Nestlé and SAP: Partners in Business, Friends in Transformation, Experts in Innovation


Take a personal look back at five years of joint enterprise design thinking between Nestlé and SAP and learn how the innovation concept evolved as well as how the human factor grew it further.

Based in Switzerland since 1866, Nestlé is a global company with six lines of business and more than 2,000 brands and 308,000 employees. As such, it can be challenging to engage each and every person around the globe in IT innovation.

Nestlé and SAP: Jochen Gürtler, Jörn BrückerIn January 2013, Jochen Gürtler, senior design strategist and design thinking expert at the SAP AppHaus in Heidelberg, and Jörn Brücker, product group manager of Innovation Methodology at Nestlé in Vevey, met for the first time. In the six years since, both have become recognized global experts in innovation culture who know about the power and challenges change can have.

While Gürtler intensified his role as coach and change catalyst, Brücker became a main driver of IT innovation methodologies in Nestlé. Here, both share insights in their relationship and how it evolved.

How was your first meeting?

Gürtler: The first day in the office after the Christmas holidays in 2013, our former SAP chief design officer, Sam Yen, had asked my team to support colleagues from Nestlé in implementing design thinking within their organization. This was a special request for me and the whole SAP AppHaus team for three reasons. First, we did not yet offer design thinking trainings officially, although we had a lot of experience around the topic. Second, we knew the Nestlé IT organization quite well, due to a long, intense collaboration as well as some escalations we solved together. And third, I was happy to come back to Lake Geneva and Montreux, as I had the pleasure to perform several times at the jazz festival years earlier.

Brücker: At that point in time, Nestlé IT had recently reorganized one part of the IT function and created a new operational unit called Architecture-Strategy & Innovation (ASI). This unit focused on the IT architecture vision, strategic partnerships, and trends, as well as on how IT becomes an innovative partner to the business. With the newly created role of “innovation champions,” we aimed to provide guidance and structure on how to deliver more desirable IT solutions to the business and, more importantly, to our employees.

This was the beginning of a long transformational journey! Because of the long-lasting, professional, and trustful relationship between Thomas Wildi, our Nestlé ASI lead, and Sam Yen and his team, SAP was our strategic partner on this journey. Jochen had been appointed to become our first design thinking coach and he became my volunteer partner in exploring and designing a long transformation journey together.

What is the work relationship between Nestlé and SAP AppHaus?

Gürtler: Nestlé and SAP have had a very long, innovative business partnership. As a platinum SAP customer Nestlé probably has one of the biggest SAP system landscapes worldwide. Therefore, it was more than natural that Nestlé start its design thinking journey together with us. Looking back, our engagement with Nestlé was the starting point of a series of design thinking enablement and training projects we have done — in the meantime, for customers such as Daimler or MTU also. Interestingly, all these projects started with joint design projects and resulted in transformation projects to foster innovation culture.

Brücker: Jochen and I developed and executed a curriculum for future design thinking coaches and planned and ran several workshops and projects that indeed triggered off an overall change: a change for how Nestlé IT runs its projects, a change for how people work together within the global corporation, and a change in the perception of the whole IT organization!

Gürtler: Regarding the last point, I remember certain situations during our lunch breaks at Nestle headquarter in Vevey when colleagues from different business areas approached Jörn asking him to start innovation projects together. This was remarkable for Jörn as IT was more used to being criticized for not solving any IT issues. And suddenly he had become an innovation partner of choice!

What I really appreciate is that, for Jörn and me, all our joint design thinking activities went along with a change on a personal level. Don’t you think, Jörn?

Brücker: Yes, definitely. Our journey and mission started with the implementation of design thinking skills into the IT organization to ensure IT delivered more desirable and valuable solutions. But what are the consequences and opportunities when you start going down this path? What happens when you force IT specialists to leave their comfort zone and you, in a certain way, force them to question if IT is always the right answer to the challenge? With the right balanced ingredients and tools from design thinking, Nestlé IT slowly but surely became a new face toward the business.

How did you stay in touch? What are your touch points today?

Gürtler: We are both engaged in the Impact Week, a non-profit program that unites people from a variety of countries to develop skills and competencies that drive sustainable business models for social and regional entrepreneurs using design thinking. The program is organized and executed together with other design thinking experts from different companies,including a training event in Rwanda two years ago.

We also see each other regularly at the Design at Business community meetups and attend cross-company coach camps, a community that was primarily founded by SAP, Nestlé, and Phillips to connect change makers and accelerate design thinking, as a people-centric innovation approach, across large enterprises worldwide.

To go the next steps focusing deeper on the human side, we participated in the “kommunikationslotsen Facilitation Curriculum,” a 16-day program that goes beyond the original design thinking approach. Through these activities, we both made new personal experiences outside the comfort zone. Next things to do include one more Swiss cheese fondue and eventually a trekking tour in the Swiss alps, don’t you think?

Nestlé and SAP: Brücker at Impact Week
Brücker with attendees at an Impact Week workshop in Rwanda

Brücker: Yes, Jochen motivated me to participate in the Impact Week 2017 in Rwanda, which was another impressive experience on how to combine a learning-by-doing exposure with sharing and developing new innovative competence. After a second journey to Rwanda, the Impact Week program has now become an innovation mindset development program within Nestlé, facilitated by IT. In the upcoming Impact Week, we will train 60 design thinking coaches from Europe and Central West Africa together with 180 university students in Ghana. Doing the “kommunikationslotsen Facilitation Curriculum” together with Jochen was, for me, pure stress at the beginning, because it forced me to come to a full standstill. The training required us to challenge and thoroughly reflect what and why we do something, and then how we do it, and probably transform it. In the context of supporting user-centric design through design thinking, it was certainly not an easy task to take the mental break. But it is clearly one of the milestones that got us where and what we are today.

Gürtler: And you are a great role model for passion and execution for me. I see this openness to go beyond corporate and personal comfort zones.

How has design thinking evolved in the last years?

Gürtler: I’ve done design thinking for almost 10 years now — almost everywhere around the world, with colleagues from inside and outside SAP in Brazil, Russia, Kenya, South Africa, and most of the European countries; with students at the d.school in Berlin, and with pupils and their teachers in Rwanda; for German sailors, ice hockey fans, future parents, smart city architects, or young festival managers. And I still — and even more so — believe in design thinking as a very team-oriented working culture for today’s problems.

Brücker: Clearly, in recent years Nestlé has done a lot in trying to create a common culture in innovation, and to spread a common way of thinking when dealing with innovating or solving a problem creatively. Design thinking nowadays is not only used in classical design projects but also as catalyst for organizational change and transformation. Therefore, my team continues the journey, from being responsible for design thinking to define and scale innovation methodologies. Today, we are recognized as an in-house transformation agency to support Nestlé’s IT innovation vision. The team has four priorities:

  1. Innovation as a Service: Become a trusted innovation partner in Nestlé by facilitating business teams on strategic innovation initiatives
  2. Innovation Academy: Build the skills, behaviors, mindsets, and culture to enable everyone across the organization to deliver innovation as a service
  3. Innovation Tools: Develop expertise and reputation in innovation methodologies, tools, and trends to ensure state-of-the art innovation acceleration across the organization
  4. Innovation Ecosystem: Create the conditions that allow human creativity and curiosity to thrive in diverse communities with internal and external partners

The Design at Business team program seeks to empower people with the capability to foster a user-centric way of working that will encourage a culture of innovation — inside and outside Nestlé. The academy offers a complete catalogue of learning experiences to best support individuals and teams in their transformation and innovation journeys — hence, the role of the initial design thinking coach has changed a lot. Today, this role means much more than a method expert or moderator role; it has become a role model for change, a real, agile innovation driver.

What would be one or two sentences that best describe each other?

Brücker: When I met Jochen six years ago, we had eye-opening sessions that helped my team identify new opportunities for my work area at Nestlé. Over time, our good relationship evolved. It is built on trust that has grown with every new experience, with every problem solved, and with every business challenge accepted. I can say that the professional and the personal growth went hand in hand. I have seen Jochen as a truly inspiring and sometimes challenging coach, and as a co-innovation partner we could always rely on. On a personal level, I am just glad that our ways crossed, and that we could make a lot of very exceptional experiences together on our transformation journey.

Gürtler: I know a lot of great design thinkers all around the world, but Jörn is somehow special. He combines deep method knowledge and rich practical experiences in planning and moderating all kinds of formats with an enormous strategic mindset. He has the power and willingness to take on responsibility, to execute, and also to sponsor long-term transformations within his organization. I do not know anybody else with this combination! And, most importantly, Jörn is a good friend of mine.