SAP Design Apphaus in Korea: Culture Eats Digital Transformation for Lunch

SAP empowers companies to master digitalization. At the SAP Design AppHaus in Korea, visitors also learn how they can change their work culture.

Christopher Han’s employees address him by his first name; that’s not really unusual at SAP. But it is for the colleagues in South Korea, because, according to Christopher, who is vice president of the SAP Design AppHaus for Asia-Pacific and Japan (APJ), “If you talk to your boss or an elder in Korea, you must use the honorific form and you address the person by their title.”

I meet Christopher in the SAP Design AppHaus in Korea. In July 2016, SAP opened its third AppHaus worldwide and its first in the APJ region,which is also responsible for Greater China, here on the Pangyo Startup Campus in the South Korean capital Seoul. We sit on stylish bar stools. Behind us is a kitchen. In front of us, designers are working at big Apple computer screens. The rooms are open and snazzily furnished.

Christopher tells me: “We designed this AppHaus ourselves and began by asking what kind of interactions and experiences would our customers and colleagues want in a working space where we conduct projects for days, weeks, or even months.”

The 15 employees at the SAP Design AppHaus have so far received more than 7,000 guests. They have held workshops with customers, partners, and representatives from universities and public administration, and familiarized their visitors with the concept of design-led development.

“People’s first reaction when they come in here is always: ‘Wow, this is SAP?’” says Christopher.

New Forms of Communication

There’s no doubt that the SAP Design AppHaus is changing SAP’s image in Asia. However, Christopher soon realized: “We can do more than use our solutions to support companies in their digital transformation. We can show companies how they can change their work culture and ways of working, so that they can continue to be successful in the future.”

To do this, a different form of communication had to be established at the SAP Design AppHaus, too.

Christopher explains that the traditional Korean way of interacting very respectfully with people in more senior positions, or with elders, isn’t constructive in an establishment that’s about innovation and groundbreaking change. He’s convinced that language affects how you think: “I wanted to create a working culture where everyone communicates with each other as equals, where the boss’s suggestion doesn’t automatically carry more weight. It’s about innovative ideas, and it shouldn’t matter who thought them up.”

Since then, the colleagues at the SAP Design AppHaus have been on first-name terms, using titles is off-limits. And that doesn’t go unnoticed by visitors.

“We’re increasingly being asked by companies whether we can show them how to foster such an open and creative working atmosphere,” Christopher reports. This is because there’s a growing realization among Korean executives that a work culture based on principles that worked during the past 30 or 40 years won’t necessarily take them forward – at least not fast enough.

Open Dialog Replaces Authoritarian Structures

In the past, Christopher says, it was possible to be very successful in South Korea as a “fast follower” or by increasing operational efficiency. For such business models, hierarchical, command-and-control structures in companies worked. “But today, in many fields, companies need to be first to innovation. Second place isn’t much use in a winner-takes-all economy,” he adds. “And that’s why companies need a culture that fosters open dialog and effective collaboration in order to pursue innovation.”

Using this approach, Christopher and his colleagues in the SAP Design AppHaus work on customer projects using the SAP Fiori design language to increase the adoption of the SAP solutions, and helping customers develop new business models by applying design thinking principles. They make it clear to their business partners that it’s important to give all employees the opportunity to contribute ideas, that it’s acceptable to build rapid prototypes that are not perfect, and that — crucially — it’s also okay to admit to errors and, if necessary, pull the plug on a project if it’s going in the wrong direction.

Of course, the Korean economy is influenced by cultural aspects other than language; for example, the values of Confucianism, including respect for authority and the desire for harmony, which makes it difficult for people to disagree with opinions of their superiors. Nevertheless, Christopher finds that the visitors to the SAP Design AppHaus in Korea are very keen to learn what adjustments they can make so that employees work and interact with each other differently.

“Customers view SAP as a strategic partner that helps companies pursue digital transformation with our solutions,” says Christopher. “With our expertise in design thinking and doing, we’re helping companies to foster an organizational culture to enable successful digital transformation.”

In the kitchen behind us, some of the employees are preparing their lunch. I remember the quote attributed to Peter F. Drucker, the influential pioneer of management consultancy, and I wonder: Is it true today that culture eats strategy for breakfast – and digital transformation for lunch?