Innovation has been an SAP cornerstone since the company first began to develop and introduce software in 1972. It has defined its strategy and initiatives, and led to key partnerships.

The New Ventures and Technologies (NVT) organization at SAP works to address problems that are just emerging today and will certainly affect a bulk of businesses in the future. Max Wessel is the chief innovation officer for SAP, as well as the leader of NVT. He is charged with driving continued transformation across the entire company while defining and executing against its innovation strategy.

When he stepped into this role just over a year ago, he likely didn’t realize the problems of the future would soon take center stage across the globe. ASUG discussed innovation with Max and what that means during a pandemic, as well as how technology plays a role. 

Sharon: What does it mean to be a chief innovation officer, especially during COVID-19?

Max Wessel, Chief Innovation Officer for SAP

Max: It means a lot because getting innovation right today can be measured in lives. There’s human value ascribed to doing things the right way.

I would caution to stay away from the type of innovation theater many organizations have adopted during a time like this because the cost is causing your customers and partners to be too slow to respond.

There’s a great responsibility on our team at SAP to make sure that we’re focusing on the right problems, that we’re attacking them with discipline, and that we’re making sure we’re bringing real solutions to market.

Sharon: Where are you focusing your efforts now and what has changed in light of the current situation?

Max: We’re starting with the most urgent and focusing a lot on workflow simplification and crisis management response. The solutions the world needs are well documented. We’re identifying what we currently have available to help businesses respond to the situation right now. We’re thinking about how to take best practices and disseminate them across the board.

We announced that we were putting content into our project management applications that sit on top of SAP—but also are freely available to people around the globe—to simplify their own business response during this time of crisis.

For example, we know that it’s important for our communities to have free and easy access to technology tools that will help them plan, prepare, and respond to the current environment. Ruum by SAP, which is a project management and collaboration tool, is offering two free custom checklist templates that were adapted from content created by the CDC and that can be easily used by small businesses, nonprofits, families, individuals, or anyone who needs a starting point to create a plan.

We’re also asking questions like how can we build simple applications alongside our customers and partners to help solve meaningful problems? We recently released an application, partnering with the German government, that basically collects information around German citizens who are abroad to help them find a path home.

We’re looking for areas where we can make the most impact right now. But that said, we’re not putting anything on the back burner. What we’re doing instead is de-emphasizing customer outreach and engagement around other projects. For instance, we are pushing forward the work we’ve been doing on voice artificial intelligence (AI) in meaningful ways, but we’re de-emphasizing how much we’re currently looking for customers who want to work on call-center experience.

Sharon: What role does technology and innovation play today for businesses that are faced with uncertainty?

Max: Technology and innovation always play the same role, which is we have a set of problems in the world and they have to be solved in the best possible capacity. The job of a technology function or an innovation function in any company is to translate those real-world problems into solutions using the best of what’s possible.

Right now, the scope of the problems facing the world have changed in focus. A year ago, we were thinking almost exclusively about experience. We were talking about customer-facing systems. Now the conversation has changed in a lot of cities toward supply-chain resilience. How does a company such as General Motors or 3M go to producing hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment?

That is a different fundamental problem to be addressing, to be sure. But the role of technology and innovation is to help people reorient around the solutions that the world needs.

Sharon: What do you think are the three innovations today that will make the biggest impact in a post-COVID world?

Max: I start by looking at some of the megatrends that are going to be clearly impactful coming out of this crisis. I believe that the shift to e-commerce will be forever accelerated and there will be no going back. Our consumer behavior changes over long timelines. And we’ve always, for instance, looked at grocery as the last bastion to fall in e-commerce. I imagine six months from now, the change to grocery delivery services will be massive. And as that change occurs, the role of retail and the role of warehouses changes as well.

So, keeping the megatrend in mind, we will see a fundamental formulation of the supply chain reorient around urban warehousing and suburban warehousing versus traditional retail and delivery. That means that SAP customers—the large enterprises of the world—really need to think about becoming more flexible. Do they build the infrastructure, or do they rent capacity from partners? How do they reorient their warehouse management systems? How do they connect their inventory in retail storefronts to their warehouse management or inventory systems on the back end? That will be a massive undertaking.

I also believe that we’re going to see a lot of AI applied to the automation of mundane tasks. Companies are realizing now more than ever that those types of tasks are not the things they want to be exception handling in a crisis situation. We will also see the same type of simulation technologies that have been applied and stress-tested in some industries, such as finance, be brought to a lot of other industries as well. So, planning and simulation will see a resurgence. I talked about supply-chain resilience as a subject in focus. I think that will be an application of machine learning and AI that will receive a lot of attention.

And last, we’re also going to shift to a digital engagement model with communications. We see a lot of that right now with both work-related communication as well as social. It will never be exemplified as much as it will be coming out of this crisis, and everyone will have higher expectations for good-quality communication solutions. In business, IT organizations will need to bring in consumer-grade solutions and apply them across the board.

Sharon: Why is now the right time for SAP to place a greater focus on the customer experience?

Max: If I take customer experience holistically, at its core is empathy. It means understanding that our customers want to buy, engage, and seek support from us in the way that is most appropriate for them. I would argue that it’s more important than ever for us to invest in and engage in transforming that customer experience.

We need to think about how we can simplify our software and our service, because it will ultimately help our customers focus on what matters, which is stabilizing their business right now.

Sharon: The customers we hear from in our research tell us they struggle with finding enough time to devote to innovation. What advice would you share with them?

Max: No one finds it easy to carve out the time and resources to put forward for innovation. I generally think innovation requires three things: It requires patience. It requires executive mandate. And it requires a protective or creative structure in which to take advantage of it. And the reason it requires all three is because there is always something more immediately pressing.

But the benefit of innovation is that it accrues exponentially. So, the same customers who are finding it most difficult right now to take advantage of innovation are the same customers who are articulating how much they wish they had automated things previously. Although it is never the right time to push these topics forward, it is always the right time to push these topics forward.

Sharon: How are you managing yourself, your staff, and your department through this pandemic? What do you do to remain calm?

Max: From a personal basis, I am very lucky I’m here with my family. I get to kiss my kids every day and I get to see my wife. I can hop on and connect with everyone on our team, digitally.

Communication is very important right now. My team and I have remained in touch regularly. Everyone feels isolated, which is why it’s more important than ever to keep those lines of communication open and frequent with your teams, your customers, and your partners.

I read a lot of business history, and what I like to remind folks is that the world has gone through wars, crises, and recessions before. And we always emerge stronger. We’ve always recovered and accelerated. And in part it’s because these crisis situations can bring out the best in our companies and the best in our society. We recognize that we have each other above any individual needs. For example, with the current shelter-in-place ordinance, society is putting the needs of society before those of short-term business needs. And if we do that as a team, as an organization, and as an SAP ecosystem, we will all be better off for it.

Sharon: Any words of wisdom for readers as far as what to focus on going forward?

Max: As I said, the sun will rise, and the world will continue to spin on its axis. We will get through this. The question that I would pose to all our ecosystem members: How do we take the headwinds that we have today and turn them into tailwinds?

All situations that present challenges simultaneously present opportunities. There are a number of things that we want to accomplish right now in all our organizations. We want our teams to figure out new ways of inventing with customer engagement. We want to think about supply-chain simulation and planning. We want to automate those tasks that are consuming too much time. This is an opportunity to address all of that and plan for the future. I’m 100% confident that we will come out of this with more flexibility and opportunity. There are clearly lots of big headwinds, but if we address this right, we can emerge stronger, we can drive innovation, and we can make impact that is measured in saving human lives.

Register for one of the ASUG Think Tank online sessions taking place and learn from peers what they’re doing and how they’re driving business through the current situation.