The SAP University Alliances program supports universities seeking to expose students to real-world scenarios they are likely experience in the professional world. Six MBA students from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., recently tackled business problems provided by SAP Innovation Center Network.
“For SAP, as a tech company, academia is a most valuable partner,” said André Biener from SAP University Alliances. “SAP University Alliances was founded in order to facilitate exchange between SAP and the academic world. We want to spread knowledge among students about both our company and our technologies.”
One way to achieve this is through projects with the SAP Next-Gen initiative, which bring university students in direct contact with teams from SAP.
Nearly three years ago, Professor Sezer Ülkü, then associate professor of Operations and Information Management at Georgetown University, was looking for a technology company with which to collaborate.
“At Georgetown University, global residencies are a mandatory part of our MBA curriculum,” Ülkü explained. “For about three months, the students get to work in teams of four to five people on a real problem faced by a real company. The goal is for the students to make use of all the tools and methods they learned during their MBA program. For residencies, we typically pick developing countries — India, Turkey, Latin American countries — but we also go to places like China and Israel.
When Ülkü was going to launch a new location three years ago, his choice landed on Berlin: “The tech and startup scene make it an exciting place, and you have all that history and the multinational atmosphere on top.”
“Coming to Germany and not working with SAP was out of question,” said Ülkü, who did an internship with the company in Walldorf, Germany, and Palo Alto, California, in 1999. “Not only is SAP one of the biggest tech players worldwide, it also has particularly innovative teams and company locations in and near Berlin.”
André Biener is regional director of Germany, Austria and Switzerland (DACH) within SAP University Alliances, responsible for the collaboration with academic institutions in Berlin and the eastern parts of Germany within the program. He set out to connect Ülkü with SAP.
“Interested SAP teams have to come up with a problem worth working on and be willing to invest a little bit of their time into guiding and advising the students, most of the time remotely,” Biener explained. SAP Innovation Center Network, which seeks to contextualize emerging trends and technologies for SAP and has eight locations worldwide, was quick to answer the call.
“At SAP Innovation Center Network, we have a strong interest in collaborating with international academia,” Matthias Uflacker, director of Academic Partnerships for SAP Innovation Center Network, said. “We profit immensely from the new insights and ideas that students from outside SAP bring us.”
Uflacker is responsible for engagement models with academia such as Stanford University, MIT, and the Technical University of Munich.
“Where SAP University Alliances tries to position SAP in academic education, SAP Innovation Center Network is interested in getting input from students and academic research,” he said. “Our mission and SAP University Alliances’ complete each other. So, when André came to us, we immediately wanted to be part of this project with Georgetown University.”
Two teams from SAP came up with project ideas for students to work on: the role of ethics in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and how to evaluate investments by SAP into cutting-edge innovation. Uflacker and his colleague Nicole Helmer supported the students working on the latter.
“How to spot ‘next big thing’ opportunities in the very early stages is of great interest to SAP Innovation Center Network and to SAP,” Helmers said. “We have people working on this in multiple parts of SAP and inside SAP Innovation Center Network but having additional resources that bring external perspectives and profiles we don’t necessarily already employ is great. We wanted to learn from how other people answer this big question and what current academic research says. They can question the way we do things and we can see behind our own invented biases.”
At Georgetown, 270 MBA students were presented with projects from companies in seven countries. They bid for the projects and were matched according to their wishes.
“SAP came up with two especially interesting questions to work on,” Ülkü said. “All our students were really interested in what they were going to do. SAP University Alliances made sure that everything worked well on both sides, that the students asked the right questions and were ready for the meetings.”
“I think of the students as a little consultancy trying to understand the challenge and the reasons why this is a challenge to us,” Helmer said. “It was five people from around the world. We met with them remotely in January to kick off the project and calibrate what our expectations were and what they could deliver in terms of scoping.”
The students worked remotely for about two and a half months, supported by Biener in Berlin and Helmer in Atlanta. They had bi-weekly touchdowns with the sponsors from SAP for progress checks and questions.
“The students had a list of companies similar to SAP that they spoke to,” Helmer said. “They also contacted venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. The framework could be applied to assess opportunity potential with regards to new technologies.”
About seven weeks into the project, the students came to Berlin just before COVID-19 would have prevented the journey.
“It was a great experience,” Ülkü said. “We spent an afternoon at the SAP Innovation Center in Potsdam, where some great speakers gave insights into how SAP works. André was a great host. He spent a lot of time with the students, showing them not only SAP Berlin but also the city.”
Dr. Katharina Schaefer, global head of SAP University Alliances, explained: “The usual setup for this kind of SAP Next-Gen project would be an SAP customer providing a challenge to students that involves an SAP technology. Supported by SAP University Alliances, the students then work on a solution. In the case of Georgetown University, SAP was the customer.”
The outcome of the student work was a framework with criteria for making a decision built on research and comparison with other companies from related industries.
“It has happened with other companies that projects were not well thought out or were not well supported, but that wasn’t the case with SAP,” Ülkü said. “The students received great problems to work on and great support while doing so.”
“What we offer is a learning experience,” Schaefer said. “We want to inspire young people to engage themselves with SAP technologies and business challenges from the real world.”
“The students got to apply the things they learned in their MBA program and SAP advised and steered their efforts as well as answered their questions,” Ülkü said. “I would definitely recommend working with SAP University Alliances to other professors.”