What typically happens when one approaches 40?  Major mid-life crisis?  Life transformation?  Yeah, something like that…

Well, apparently tech vendors are no different. Back in 2010 with 40 rapidly approaching, SAP undertook a broad new innovation strategy with an executive mandate for intellectual renewal. The goal was to transform the company through innovation – innovation that would reach billions of new users and humanize the brand through consumer app development.  What?! SAP, a consumer app company.  Yes, observing market trends of consumerization and the rise of “shadow IT” (technology purchases outside of the IT department), SAP recognized the need to expand its audience and improve its user experience. 

They began with three questions:

  • How can we create applications that can potentially reach millions of users?
  • How can we design, build, and release these apps in 90 days?
  • How can we scale this to successfully deliver large volumes of these apps?

Essentially, how can we act as a start-up in a 40 year old company?  How can we recreate that youthful glow?  How can we create an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit in a company with over 50,000 employees and offices in 75 countries? The answer is to start from scratch.

To produce like a start-up company, you have to behave like a start-up company.  And, that’s what SAP set out to do. The experiment started in 2010 by moving the new consumer-application team into the Apphaus in Los Altos, CA – with the goal of enabling design thinking, extreme programming and an entrepreneurial attitude.  They wanted the team to be insight-driven with an agile, build and test quickly development methodology.  Apps were to be designed in 90 day cycles to test “technology feasibility, business viability and human desirability.” And their first application, Recall Genie, did just that – going from a dream to a downloadable app in 90 days. 

To do that, the team created a start-up experience within SAP.  Rather than moving into a section of the existing campus, or bringing in a fancy architectural firm to design the new space, the Apphaus team chose to design its own space. “If we were a start-up how would we create the space?” They wanted “just enough” as opposed to excess, with a bias toward collaboration, flexibility and serendipity.  They wanted a space that could evolve with different stages of the project: conception, brainstorm, and heads down development.  So, they created a garage-like setting with concrete floors, natural light, Ikea furniture and whiteboard walls (made out of shower backing from Home Depot).

What was the result?  Well, SAP now builds consumer applications with a strong focus on usability and the user experience – in part enabled by the design-inspired innovation space.  Now the number of Apphauses has expanded with SAP innovation “start-ups” in Singapore, Shanghai, Bangalore, Rihanna (Isreal), Heidelberg (in an old tobacco factory) , Dublin (built directly into the SAP location) and the original garage-inspired Apphaus in Los Altos.  The original team in Los Altos has moved back to the main campus but SAP now cycles new innovation project teams through the center.  Some centers are used as training facilities to encourage innovation.  Others like Dublin on the SAP campus are expanding to bring more employees into an innovative environment. 

More importantly, the experience gained through developing consumer apps has successfully transferred to the design of enterprise app user interfaces.  The SAP Design Services team helps customers improve the user experience of existing SAP software, works internally with user interface teams to infuse design principles into new offerings, and works directly with customer and partners to co-create solutions through rapid prototyping and validation. And, now customers are also looking to SAP for advice on innovation and innovation spaces.

Sounds like a pretty positive mid-life crisis…and one that likely ensures a much longer life.


PS. Not only did SAP explore new workspaces for their innovation, they developed Recall Genie and Recall Plus with open government data!   But that will be a subject for another blog.