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The digital economy is forcing CIO’s to up their game from innovation enablers to innovation drivers. With mobile apps for its workforce, SAP thinks it holds the key to greater productivity and creativity. What if a company could unleash the innovative power of its workforce with a single mobile app, or a set of productivity apps tailored their specific needs?

What would the apps do, and could they be cool enough to influence corporate culture, drive employee engagement, and even improve the bottom line? That’s exactly the goal that SAP's  Business Innovation & IT unit has set for itself, not only to make its own 75,500 employees more productive, but also
to showcase its own HANA Cloud Platform and cloud infrastructure to potential customers.

Carsten Linz, head of CIO Engagement & Innovation Incubation, believes that the digital economy is transforming every firm into an IT company. This opens up new challenges, but also a myriad of opportunities for IT departments to become an integral part of the value creation by applying some of the latest trends in computing such big data, analytics, internet of things (IoT), and – above all – mobility.

To play in this league, however, CIO’s must up their game from innovation enablers to innovation drivers, giving employees the tools they need to become more productive knowledge workers. Carsten’s team recently hosted a mobile app competition with an impressive 72-hour final sprint that brought together three talent polls – startups with razor-sharp customer focus, students with millennial mindsets, and employees who understand company pain points – to design and program productivity apps that have the potential to improve the working lives of SAP employees and become the next generation business solutions.

Coaches were on-hand to support and train the teams in technology, design thinking, user experience, and business model development, while judges from the start-up, scientific, and corporate world reviewed the pitches and nominated the winners with the strongest ideas and teams. By supporting and applying the different views and skills of the three different groups at a very early phase in the innovation process, we hope to gain from the mixture stronger ideas and in the end more viable prototypes,” said Carsten Linz. “This unique design creates breakthrough innovation with high business impact and thus can truly simplify our business.”

Room-finding apps for meetings on the fly

In the end, innovation often comes down to solving a business problem in a way that someone never thought of before. It can be as simple as finding a meeting room on short notice, which appears to be a universal problem in rapidly growing companies which are chronically challenged for office space. Robert Weller, SAP employee and co-developer of the “Catch a Room” app, which won first prize in the mobile app competition, knows all too well what lack of meeting space means for his projects.

The scrum master and solution architect is responsible for coordinating the work of 10 development colleagues in Enterprise Analytics at SAP’s Waldorf development center. “The lack of meeting space obstructs the progress of our project and that’s really frustrating,” he explains. Robert and colleague Tobias Kaufmann therefore decided to build an app that searches for free meeting rooms close where the user is located. In the spirit of the share-economy, employees can even offer their own office space up for meetings. The prototype also integrates features of smart buildings by sensing sounds and carbon dioxide levels to see if the room is really empty.

SAP already has internal apps that enable employees at numerous locations worldwide to set up lunch dates with like-minded colleagues or build car pools with each other for their commutes to work. An app in the planning would help employees find suitable partners for job rotations (see box). The benefits of putting such power in employee’s pocket cannot be underestimated. Apple founder Steve Jobs was a strong believer that creativity comes from spontaneous meetings and random discussions. And some of Google’s high profile projects like gmail and Streetview resulted from so-called serendipity, or chance meetings between employees.

Employee productivity and collaboration apps don’t replace entrepreneurial thinking nor do they guarantee innovation, but they can create the conditions for them in the workplace environment. But SAP’s plans for apps with proven value for employees don’t stop there. The company serves as its own reference for CIOs from other companies and their employees/users at SAP’s 293,000 strong customer base. Watch this space.