by James Henderson

Innovating from the inside at SAP in Asia

Aug 12, 2019
Digital TransformationTechnology Industry

Manik Narayan Saha, CIO of APJ at SAP, outlines how the software giant is transforming internally through smart technologies

Manik Narayan Saha (SAP)
Credit: SAP

It wouldn’t be misplaced to believe that the creators of technology are the masters in maximising technology – an additional benefit when operating at the bleeding edge of the market.

To a degree, such an observation is correct but in stripping away company logos, product sets and industry reputations, the bare organisational bones of an enterprise early adopter can carry startling similarities to that of a laggard.

Both house thousands of employees, both carry legacy commitments and both must juggle technology and business priorities. Building technology for the world is one thing, building out an internal technology roadmap is another.

SAP, in a sense, is no different.

As CIO of Asia Pacific and Japan (APJ) at SAP, Manik Narayan Saha is tasked with ensuring the business “transforms” into a digital enterprise, drawing on the “best-in-class” solutions, products and services available – a common remit bestowed upon an Asian CIO.

“In this current era, IT can have a tremendously positive impact across the entire company by enabling the right technology for the organisation,” observed Saha, when speaking to CIO ASEAN.

From a strategic perspective, Saha is focused on two key aspects at a regional level, starting with the digitalisation of enterprise business process for efficiency.

“Simplifying, automating and massively scaling out existing business processes to meet the new demands of the digital economy,” Saha said. “We also need to think about how new technology can make a difference – for instance, using machine learning to significantly increase automation levels.”

Secondly, Saha is digitalising workspaces to drive higher productivity levels among workers.

“Another key goal of the IT organisation is rapidly enabling the SAP workforce to be agile, efficient and productive so that the value each employee brings to the company multiplies exponentially,” he added. “Starting from a ‘mobile-first’ strategy, to enabling efficient virtual collaboration platforms, knowledge management tools and a very friendly end user experience are key to a successful modern personal workspace.

“At SAP, we are inclusive by nature, and that means providing the best user experience across diverse groups within the organisation with a choice of best in class tools.”

Internal innovation

As explained by Saha, One Billion Lives (1BL) is a SAP social entrepreneurship programme designed to help solve the world’s biggest problems by using SAP’s people, technology and resources. The initiative was launched three years ago in APJ before being rolled out globally in 2018.

“The programme empowers teams of SAP employees to pitch for funding, mentorship and access to further resources to turn their proposed purpose-driven technological solutions into reality,” Saha explained. “Each year, a handful of teams are selected.”

Previous successes include the establishment of an NGO in India that, working with the Ramesh Nimmagadda Cancer Foundation, has helped change how cancer is treated.

“The 1BL initiative has seen interest from other organisations that are keen to franchise the model and support its efforts, as well as to use it as an employee engagement programme,” Saha said.

Furthermore, Saha and his team also launched SAP Cash Application – built with SAP Leonardo Machine Intelligence – to streamline and automate a critical financial process.

“We achieved an additional 65 percent automation rate, which is a huge progress for us,” Saha added. “We also looked at several applications of SAP Leonardo Machine Learning in the fields of sales, marketing, operations and support to ensure that we are efficiently utilising business applications for an enduring impact.”

Saha holds responsibility for the success of a “multi-national and multi-cultural” IT team across the region. Central to such success is “customer, business and employee engagement”, alongside internal IT service delivery, contributing to global strategy and driving internal adoption of SAP solutions.

“A modern business must have the foresight and ability to identify factors that may impact the organisation’s growth from disruptive technologies to trends in the industry,” Saha said. “In today’s world, technology can be utilised to significantly increase profitability, productivity and efficiency.”

For example, Saha said automated business applications can reduce excessive paperwork and create reports seamlessly, while repetitive tasks like finance invoice processing can be less taxing on an employee as machine learning and automation can accelerate efficiencies of such work.

“Digital marketing enables a company to reach beyond local physical boundaries,” he continued. “Efficient tools free up an employee’s time and capacity to do creative work which value adds to the company.”

Another facet to innovating through technology within a company is digital workspaces, added Saha.

“The ease of connectivity to the corporate network, within or outside of the office, is a minute but crucial detail in helping employees be mobile and flexible with their work environment,” he said. “This increases their productivity and efficiency because they can work in the comfort of their own home to virtually anywhere.”

Whether employees are working in local offices or across the globe, Saha regularly reverts back to one overriding question: how can the business facilitate collaboration?

“This is where data-sharing platforms come in – they allow employees to work in tandem with each other and not in silos,” he added. “These tools are usually private and secure within a company which means that employees can share confidential materials across with another team member.

“The benefits are that while it allows you to work on documents simultaneously and in real-time, it also acts as a sophisticated chatroom that allows you to share insights, ideas, or documents.”

Future of work

In looking ahead, Saha said SAP’s main priorities from an internal perspective include progressing in data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation, in addition to maintaining stable operations, investing in process simplification through technology and building the intelligent enterprise.

Central to this will be the convergence of AI, machine learning and deep learning.

“There will be continued progress toward the integration of AI, machine learning and deep learning in business applications,” Saha explained. “Advances in these areas have been fuelled by big data availability and GPU [graphical processor unit] performance.”

Likewise, conversational platforms will continue to grow in importance within the business, through increased investments in virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

“They will find their way into enterprise applications,” Saha said. “In the coming years, the focus will be on mixed reality, whereby the user interacts with digital and real-world objects while residing in the physical world. In many enterprise-use cases, conversational interfaces, including AI-enabled chat-bots, will become a preferred method for human-digital interaction.”

To measure success, Saha aligns to three core metrics, namely customer impact, employee satisfaction and measured process simplification.

“In an experience economy, more than 7.5 billion consumers are in the driver’s seat,” Saha said. “People make buying decisions based on a range of factors – not just price. People embrace brands that embody their dreams – and shun those that fall short. This has serious repercussions for organisations of all shapes and sizes.”

Consequently, Saha said the future of work will not just be about technology, rather an “incubation” of technology, purpose and balance in the workforce.

“In an increasingly divided world technology, governments, non-profits, companies and individuals will need to come together to bridge that division in a manner that has not happened until now,” he said.

“Additionally, companies should be driven by purpose to help tackle the world’s problems and make people’s lives better. They have the intellectual, technological, financial and human capital to solve problems by disrupting old ways and cultivating those values that endure.”

Human element

In assessing the technology landscape across the market, and internally, Saha cited AI as holding the potential to “fundamentally change the way we work and more importantly how we work”.

According to IDC, the worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to reach US$35.8 billion in 2019, an increase of 44 percent from 2018 and more than double to US$79.2 billion in 2022.

“SAP has been utilising AI capabilities from its SAP Leonardo portfolio to power our business and IT processes,” said Saha, citing an “AI thinking” approach within the organisation.

“Our internal IT AI efforts were spearheaded several years ago by a centre of excellence that led the way in building AI models, not just for analytics, but also to automate transactions, effectively moving from rule-based to pattern-based automation.”

Broadly speaking, Saha acknowledged that emerging technologies are driving an increased focus on digitalisation and automation of process, backed by “significant investment” in data and analytics, AI and machine learning.

“To fully harness the benefits, companies need to combine machine intelligence and human experience across all business functions, automating repetitive tasks and business processes and allowing an organisation’s workforce to focus on high-value work,” he said.

Human experience for Saha centres on engaging people in conversation while providing them with a voice in the process.

“The human experience will be powered by technology and will lead not only to economic affluence and environmental improvement but also to social and individual prosperity,” he added. “We have the tools that will enable every institution to read and process this human sentiment.

“With massive sentiment data at our fingertips, leaders can now directly confront issues that concern employees and customers. But we should not be data driven. We should be data informed.

“We need to know what the data means. We can develop programmes that encourage action around a shared mission, using digital platforms to scale impact.”

Through leveraging data, Saha acknowledged the role of a CIO in re-evaluating internal strategies, while redesigning business models to reflect changing market dynamics. In essence, the modern-day CIO must be well versed in planning ahead.

“Digital leadership is a mandate for any company that wants to be in business tomorrow, and to remain sustainable, all three aspects of people, process and technology must be ‘upgraded’ in tandem to remain relevant,” he outlined.

Despite such a renewed focus, Saha accepted that the fundamental role of the CIO remains the same – to ensure the organisation performs at its best leveraging technology.

“While it’s easy to be distracted by the new technologies on the horizon, the key objectives to making the company efficient, productive and grow are obtained by rock-solid operations, razor sharp execution on IT projects with clear business outcomes and using new technology where it fits for purpose,” Saha advised.

“This also requires discipline on innovation – where IT teams objectively evaluate new technology with an appetite to adopt, but at the same time, balance the investment of time, human resources and budget to make a judgement on adoption speed.

“One option for companies to jump-start their foray into new technologies is to partner with startups – which can lead to a win-win situation.”