolutely key. One of the things I’m most proud of is that SAP has been working out this business user experience strategy in collaboration with our customers. We get access to the end users and really understand what it is that they need, and there’s often a big difference between what people ‘want’ and what they need.” As innovation cycles get shorter and shorter, having the expertise to discern novelties from genuine essentials will be imperative.
Because of SAP’s global presence, Naeve claims, the company was largely able to avoid the operational disruption experienced elsewhere, having already established international teams connected by video conferencing solutions. However, the big question at the start of the pandemic was ‘how will SAP’s interactions with customers and partners fare?’ Once again, Naeve states that the answer is a highly positive one: “In a way, our customers were already well-prepared because by running SAP they had a very solid basis for a transformation. I think what the pandemic showed is the need for speed in a way that doesn’t also cause disruption.” The customer/user experience is everything, and to illustrate his point Naeve compares the evolution of music from vinyl to CDs and finally streaming services, “The business model was still the same when we had to go to a store, regardless of the format. What really changed things was the ability to buy music online.” He adds that a comparative evolution also happened within SAP: long, complicated and manually-driven HR systems were replaced with fast, streamlined, and integrated digital processes instead.
SAP: On a mission
“Very often our customers like to see and understand how other customers accomplished their transformation, learn from them, and understand how it fits into their specific landscape,” explains Naeve.
Therefore, SAP maintains an archive of ‘missions’ (ready-to-run projects) housed in its and accessible free-of-charge. Containing tools, content in the form of step-by-step guidance and customisable options, and often even a ‘coach’ to provide additional support.
With old business paradigms made unworkable by COVID-19 conditions, businesses had to get creative in order to stay alive and harnessing digital platforms has become a core asset. In turn, the pandemic has presented SAP with many opportunities to prove the value of well-designed UX/UI. Naeve gives two particular examples:
- A European food delivery service started up as an entirely digital business. “It could accomplish that because it was using SAP’s Business Technology Platform,” he says. “That company is now able to provide a unique experience to their customers that isn’t uniform, which also gives them a market advantage.”
- At the height of the initial pandemic, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs contacted our Business Technology Platform department and requested help in bringing back German citizens stranded internationally. “We were requested to create an app so that people could register and then have a flight organised to pick up and return them. SAP accomplished that within 24 hours over the weekend.” The importance of digital agility is, perhaps, best exemplified by the importance and fast turnaround of this impressive feat.
Accomplishing this level of transformation en masse requires a powerful product, which SAP suitably delivers through its Business Technology Platform. The more familiar ‘SAP Cloud Platform’ name was recently renamed and expanded in scope, Naeve explains that this is to reflect a deliberate reemphasis on what SAP prioritises, “Business is what it’s all about. We want to give our customers the technology to improve their business.” Placing particular focus on the Platform’s integration and extension capabilities, he adds that SAP’s ultimate aim is to also empower those with “little or no development skills” to configure their specific applications with added flexibility and speed, as well as reduced risk. Close collaboration with the client helps further this aim; SAP asks a rigorous set of questions to determine what will constitute ‘success’:
- What challenge is the business facing?
- What does the customer need to achieve?
- Which area of their business process needs to be adjusted?
- What is the business value of the proposed solution?
Regarding SAP’s partners, Naeve had the following to say:
“SAP has a wide and diverse network of partners. These partners help our customers in so many ways. For example, they help with development and implementation or build apps on SAP BTP to realise specific use cases. 13 of them currently offer AppHaus and over 30 have already provided ‘missions’ for the Discovery Center. I’m confident that both sets will continue to grow.”
SAP started to build what we call ‘AppHaus’, offering customers a creative space to apply design thinking methodology and help humanise business software. “Demand was high, so we started building up a partner network.” Partners like ConvergentIS and Sovanta are both part of SAP’s AppHaus Network.
Founded in 2009 and currently working with 100 customers and with 300 projects completed, Sovanta creates powerful solutions by combining SAP’s technology with ‘unbeaten user experience.’ Elsewhere, ConvergentIS has been an SAP partner since 2002. Based in Calgary, Canada, the company specialises in designing, building, selling and servicing enterprise applications for North American clients who want enhanced UX, reduced complexity, greater productivity, and ultimately a significant competitive advantage.
“These partners follow a framework of requirements, such as design thinking coupled with a solid design and development skill set, a dedicated creative space for customer collaboration, and much more.”
Other partners like HCL Technologies - and again Sovanta - offer specific missions and direct support via the SAP Discovery Center. “Through these missions, partners help customers to realise specific and relevant use cases and adopt them to very specific needs.”
HCL Technologies is a next-gen, global tech company that’s helping businesses adapt for the digital age. With an exceptional 40-year heritage and a rostrum of clients that includes 250 of the Fortune 500, HCL has proven to be a knowledgeable and valuable partnership for SAP.
“When I look at the way customers work, I see two types of people, or two ways for how they work with innovation,” he says. “The first type comes with a very specific problem in mind and tweaks SAP’s solution to their specific needs. The second type I call ‘LEGO brick builders’: those are people who actually look at the technical path, the technical capabilities and what they can build themselves.” When considering innovation more broadly, Naeve considers it to be a distinctly two-way street: its customers can only innovate when SAP itself can. Therefore it has become an ingrained cultural quality throughout the company. “Being in the tech space is always a bit of a risk, because many of those innovation steps are bound to specific technologies. As such, SAP tends to look at what we can build with newly available tools and technologies very early.”
It is apparent, then, that SAP’s mindset and operating philosophy - ‘thinking before acting’ - is its primary competitive advantage in the industry. The company’s method of operating combines three primary elements: discovery, design, and delivery, but there is another that Naeve considers to hold critical importance within a team: diversity. “The worst thing that could happen for me would be a team of people who all think and act like I do, because then we would miss out on so much.” The pandemic has illustrated to him how devastating this lack of original thought could be during such a tumultuous socio-economic period. That being said, however, industry changes can happen quickly and at any time; businesses need to be agile and open to change if they are to survive. “The right business technology platform enables customers to act quickly and stay secure without disrupting their growth,” concludes Naeve. “This goal is embedded in SAP’s Business Technology Platform and will help our customers run an intelligent enterprise.”