Dancing Giants: At SAP, it is about trying to make the battleship turn faster

By James Robinson , written on April 22, 2014

From The News Desk

For Ken Tsai, the VP of Product Marketing for SAP’s HANA software, every day is constant balancing act. CEO Bill McDermott has declared is mission as spearheading “the intellectual renewal of their company.”

HANA’s in-memory database computing system is viewed as the foundational building block for all of SAP’s products. Tsai then needs to open up processes of innovation that allow SAP to move with the pace of the times, while still harnessing the power (and limitations) of a company with a 40-year old history and 65,000 employees. He says that at SAP's size, innovation and agility flow directly from a clear focus and communication of purpose.

(What follows is a Q&A between Tsai and Pando, lightly edited for clarity.)

You’re charged with helping to manage the product line that SAP now wants to build all its products on top of. How do you view that role, working at such scale but trying to stay up on new technology and trends?

It’s a very challenging position. We’re looking at the customer’s requirements to enable them access to more innovation and how we can make technology simpler for the customer. We’re looking at how we can get to the end goal, working with all of the external forces: big data trends, the movement to the cloud and how it is all becoming more diverse.

SAP has over 60,000 employees and a global footprint. How hard is it for ideas to not get lost in that muddle?

Someone shared this analogy with me: We’re like a battleship. It is hard to turn, but when you do, you see the scale at work. But our CEO has set a very clear directive to take an entire product and made it all powered by SAP HANA. All the innovation is now focused on the same goal: how we monetize our internal resources, how we help customers, how we help companies offset innovation obstacles.

You’ve been closely involved overseeing SAP’s HANA Idea Incubator program. What was the genesis behind that?

Customers always have this need, they have radical ideas that they want to try and pilot and we wanted to look at how we could bring the SAP ecosystem to bear on that. Like, how could we make an idea into a prototype in four weeks? We can do this in both open and private forums. A customer might not know what they want to do, so they crowd source it. But maybe a customer has a clear idea and they only want one partner, so we have a protected idea framework. So far, 50 ideas have been submitted and over 600 innovators have joined. Customers love that they have a vehicle to share theses ideas.

How is the idea incubation team set up?405x650_Homepage_Tower_DG

The idea incubator team is quite small. We have three people, one running operations and marketing, a business development person, and someone organizing the innovators. We purposely organized the teams to be small. It took us a long time to set it up and the reason why we could so is that SAP has a tremendous amount of resources that can support it. We don’t need a separate legal team to work out an IP protection framework, we can just focus on customer engagements, innovation resources and ecosystem partners. We pull other people in on a project basis as is needed, so we can keep the specific amount of dedicated people we need small.

In the few months this program has been in operation, was there a specific moment where you’ve seen it work exactly how you had hoped?

One of our most complete success stories so far came from Mentis, an ISP company that wanted to do predictive analysis based on social media chatter. They had a customer who needed it. It wasn’t just about analysing the sentiment either, but based on that sentiment, predicting out a trend. We also had a very, very large mobile device company that wanted to do this, to proactively monitor where sentiment was going and see what the impact of these discussions were on stock prices and sales opportunities. So we have them and then on the other side we had a customer on more of a product track. We found an MIT data set that hadn’t been shared before and put it into our HANA platform and invited people into a hackathon to go at it. There were 10 entries submitted, producing real big data analytics solutions, all finding strong correlation in proactively predicting sentiment and doing what we set out to. It showed that this can be a successful model.

What are the risks for SAP, operating with such size and breadth?

The biggest risk for SAP is not having the ability to react. I forgot who said it, but the best way to predict the future is to make it yourself. Our business risk is not executing and not getting everybody toward the same goal. But our management is rallying people with a maniacal, singular focus. It is all about how are we going to leverage HANA and that user experience? Externally, for us the issue is to keep on demonstrating ultimately what we do. Technology is a great story, but it is an enabler. We need to show that we are transforming it at a business and IP level. This is where I constantly remind myself, we need to be creating those things you couldn’t do before.

Internally, how do you cope with resistance to this change?

In an organization as large as SAP, there’s always that resistance. But how you align yourself can be tremendously helpful. We have a top down mandate but bottom up responsibility. We look at how we can enable changes on a daily basis and that is a very quick way of figuring out resistance.

[Note: The "Dancing Giants" series is being sponsored by Atlassian, so you'll only see their ads around these pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Atlassian had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

[Featured image via wikimedia, Dancing Giants illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]