How a Futurist Works and Impacts the Future Direction of SAP
Ever wondered about the future/futurism at SAP?
– Ask a futurist and acquire a little taste of things to come
The future is a topic which interests us all. Therefore, it is also a topic that still leaves many questions unanswered. Especially when we think about innovations and new technologies, we ask ourselves about where we will be in 5, 10 or even 15 years.
What are the topics that are likely to come around the corner? Which technologies should we monitor? What will happen for sure and is therefore inevitable? And of course, how does a futurist help to set the direction for a company like SAP?
For all curious ones: I have good news for you – I could arrange an interview with the co-founder and Chief Fusionist of the SAP Future-Hub, Upen Barve, and was able to talk to him about the role of futurist as well as some exciting topics.
Let me tease you with some keywords such as metaverse, artificial intelligence and 6G, …
But before we dive into these topics let us start with some general information:
What is a Futurist and what does being a Futurist mean?
Dear Upen, could you please give us a quick definition of futurist as a profession and part of an enterprise such as the SAP?
Upen: A futurist is basically someone who is able to design a future by looking at qualitative, quantitative, and speculative possibilities to formulate a particular future state. And thus, is able to see what path could and even should be taken regarding to for example future trends of work or future work technologies.
Therefore, a futurist is somebody who can imagine going to and establishing a new place in everybody’s mind.
Why do we need Futurists?
Upen: We need to lead from the future. We want to do that with our vision as a compass for our transformative investments. It is a guiding star.
Especially nowadays a lot of people are confused. They do not know what they do or what they should do. They seem to be stuck with the now and thinking short term. They are not taking bold decisions nor equipped with the right tools and methods – let us call them arts and crafts.
Most of the people seem to be shy, afraid, or even ignorant and as results of that not really seeing what should be seen. All in all, there is a notable amount of confusion when it comes to future technologies and innovation – business future in general.
My job is to build awareness for the visibility of the future developments and to remove confusion out of innovation in customers heads and within that improve their general willingness to make or at least be open towards making decisions about the future.
This process of improving the understanding of customers and employees requires a fusion between the so-called now and the NEW.
Futurist is a widely spread term for your job description, but you consider yourself rather as a fusionist. Can you explain us what this exactly means and give us an example of a fusion?
Upen: For answering this question you have to keep in mind that as a fusionist I work with a lot of people who are for example deep technology explorers as well as with numerous customers, partners, collaborators, and employees, artists, designers, sales professionals. As a fusionist, you have to work with the right ingredients in the right context. Some you have to invent, but some you can reuse or repurpose.
All these connections seem to be very business driven and business related. But the secret is that we have to take into awareness that futurism as well as fusionism are not only used in business – they are part of every single part of our lives, such as for example relationships, locations, music, and food.
And this is also where I get my motivation from. It always will be slightly away from the boundaries that have been set. As a fusionist, I respect these limits, but I must be aware of the fact that I can also be limited by them.
For a successful fusion and re-movement of confusion I have to be able to mix all of these various patterns and skills in a rather generalist way but without being a generalist.
I am a specialist in many areas and need to match those work skills, approaches, methodologies, and people to a context to be successful so that we can take the right steps towards the future.
As a result, we let the innovations, the technologies, the different disciplines, and interests all come together. To achieve this, we have to be experts, collaborators, and communicators to create new innovations and technologies and therefore the future of work.
How did you become a futurist? Is there a path you can follow – what do futurists study?
Upen: I do have many different backgrounds. I studied engineering and got a master’s degree in e-commerce, which was new at the time. After studying I got involved with various project methodologies, implementation methodologies, service methodologies, business transformations as well as with technical implementation of knowledge systems. Little by little, I got involved in design thinking and innovation methods.
Let us talk a about a day in your life as being a fusionist / futurist and therefore co-creator of the SAP Future: How does a typical day of yours look like? With whom are you in exchange?
Upen: My daily work is very exciting and beautiful – no day looks similar to the other. And this is actually the part that drives me. I am always looking for new – let me call them ingredients: if you get to know more ingredients, you know with what flavors you can work with.
Suitably, my role in the SAP Future Hub is responsible for collaboration. I am Head of Engagements, though it’s important to bear in mind that future engagements are very different from normal customer engagements.
I have to look at “Who can we work with? Who are the pioneers in the industry? Who in that particular brand? Is there a person, is there a name, is there a title? Is there already an exchange on innovations? Is there someone who`s bold enough to make decisions?”
This is very important because we also match on our vision. Some collaborations are based on a topic which is really far away. For example, 6G – we know it is 10 years ahead, but I need to start those collaborations today so that we are part of the game and building the ecosystem.
Was there a kind of “futurist movement” – when did companies start to hire futurists? Who started futurism?
But it still is not common. However, I can tell you that the futurism movement as well as the future thinking is growing more and more.
I talk to customers, and they do response with huge interest and invite us futurists to talk to their A teams and leadership. Martin Wezowski our chief futurist and I constantly feature in sessions organized by our c-levels of the customers to speak to their board as well as their new hires for example.
That gives a sense that the topic is being recognized. We are happy to share our toolkit and observations and they like to engage with us on new frontiers. Its slow, as many have a certain space pre-allocated for SAP which is more related to the NOW.
If you think about what country did futurism come from and who started futurism of course, a few American companies talked about it and communicated widely, film industry that focused on sci-fi – those writers are true futurists already. Hollywood always had a Steven Spielberg, who had the power of imagination to create avatar but had to wait for the technology to be able to deliver his vision.
He had to wait many years – everything was ready at the script, but there were no tools available to create this effect.
So, in comparison, yes, it is coming up and I hope that whether futurist or not, everybody will understand that the organizations need to think about “Where is my department of imagination?”.
We need the head of imagination as importantly as the head of engineering – and they should work together with the head of design. Then you can collaborate in a good trial and create massive change at the enterprise level.
Futurism @ SAP
You have just mentioned the SAP Future Hub – could you please explain us what the SAP Future Hub is and its impacts for SAP?
Upen: SAP Future Hub, which acts as a hub but at the same time we live in SAP New Ventures & Technologies under Technology and Innovation board areas. We are global, industry-leading future-of-work leaders, experts and visionaries. We spearhead & shape SAP’s long-term innovation vision, produce and supervise future concepts, create Macro POV’s and build concept cases and concept-prototypes to make the vision tangible. We inspire & strategize with our ecosystem to investigate possible futures, and validate with tangible PoCs.
In this regard, the SAP Future Hub has two roles: the first one is to know and the second one is to show. In conclusion we want to know and show what is next for SAP and the future of work.
The long term innovation vision is “Human ingenuity and machine intelligence flourish in empathic symbiosis “
Why do you see the SAP so strongly connected with the Future of Work?
Upen: We believe that SAP defined the future of work 50 years ago.
Within SAP the business world changed from paper into digital. With the three-tier architectures we have created, defined, and delivered what work and future workspace actually mean for the modern era.
How does Futurism impact SAP’s innovation, vision, and strategy? Is Futurism a science – what are your thoughts about that?
Upen: Futurism surely is a science. We are responsible for the vision – we call it long-term vision and this long-term vision informs the strategy. Therefore, a part of that is always implemented from strategy to execution.
Why is what next for SAP and the future of work?
Bringing in the tangibility is one of our main focuses. The fidelity should be decided based on what we’re working on and not based on what fidelities are available.
Innovation foresight and current topics of innovation and technologies
What is innovation foresight and why is it so important? Could you please give us a foresight definition and maybe examples as well?
How initial ideas become tangible visions
Upen: The “innovation curation map” gives a broad overview of our end-to-end innovation process. It is founded on the idea of identifying the right things to be done before doing them right.
We start with a visionary brainstorming and therefore explore activities to identify what is relevant. Within that we develop world class ideas based on objective foresight and subjective insight. Objective foresight delivers a map of discovered opportunities, building the future fabric – there is anything you could think about possible. You for example think about 6G and some new technologies, and you can immediately start to see the social movements, the demographic changes, and the evolvement of the languages in this world… and so on and so forth.
After this visionary brainstorming, we bring these imaginations into narratives. This is the point when the foresight team enters the game and looks at those trends, and for example the macroeconomic changes, behaviors, and pattern. After that they decide where the greatest potentials are and therefore what is most likely to happen and come true in the future.
To really execute a strategy, you need vision.We use our foresight data, which we already have and can very quickly extrapolate the combination of our vision of foresight and our quantitative data that have a label. Metaverse can give us various possibilities for SAP.
What is the Metaverse? What is the future of SAP in Metaverse?
Upen: We can look at industries, we can look at changing architectures, product placements to a one stop meta market. We build those. That is where the foresight comes into play because we can then apply these different things, see the patterns, and say: “this is possible, these are multiple possibilities of future pathways. Let us pick one and start to work on it.”
Generally, foresight means to generate future impulses for your innovation process, and this basically is what does a foresight practitioner do.
Got interested in this topic? You can find our article about Metaverse here: Metaverse | Digital Technology and Innovation Management
Whilst thinking and planning (about) the future: is there a kind of certain time or innovation horizon you’re looking at or does it depend on a topic?
Upen: We would look at what is 10 years ahead and that is our responsibility as well. 5 to 10 years in the future is by definition our third horizon. Before that is the second horizon. And right now, is the now, which is the first tier of the four quarters view.
Could you please explain us how you work with these horizons? Does your job acquire rather creative or rational thinking?
Upen: It is a combination of both, but it is more on the creative side. Rational thinking helps you to forecast. But I work on back casting – from 3 to 2, 2 to 1 – for me rational thinking is not useful as a tool.
Back casting is a method of innovation called back casting because you cannot predict from the third horizon, there is no sufficient data, cannot be any proof points. In this process, you sort of use your speculative, quantitative and qualitative futurism call and establish a desired state from set of possible futures and try to work backwards.
This has always to be top-down. I would not know how to operate otherwise.
What is your goal? What would you like to achieve with your job? What do you love about it?
Upen: Indeed, I suspect I have a romantic relationship with the future. Because if we do not create it, somebody else will do it and then I might not like it?
My goal is to build and inspire a future where we all want to live in – our ecosystems and all the living beings as well.
It is our responsibility, and we have to worry about it because you, me, your cats, dogs, friends, and of course future children – everybody is going to live in the future from this moment onwards.
Let us know what we are hoping and aiming for – let us create a future age where the future kids also want to live in and therefore never underestimate the future meaning.
Let us ask the same question over and over again: What is a future we all want to live in? How can we be part of shaping it?
In context of planning the future, what impact did the pandemic situation have?
Upen: I think the impact was that everybody of us got some time to reflect. I used to spend that time on aircrafts. I was always away – always somewhere else.
I got to rethink some of the ecosystem. But did it stop any connects? Actually not. In fact, it showed us how temporary the present and “the NOW” is.
Everybody had a forecast of the next 12 months, and everybody could not achieve that forecast. Because nobody could predict dependably.
The same applies to future – you cannot predict it, but you can plan for it. You can expect that it will be different. You can make it different.
What we should all hope and engage for
Upen: I can tell you what I hope for, and I am not sure if we the people have learned the lesson. I would say do not cut funding from the scientists and researchers, innovators. This is so important. That is exactly why we had to face that much of a delay in getting vaccines rolled up.
Basically, do not cut money at the wrong places. It feels good for a short time. It is never good for the long run.
I was hoping that Covid tells that lesson, but unfortunately, I am seeing those behaviors returning a little bit and long term seems to become less and less important again. People seem to be back to the drill “let us cut budget here and there so we can look good now.”
So, what makes a good futurist? What skills do you have that make you a good fusionist? Which mindset should you have?
Upen: There are a lot of skills that you always need, but you never know which ones are going to be needed in what context or even when you are going to need them all at once.
I think it is about both – the breadth and the depth of the skills. Whether it is the ability to connect with senior leaders, the ability to articulate thoughts and convey them via a keynote, or the ability to deeply understand, observe the signals and apply strategic thinking to make relevance out of it – with that you can onboard more minds and brains towards the journey in articulated future. Also, right identification and sourcing of missing elements is a key!
Basically, it is a toolkit that you put together to make it easier for yourself. I kind of built a toolkit for myself by learning from different experiences and from influences and coaching from different people. I will now always have and use these tools – and always sharpen my knife.
Could I maybe have a sneak preview what might be possible future trends for work, technology, and innovation? What is the news of future or thinkable kind of work in future?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning
Upen: Artificial Intelligence continues. It is still a development platform as well as an application – more and more applications will become intelligent and that was one of our thinking.
It is very important to keep in mind that we get used to applications very fast. You would not want to work with a dump software, system, interface or many more things. Therefore, it needs to be more than responsive.
Applications need to be intelligent – but even then – after a time, you will still get used to it: more and more, very slowly. That is human.
A well-known example for that are non-assisted cars. By now many people might find it difficult to handle one without any assisting devices.
Artificial intelligence will not stop to support us in many of the areas. It will continue to grow, and I think our goal should be that each and every single SAP software is intelligent by default. It is a need.
MACHINE AND HUMAN AT EQUAL CAPABILITIES
What is your prediction: will artificial intelligence (AI) be able to learn emotions?
Upen: There is an attempt to do that. At the moment it is in the very beginning, and we need to let it grow and make sure that it is ethical. Because in the end, maybe two machines will be able to recruit without bias.
But in the same thing, you also need your gut feeling, because that is where our risk potential is. And it is this very instinct that will still distinguish us from machines.
The important thing to keep in mind is that it is not either or – it has to be a symbiosis of both.
You already mentioned music and food as things or better to say topics that inspire you. Do you have more sources of inspiration as well as role models, famous futurists for example? Generally – what where futurists inspired by?
Upen: I have several inspirations. Food is one of the things that really inspire me. The taste of it and the pallets which always make you feel, think, and react. All of these different triggers are very important for my brain and work.
With regards to role models there are quite a few and will be more to come:
Guy Kawasaki: He was the first guy who actually said – Yes, I love working with Steve Jobs. I learned a lot of things and he was the first kind of an angel investor, who was allowing the others to use his money and guidance to flourish and move ahead.
Kawasaki on his own is very empathic and human and has such a rich and diverse experience.
Clayton Christensen: The late Clayton brought forward many of the things that we had in minds to paper.
And many more – especially every time I go to Asia I am overwhelmed by the ecosystem, the people, and the density – everything inspires me anytime – and this helps me to learn.
I then ask myself questions such as “Who are / what is the new benchmark? Where are things happening?”
To conclude: people, things and places are my main inspirations.
To wrap it up: why do we need and how do we establish a futuristic approach at SAP?
Upen: Finding the industry pioneers and working with them. Work on strengths instead of being suppliers to each other. We often say that we are in the economy of abundance and that is fundamentally the different than the previous one which was based on scarcity.
And now as we have choice it is abundance and with all those choices – why should somebody work with SAP?
We have to make clear where we are going, what our vision is and how we plan to achieve this vision. Furthermore, we have to advertise how somebody could complete our values and collaborate with our team.
Thank you very much for your valuable insights and sharing your thoughts with us about the future in general and futuristic approaches in innovation and technologies at SAP.
Are you interested in digital technologies and innovations that impact the future of work? Pay a visit to the Digital Innovation and Technology Management page.
Also visit the Future of Work page for more information and related topics.
Are you also interested in how an Enterprise Architect at Roche is shaping the future of ERP through the use of new technologies? Read this impressive blogpost of my esteemed colleague Dr. Maria Fay.
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Super nice insights about the work of a futurist! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you! Highly appreciate your feedback!
So many great insights and reflections - I like the idea of looking at futurism as science. Thank you Caroline!
Thanks a lot for your feedback on this, Maria!
Super interesting read! Very inspiring vision that human ingenuity and machine intelligence come together in empathic symbiosis ... let's see, if we reach the point of singularity, where machine and humans will be at equal capabilities.
Thank you very much, Marcus!
Yes, there are very exciting times to come.
Very interesting blog. I found the Slingshot Method particularly inspiring. Thank you.
Thank you very much!
Thanks Caroline and Upen for the interesting read - I liked the way the role of futurist / fusionist was presented and what value-add can be expected from having this role reflected in an organization.
Thank you very much for your feedback Lena. It is exciting, inspiring and very important that the role of the futurist is attracting so much interest.
Really valuable post
Thank you very much!