SAP likes to use the 'i' word at every opportunity. Innovation seems to punctuate every third sentence in press releases and scripted speeches yet that rarely resonates with the people I meet on the show floors at SAP events. Contrast that with the DemoJams that started at SAP TechEd some five years ago.
The idea was to create a competition where six teams are chosen to compete based upon the submission of a six minute video outlining their proposal. These were then showcased at SAP TechEd, initially in the US and now around the world at Madrid, Beijing and Bangalore.
A total audience of some 12,000 geeks in those locations vote on what they see as the most innovative solution as demonstrated live on stage in under six minutes. The live element is particularly important because the organizers wanted to get away from the sense that SAP fudges demos. These are pure geek events where winning solutions often represent tools geeks can put to use in developer environments. Teams can come from anywhere. The year my team competed, we were all operating virtually from UK, US, Germany, Spain and Norway. Others are located at a partner or SAP site.
In recent years we've seen the rise of InnoJam events. Again, somewhat geeky but these represent the ad hoc coming together of people with ideas they bring to SAP TechEd judged by a panel of experts who grill the competitors about the technology and use case. This year was fascinating with British Airways coming to the table with ideas around predictive preventative aircraft maintenance as an alternative to the reactive style of maintenance currently practiced in the industry. They didn't win. Instead, the winner was CarbonIT with a project designed to make:
Efficient and easy to use mobile Time, Travel & Expense Tracking resulting in Carbon Impact Reporting for Employees & Managers.
InnoJam teams can be any size and are often drawn from around the world. This year's winners came from Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Finland and Greece. On this occasion the winners won a place to present and compete at DemoJam. They very nearly won.
The SAP Train Race is a three-day training and contest designed to help participants develop an enterprise application based on the SAP NetWeaver Gateway platform. This year's event started in Paris with a one day, immersive training event. Then teams had the opportunity to get hands-on with Gateway, Adobe, and Microsoft technology before departing on a ride on the Elipsos Train Hotel to the SAP TechEd 2011 event in Madrid, Spain.
This event is SAP Gateway technology specific. Gateway is SAP's easy to use (yes, EASY) standards based framework for enabling developers, with or without SAP programming knowledge, to create people-centric applications.
I was on the judging panel for the final dozen applications and was blown away at the inventiveness and elegance of the solutions on display. The thing that struck me most was that many of the solutions didn't look like SAP apps as I understand the term. No green screen or kludgy UIs on display. The second place winners came from iTelligence. Their solution is aimed at education and:
The application is showing the schedule for the current day, current week of a particular day week.
On the schedule the students/teachers can click for a detailed view of the course they are clicking. Within the course detail view, there are options to show the attendee list, tutor details and a floorplan to the classroom. The tutor could then edit comments for the course, so students can see additional information for this course. All data was provided by the SAP backend system.
They added in elements from YouTube, GoogleMaps and Twitter as examples of how socially mediated apps can add value to this style of solution, which is based on a real world use case.
The winners were a team from CapGemini who developed a trades promotion management solution for the holiday bookings industry that integrated to SharePoint and Facebook. In both cases you would not have recognized these solutions as built upon or using SAP technology.
Finally, we have SAP Inside Track or SIT. These are ad hoc events that occur during the year around the world where developers get together for a day and share whatever they think is interesting. The events are often streamed live to whomever wants to check in.
What binds these events?
All of these event types were the brainchildren of ONE or two people from within the SAP Community Network.
All the teams are small. Typically no more than half a dozen people. They are metaphors for the archetypal skunk works and developer teams who build great stuff in organizations large and small.
While these events are showcased as developer centric, Train Race and InnoJam showed that you can build enterprise apps that delight USERS.
Why might SAP miss the innovations coming out of them?
SAP believes that going forward, 90% of the apps that will be used by its customers will be developed by third parties. So far so good. But that's about as good as it gets.
SAP has concentrated its certification and help to the large SIs in the belief they will have the greatest reach. Right and wrong. While the large SIs may have account control inside large enterprises, there is no direct correlation between that and user deployment.
The small developer shops are typically way more agile than the teams inside large SIs. The competitions I've outlined above are ample demonstration of what can be done with constrained resources and a lot of imagination. We have seen this among the ecosystems of other vendors like Salesforce.com
While these events are great showcases, SAP does almost nothing to capture the collective innovation that arises. Therefore, what ever was built largely disappears or becomes part of a niche solution that few get to see outside the reach of the initial development team.
It is very difficult for developers to license SAP technology at prices it can afford and/or without working through lengthy legal documents.
In fairness to SAP, it understands some of the dynamics involved but has yet to provide the delivery mechanism for apps that can be considered proofs of concept or very early beta. The tragedy is that SAP, unlike almost every other enterprise applications vendor, has a very large, fiercely loyal, willing, able and inventive community of developers only too willing to collaboratively invent new apps. If what I saw this year is an indicator, it is a treasure trove waiting to be mined. It is a resource SAP fails to exploit for everyone's benefit - including its shareholders.