Will StreamWork get SAP out of its innovation funk?


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Over the past few months SAP has invited me to a few events as part of their “business influencer” program. Most were local or by web/phone, although they did pay my expenses to attend the recent SAP Insider conference in Orlando.

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure why I’m in this program. I rarely write about SAP or other big software companies. SAP is already well covered by a lot of top-notch analysts and media outlets. But more importantly (and with all due respect), big vendors aren’t the first places I look for trend-setting developments.

Unless you think changing the software maintenance fee rate is exciting stuff…

And just for the record, I’m not a software analyst and don’t do advisory work for vendors. I do like to write about interesting industry developments, generally leading-edge stuff like cloud computing, social computing and other innovations. Especially when it will help support a customer-centric enterprise, which is the point of this community after all.

Can Big Companies Innovate?

And that leads me to the point of the post (you knew I’d get there eventually). Innovation—or the lack thereof—is one reason why SAP hasn’t been on my radar. But that appears to be changing…

Last year I met with SAP’s marketing honcho Jonathan Becher, an entrepreneur who joined SAP via its acquisition of his company—Pilot Software, an innovator in performance management. Becher basically told me “watch this space” as SAP worked to get back in the game in cloud computing and social/collaborative tools.

Since then, SAP pushed out an unpopular CEO and installed a co-CEO team of Bill McDermott, head of the field/sales organization, and Jim Hagemann Snabe, head of product development. In a recent press conference both talked a lot about innovation, including speeding up the process to get good ideas to market.

That’s the right idea (sorry, no pun intended). Reminds me of a saying I heard during my time at IBM, which also struggled to get ideas from the labs to the market: “At IBM, products aren’t launched. They escape.” Companies like DEC, Compaq and many others took full advantage. Of course IBM has changed a lot since then.

Speaking with analysts who have covered SAP for years, they are skeptical that SAP will walk the talk and actually get new stuff to market faster. SAP was late to the game with cloud computing and fumbled the launch of Business ByDesign. Although SAP has an impressive internal community (SAP Developer Network), it doesn’t offer much in the way of new collaborative/social solutions that could drive future revenue growth.

Collaborative Decision-Making

Until now.

SAP StreamWork (formerly known by its code name 12Sprints) is the first tangible evidence of a new product that I think will open some eyes. It’s a cloud-based “collaborative decision-making” tool that breaks new ground and shows that SAP can innovate and get a new product to market much like a start-up would.

One of the key players is David Meyer, now SVP of Business Insight and Emerging Technologies at SAP. I think that’s a long-winded way of saying he works on the new stuff. Meyer came to SAP from Business Objects and also worked at Plumtree. Like Becher, he comes across more like an entrepreneur that wants to change the world. And is willing to drive the necessary change internally at SAP.

I’ve watched a couple of StreamWork demos, interviewed Meyer and played around with it a bit. My first impression has been very positive. Meyer and team have found an under-served niche and developed an easy-to-use and affordable solution to address it. While there are loads of tools that aim to enable conversations—such as groups, blogs, wikis, forums and microblogging—the decision making process is still done separately.

StreamWork allows a decision maker (anyone in charge of getting something done, not just the big boss) to create activities, invite participation and share content from a variety of sources including Scribd. But the secret sauce is the suite of group decision making tools that can range from pro/con tables, simple voting, SWOT analysis and more.

Now a group can not only communicate and share, but actually get something done! This is what I’ve found missing in the many social/collaborative tools out there, including Enterprise 2.0 tools (e.g. Social Text) and other general purpose discussion/group tools like Google Wave, etc. After the interaction dust settles, the group leader still has to figure out what to do next. StreamWork ties the collaboration with the decision-marketing in one package. Smart.

Another cool thing is that SAP introduced and improved the tool via the public beta of 12Sprints over the past few months, and has built in a nice feedback process to capture ideas for improvement. Meyer says to expect a “crescendo of activity” as SAP prioritizes user requests and releases frequent updates.

I also like that SAP has made the tool usable for small businesses. In fact, if you want to integrate StreamWork into your SAP/Business Objects systems you’ll have to wait until the 2nd half of 2010, per Meyer. For now, they’re taking the “freemium” approach so you can start for $0 and upgrade to a professional version for $9/user/month. Great way to kick the tires and expand the user base. Meyer declined to give me a specific SAP goal for user counts, but my strong impression is that we’re talking tens of millions, not thousands.

Running a small business myself, and needing to collaborate inside and mostly outside to get things done, I rarely find tools from enterprise software companies that fit my needs. SAP’s StreamWork is an exception. So over the next few weeks I’m going to see if my positive first impression holds up as I put it to real-world use. I’ll report back on what I liked and didn’t in a future blog post.

One Step at a Time…

The bigger question, though, continues to be whether SAP can step up the pace on innovation. Executives are talking a good game, but analysts caution that SAP is famous for over promising and under delivering.

For now, I’d say that the new leaders like Becher and Meyer are making a difference. StreamWork is just one small step for SAP to get out of its innovation funk, but it’s a step in the right direction. We’ll have to see if this approach can be duplicated on larger scale development efforts.

Further reading: Can SAP get back its CRM Mojo? (And beat Oracle in the Social Economy?)


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