SAP as a Web 2.0 Company?

I bet most people would regard the title of this post as an oxymoron. Surely SAP is a big, boring enterprise software company, about as far from the furious consumer innovation of Web 2.0 as you can imagine. Yet it’s been clear to me for years that SAP takes the ideas of Web 2.0 very seriously. Before we’d even formalized the term Web 2.0, I did a brainstorming session back in 2003 with SAP’s strategy team about the idea of collective intelligence, which to me is the heart of Web 2.0. That conversation helped to develop the idea (which I’ve since shared with many companies) that even in an enterprise context, setting defaults so that information is shared can lead to powerful network effects. Why should the second company configuring an application for local business rules or a particular configuration have to repeat that configuration, if instead, it could be shared by the first customer. Simply by changing the defaults for what is public, it’s possible to build applications that get better the more people use them.

I was invited to keynote [Dan Farber’s summary] on Monday at SAP’s Tech Ed Conference. In addition, I did a 45 minute Q&A with SAP’s Mark Finnern [video] as part of their “Community Day” unconference (modeled on Foo Camp), which preceded the main conference. I also did an extended video interview for the SAP podcast series from the conference [video].

As you can see from the fact that the videos above lack YouTube-style embed codes and can’t be shown here, but only on the SAP site or downloaded to a local podcast client, they are still struggling with some of the key ideas, but I have to say that in the prep work I did for my talk, I came across some projects, particularly from SAP’s “Imagineering” team led by Denis Browne, that are really impressive and forward looking. I spent some time with SAP’s CTO, Vishal Sikka, and it’s clear that SAP understands that the trends that are driving Web 2.0 in consumer internet applications also are going to have a huge impact on enterprise software.

I particularly liked the demo of a project SAP is working on with a large property manager in Switzerland, to build models in Second Life that are tied via sensors to real buildings. The prototype is only a small model building, a doll-house, so to speak, but this is definitely the future of property management: open a door in the real building, a door opens in the SL analogue.

This prototype is also very on trend with one of the big ideas we have about where Web 2.0 is going, towards Web 2.0 applications that are fed directly by sensors, so that “participation” no longer just means typing on a keyboard, but the accidental information we create “merely in living as and where we live.”

SAP is also doing some great “in vivo” co-development with customers, with customer innovators invited to spend six months working directly with the imagineering team at SAP, reporting what they learn back to their company via blogs, wikis, and podcasts. I’ve often noted that Web 2.0 actually began with open source and collaborative development as early examples of how networking changed business processes. Here’s a really practical way for enterprises to put new forms of collaboration to work.

SAP’s also got their own internal social network, called Harmony:

SAP Harmony

Dennis pointed out a couple of the unexpected benefits of a social networking environment in large company HR practices. Simply by watching what groups form, they were able to learn more about employee interests than from any number of surveys. For example, as a result of the large group that formed on meditation, they added “quiet rooms” to some of their facilities; seeing the interest in ping-pong, they added ping pong tables. Small things, but collective intelligence at work nonetheless.