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HANA and Design Thinking: Disruptive Innovation or Sales Strategy?

HANA and Design Thinking: Disruptive Innovation or Sales Strategy?
Tobias Brode | February 15, 2013


Since “Big Data” has evolved from a mere buzz-phrase to an acknowledged real-world problem, the relentless data growth has promoted the development of new technologies in the information management space. Hadoop, NoSQL databases, and massively parallel processing (MPP) analytic databases have suddenly make it possible to tackle the three V’s of Big Data: Volume, Velocity and Variability. Along with the challenges, comes the lure of the opportunity. While gaining unprecedented insight through the analysis of exponentially growing data sets may be the “Holy Grail” of business strategy, drawing the 4th V, business value, out of big data remains as elusive as an ancient artifact that grants eternal youth.


SAP really sticks out like a sore thumb. While SAP’s core business is rooted in the development of business applications, the unveiling of their in-memory database platform, HANA, clearly presents a paradigm shift in their go-to-market strategy and a re-interpretation of their core business. The software giant’s solution promises to accelerate database performance on average 10,300-fold (Stegmann 2012, HANA Executive Council), and – even with some deductions for the sales pitch – the raw performance puts HANA head-to-head with other databases/appliances such as Greenplum (EMC), TimesTen/Exalytics (Oracle) or Teradata’s Extreme Performance Appliance. The move to compete in database technology has not gone unnoticed: Larry Ellison, the flamboyant CEO of the database market leader Oracle, suggested that SAP ‘must be on drugs’ to even attempt competing in this space, promptly triggering quips and more technical whiz-bang facts from SAP’s leadership.

If SAP is indeed on drugs, they could be considered quite performance-enhancing, in both the technical and financial sense! In the first year, 2011, SAP beat its own forecast of HANA Sales by 60% (160M euros). In 2012, sales revenue generated by HANA topped 390M euros, making it the fastest growing next generation database ahead of Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. And SAP is hardly stopping there: by 2015 SAP forecasts approximately 2 billion euros ($2.5M) in new revenue creation for HANA from SAP BW and Business Suite customers. Staggering numbers indeed! HANA has been most prominent in up-selling and cross-selling within its current customer base, since, similar to Exalytics, Oracle’s competing product in the Business Intelligence space, its selling points are interoperability and acceleration of its own software. However, unlike Oracle, SAP is making HANA their centerpiece for all their application software – CRM, BW, SCM and ECC are surely only the start. If you now consider that an estimated 60% of SAP applications are currently running on Oracle, re-platforming onto HANA could become a bigger threat than Larry Ellison may want to admit.

Design Thinking

If you have attended one of SAP’s many seminars or forums, you will undoubtedly have come across the term ‘Design Thinking’, regularly peppered into the HANA-heavy slide decks. Hasso Plattner, probably SAP’s best known founding father and member of the supervisory board today, has long shown an interest in the discipline of design, and formed the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at the University of Stanford in 2005. A core research topic: Design Thinking. Thought of as a process to tackle “wicked problems,” which are ill-defined or complex problems, it encourages a creative, multi-disciplinary, solution-based approach to develop radical, user-centric designs through a six-step process (see Figure 1). Reviewing statements at FKOM this year, Design Thinking appears to have taken the place of more waterfall-based approaches like SAP’s ASAP methodology: by the end of 2013, SAP plans for all of its North American Sales Force to be formally trained in Design Thinking.

Figure 1: Design Thinking Six-Step Process

Point of View

Figure 2: Design Thinking Process & Rules

The Human Rule

All Design Activity Is Ultimately Social In Nature

The Ambiguity Rule

Design Thinkers Must Preserve Ambiguity

The Re-design Rule

All Design Is Re-Design

The Tangibility Rule

Making Ideas Tangible Always Facilitates Communication

Source: Ratcliffe J. (8/1/2009), The k12 Lab wiki, Know more

So, is SAP pairing a radical new technology (HANA), with a radical new methodology (Design Thinking)? Not quite. While SAP promotes Design Thinking as an original approach, one should realize that Design Thinking is considered an evolution of existing methodologies in the practice of contemporary design and engineering. Agile approaches, such as Extreme Programming or SCRUM, already stipulate user-centricity, iterative learning and development processes, and extensive team communication. Brainstorming and prototyping techniques are also not necessarily a new theme, though admittedly Design Thinking does put a particular emphasis on out-of-the-box ideation, even in later stages of the process.

Design Thinking has already proven itself as a potent design methodology. For example, IDEO is a global design firm that has based its entire business on this approach, and has helped to popularize the very idea of Design Thinking. IDEO has achieved worldwide recognition for its success innovating new products and service solutions for companies all over the globe by focusing on this human-centered approach to design.

However, some voices suggest it is ineffective in the world of big business. Bruce Nussbaum, an early advocate for Design Thinking at Business Week, now declares Design Thinking a “failed experiment” in the corporate world. He elaborated that the idea that “a process trick would produce significant cultural and organizational change” denuded Design Thinking of the “mess, the conflict, failure, emotions, and looping circularity that is part and parcel of the creative process” and thus impeded the promise of its primary goal: disruptive innovation.

HANA and Design Thinking

In SAP’s mind, Design Thinking and HANA make up the new “primordial soup” that rings in a new era of business evolution: the platform that provides all the right ingredients, coupled with the design process that provides the creative spark. In my opinion, this may just set the bar of expectation a little too high. Other platform vendors have been in the same spot for decades, trying to promote their wares on the back of better performance and higher efficiencies. So, what is the difference?

The answer may just be SAP themselves. Seemingly overnight, SAP has changed from a software vendor to a platform provider, and so has had to realign its community of SAP professionals to its new go-to-market strategy. Highly skilled in SAP’s out-of-the-box offerings, SAP professionals are experts in promoting the virtues of a well-designed, efficient process, extended from the standard templates and automated wherever possible. Consultants drove value propositions by combining their in-depth industry knowledge with the functionality of the software.

HANA is a completely different ball game: the promise of a significantly faster, more flexible platform screams “Potential!”, but how to convert this potential into a measurable ROI is a somewhat unfamiliar skill. So, I like to imagine that the real question at SAP headquarters was: How can one convert a process-oriented community into a community of radical designers who will generate tangible ROIs on the HANA platform and thereby drive SAP’s well-oiled marketing machinery? Answer: provide the process that – as its deliverable – promises the creativity to innovate! Design Thinking fills this gap perfectly. Its six step approach provides familiar scaffolding that SAP professionals can use to forge into the (relatively) unchartered territory of radical design. More novel than the trodden paths of Agile Software Development and at the same time a fresh new alternative to – at least in the BI space – SAP’s struggling ASAP methodology, it re-energizes the base by being cutting-edge on all fronts. And the HANA platform does indeed tie into the process well, in particular with the last two steps of iterative prototyping and testing. Since the database is so vastly accelerated, development can now occur in the virtual space, replacing time-consuming batch processes and data loads with the rapid execution of run-time models and applications. Enter HANA on Amazon Web Services and what previously required a client or internal Lab environment becomes available for just a low hourly fee. The primordial stage is set – let the (r)evolution begin!

HCL, HANA & Design Thinking

Nevertheless, Nussbaum’s concerns about Design Thinking in the corporate world need to be addressed if consultancies want to be effective at applying it. As he describes, by depicting Design Thinking as a process one will discourage the very elements of Design Thinking that allow for true innovation. While the process framework works well in the SAP space, being successful with HANA and Design Thinking requires a reflection on what is generally described as the mindsets of Design Thinking (see Figure 3). Rather than a process, innovation is born out of the attitude and culture of individuals in the organization. A process may guide you, but an open, empathetic, hands-on approach to problem-solving will remain essential in ideation and implementation of new ideas.

As an employee of HCL, none of these mindsets feel unfamiliar. Our benefits-driven approach to transformational projects often demands the radical collaboration with our in-house industry experts. Our culture of prototyping not only extends to client sites (e.g. Proof of Concepts and Quick Wins in the early stages of the project life cycle), but also to collaborations in the development of accelerators such as iMRO and iCARE. In short, HCL has been practicing Design Thinking for years in the way we deliver projects as well as how we innovate throughout our organization. As a partner of SAP, HCL is poised to align with SAP’s Design Thinking goals by determining how to drive value for clients with the HANA platform. HCL’s ability to use Design Thinking across the company is aptly summed up by TIME magazine, which has referred to HCL as an "intellectual clean room where its employees could imagine endless possibilities".

Figure 3: Mindsets of Design Thinking

Show don't tell

Show Don’t Tell:

  • Space Saturation (use all materials available)

  • Concise Point of View

  • Be Visual

  • Experimental Prototypes

  • Good Storytelling

Radical Collaboration

Radical Collaboration:

  • Observe in pairs

  • Synthesize in teams

  • Invite outsiders to brainstorm

  • Test with users

Bias towards Action

Bias Towards Action:

  • Talk to experts

  • Interview & observe

  • Work quickly

  • Go for volume

  • Prototype early

  • Test asap

  • Launch beta

Culture of Prototyping

Culture of Prototyping:

  • Reflect & observe (iterative)

  • Generate point of views

  • Express & test

  • Go back in many iterations

Mindful Process

Mindful Process:

  • Empathize

  • Define

  • Ideate

  • Prototype

  • Test

  • Iterate



  • Test with actual users

  • Observe for inspiration

  • Define problem with empathy & insight

  • Involve users in ideation



HCI STEM, Design Thinking,

Plattner et al., Design Thinking (2011), Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

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