SAP Co-Innovation Centre in Palo Alto shows that innovative workplaces are truly achievable inside large organisations. “This is a trend that is happening in the Valley in general,” says Director of Design Services Eliad Goldwasser (pictured left).
Together with colleague and Program Manager Uwe Palm (pictured right), Goldwasser shows me around one of SAP’s unconventional buildings, “which is all about innovation”. In this area of the campus 300 designers, user experience developers and product managers, work together on the next generation of business applications integrating with technologies from 3D printing, to drones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
Not the usual type of office
Some visitors may have bizarre reactions when first seeing the open space. It can go from ‘Didn’t you have enough money to complete the building?’ to ‘What is going on here?’
Goldwasser himself had his own concerns when he had to move to the new building a couple of years ago. “Coming from a cubicle type of office, I was hesitant at first. How is it going to work out for the team and me? Will it be too distracting?”
But, listening to him today, there is no way to he nor his colleagues would think about switching back to the previous work environment. “Here, we can work with our teams very effectively; at the same time we have all the opportunities to find quieter moments when we need them.”
The events area
The space can be turned upside down. That is perhaps what makes it so compelling.
In the incarnation of a playing field the area for internal events is as far from the traditional office as can be; it sees a stage area in the centre for speakers with picturesque cushions for the audience to sit on.
Across the stage space there are smaller rooms, which are separated through curtains. Here, teams form and have privacy; for the entire duration of a project, they isolate themselves from the noise and traffic. “They can just focus on developing their ideas.”
Yet, teams are not completed immured. “From theses rooms, employees can still see people walking by. If they need someone to join the group, they can immediately ask for them.”
Writing on walls
The atmosphere inside the rooms feels more like a reunion than a business meeting. A high percentage of the surfaces are white boards. “Whenever people have an idea they can write it immediately on the walls, or on the tables. So they do not lose their thoughts,” says Palm.
Everything noted is going to be preserved until the duration of the project, which sometimes can last for months. “No one is going to cancel those notes; no one will take out any of the artifacts that the team is working on. No one is going to move tables and chairs.”
Differently from the traditional meeting rooms, which usually employees have to leave once the session ends, here teams feel free and secure to solicit and let their ideas grow.
Indeed, that security makes these working areas a selling point to staff. As Goldwasser puts it: “You have to have your head in the right place, both physically and psychologically, if you want to nurture creativity.”
Internet of Things
A recent internal event was a hackathon around the Internet of Things. “We invited employees from all the campuses to develop ideas and concepts for one week. People were asked to form small groups; each team was made between 3 and 5 members,” explains Palm.
The week was very intense. But, a lot of valuable work came out of it. “People came up with some great ideas,” adds Goldwasser.
However not all concepts made it through the process; only a few of them went to the incubation stage. “We start from playing. But, ultimately our ideas have to have real life application.”
Analytics and more
SAP Co-Innovation Lab has achieved quite compelling results so far.
A good example is recent work around analytics. “We are collecting data from sensors, and creating alternative ways of visualising them, which makes it easy for staff of any department to be aware of what is going on in their building,” says Palm.
Another good example is the Medical Research Insights. The project, launched in Germany, aims at helping medical centres to manage the data of patients to find the right treatments, better and faster. SAP technology is enabling doctors to surface all the historic data of sufferers who had similar symptoms in the past. Ultimately, clinicians can make more accurate predictions and prescriptions about particular patterns of cancer that would not be possible to track otherwise.
The second floor looks like an explosion of start-ups concentrated all in one place. “Here is where we currently develop mobile apps and similar products,” says Palm. This applies to both consumer and enterprise applications.
For example, they have just built an instant messaging app for the German National Soccer Team, who do not have the chance to get together often. “It is a sort of WhatsApp for their internal communications. Players use it to communicate with coaches as well as between themselves about trainings, and exercises,” explains Goldwasser.
On a wall, there are many other works in progress with step-by-step and interactive sketches on how to build an application. “We work through iterations until we reach the final detail and perfect design. We keep improving by getting feedback from both our users and other SAP engineers.”
Peaks and valleys
“Peaks and valleys is how we work.” Not surprisingly, there are moments when employees work on projects that demand plenty of energy. “You may get under pressure to get things done, and work extra hours.”
But, then comes the valley. “We call them Light House Projects.” In quieter periods, people are encouraged to work on something they feel very passionate about. “It can be a prototype or a presentation on a particular interest. Depending on how far they can go, they can be developed further and become products.”
The environment and processes encourage staff to use their time wisely; to be focused and put their head down when times require. But, they don’t forget to have fun and develop themselves creatively.
Toys for grown-ups
While walking on a floor decorated with red and blue fishes among other fun, child-like images, Palm looks to his right and tells me, “we also have some toys for the grown-ups.” This sounded grand, yet my mind was still wondering what he meant.
Not far from us is a smart vending machine, which is born out of a SAP project on the Internet of Things (IoT). The device tracks down what drinks and meals are in high demand and sends real-time, accurate reports to the staff responsible to fill it up. It also adjusts the temperature based on the ambient conditions.
And, if something goes wrong, no one needs to trouble – the ‘toy for grown-up’ calls the appropriate technician to fix the problem!
The office of the future
Goldwasser and Palm enter another area built around the concept of unified communications (UC). The ‘the office of the future‘ builds an integrated digital experience to virtual conferences; it gathers groups of people from anywhere in video, web and audio meetings. It is made of large multiple screens – each one for every person joining the session. Everyone can see each other and collaborate on the white board that is on the physical wall of the office, yet projected virtually on the screens for everyone to see.
It sounds like another world but in reality, when you see it in action, everything makes more sense.
The 3D printing laboratory
This is the place where employees can test new technologies – from virtual reality devices, to drones and 3D printing with plastic, wood, robber and other metals.
“You can pick up a robot if you want, or try out the soldering machine,” says a member of the laboratory just as if he were offering me a cup of coffee. He continues very nicely, “you can also go on the rollercoaster with Oculus Rift if you prefer.” I stick to the latter, and would have liked to stay there for the whole afternoon; it is just like being at the amusement park.
But, games aside, it is the huge potential of the whole 3D enterprise that is really fascinating. For example, organisations could start creating 3D-world training and development programmes for their employees and enhance their ability to learn. Think of fire fighters who have to be prepared to face highly unsafe situations in the field; or physicians who need to deal with complicated patients’ disorders. Having a 3D world that simulates and prepares them for those experiences beforehand could be tremendously useful.
Indeed, here you look at it, and play with it like a toy. However, SAP employees keep focused and grounded. “We are having fun; but ultimately we think of real-life use cases.”