It’s a world where programmers and developers are constantly challenging each other for the most disruptive inventions. Monitoring up-and-coming developments and technologies is not enough anymore to stay ahead of the game.
Someone needs to investigate the various ways in which the future might play out and how software can contribute to a future desirable to us. At the SAP Innovation Center, that someone is Martin Wezowski, recently ranked among the 100 smartest people in Germany and dubbed “Software Visionary” by the Handelsblatt.
“I come from a design background and design is what I did for most of my career. But I didn’t study it.” In fact, UX design didn’t exist as a degree when Wezowski went to university in Sweden where he had moved to at the age of 14 from his native country Poland – without knowing a word of Swedish at the time. “I wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t have the mandatory professional experience, so I settled for construction engineering.” Unhappy with his less-than-ideal study program, Wezowski soon started playing music instead.
“Now, starting a punk rock band was probably the best education I could get,” Wezowski remembers with a laugh. “Punk is all about disruption. It makes you understand that you’re there to question the status quo – and in order to do so you start to observe: What can we disrupt here? Also, the punk scene is all about networking and learning about new ideas, it’s very idealistic. Failure and learning, or rather celebration of the imperfect is key in punk, and in any innovative and entrepreneurial culture.”
Wezowski’s band soon needed a homepage and album covers. He discovered computers and media design. Taking side jobs and small courses here and there set him on the track of digital media techniques which he started teaching for companies. Encouraged by his students, Wezowski eventually moved from being a teacher to being a doer and made design his profession.
The Choice to Make an Impact
After working with Sony Ericsson as a senior UX designer for the imaging area, among other things, Wezowski took on an even more strategic role with Huawei that also took him to China for two years. Huawei had seen the disruption Apple had brought to the smartphone market. They were very interested in how they as a Chinese company could disrupt. Wezowski, who was leading innovation and strategy for UX, fostered the idea for Huawei to own not only the phones, the cameras, the gadgets, but the systems.
“That’s what systemic design is about,” Wezowski says. “If you manage to build an ecosystem, it’s the strongest thing you have. Any gadget you design will run better because it’s on a native system.” However, the idea was too radical for Huawei at the time. “They had next quarter earnings in mind, not long-term strategy, so I decided to open up for other opportunities.” Conveniently, SAP called just then.
“I chose SAP very consciously over other offers for its vastness, for the enormous impact SAP has on peoples’ lives. And that is still what gets me up in the morning: the simple fact that we touch 80 percent of the world’s GDP via transactions on our systems. When I learned this, I thought: Wow, we better be good. If you have this romantic dream that you’re doing something meaningful, which I think everybody should have – SAP is the place to live it. Also, I learned that SAP had a chief design officer — which was already Sam Yen at the time — so design was obviously very high on the agenda. That’s when I decided to come over.”
An Eye for Disruption
Wezowski was essentially hired to address potential systemic changes, but was faced with some challenges when doing so. “People were extremely nice and helpful, they told me to disrupt, to tell them what was wrong – but when I pointed out systemic opportunities, the status quo was just accepted as inherent to the system.”
He soon discovered that SAP as a company was excellent at keeping the boat afloat, at keeping the promise and fulfilling KPIs. Homegrown disruptive innovation would naturally be second priority in most departments. “It’s a classic example of the Innovator’s Dilemma, the short-termism, where scalable efficiency is valued more than exponential intelligence in a system, when in fact you need both.”
In 2016, Wezowski joined the SAP Innovation Center Network to design strategic innovation. “When I started working with Jürgen Müller and the SAP Innovation Center Network teams a lot, it came completely natural to share ideas on disruptive innovation and actually follow them up, ICN really put ‘the money on the table.’ I understood that this department had actually been established to drive innovation to 99 percent while in other areas it was maybe one percent spared on innovation. It’s a very direct, honest, fun place, without silos and a huge curiosity and the guts to aim for bold change. I knew this was the place for me.”
Wezowski defines his own major contribution to innovation at SAP as investigating, identifying and articulating what’s next for the future of SAP.
“There are tens of thousands of clever people at SAP looking at what we can deliver right now. But we also have the opportunity to look beyond that horizon to see what will be possible, what might be a desirable future. At the chief innovation office, we examine where SAP can play a significant, positive role in getting to that future. After exploring it, we reach out even further to innovative people and teams in the company and deepen co-innovation. But it always starts with investigating what’s out there, what is possible and desirable, what are the targets no one can see yet.”
A Desirable Future
“The best things, the smart things are the things that make us smart,” Wezowski explains. “Systems that make us smarter is what I see fully established five to 10 years from now. I call it the Humachine — a symbiosis between machine intelligence and human creativity.”
The World Economic Forum predicts complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity as the top skills for the workforce by 2020. To focus on honing and applying those skills, all mundane and repetitive tasks could be outsourced to machines.
“Machines can support us with things we shouldn’t have to waste our time on by pointing us to opportunities we cannot see. To me, SAP is in the business of the quality of the time you and I have at work. The better and smarter people feel at work, the better SAP has been doing its job. That’s what we deliver, the intelligence of work, the whole delight of work. So that it’s not labor, but meaningful, high-value job to be done. We just happen to do this with software and information technology.”
Instead of spending our time with (and being kept back by) things we are good at but not excellent, like repetitive tasks, administration, mundane labor, we may hand them over to machines and focus on tasks that require creativity and strategic thinking. This points toward a change in the perception of what work is.
“Work is not about filling in excel tables,” Wezowski stresses. “Work is about thinking, about solving complex, human problems. By this we are leading the future of work, building on the efficiency and scalablity of the third industrial revolution to the intelligence and adaptability of the fourth.”
This line of thought touches on fundamental questions, such as what it is that makes us human. In a way, the whole history of the homo sapiens so far was about hunting and gathering and later about filing tax reports. But are these appropriate tasks for beings that can also compose music, think up strategies or solve moral problems? Signing on machines for the mundane things may set free our time and energy for what really matters.
“We may become humans at last,” Wezowski suggests. “We’ve been busy with something else so far.”
Top image via Shutterstock