Providing a financial forecast for the current fiscal year is considered one of the most complex and challenging tasks in a company’s finance department. Expectations tied to the introduction of new automation and machine learning technologies to simplify the whole process are high. However, many companies are also concerned about long development cycles, the high cost of implementation, and the risks involved.

To help address these problems, SAP introduced SAP Business Challenge Network, which builds bridges between SAP customers and academic partners to develop new and innovative solutions for complex business challenges in a relatively short time.

“The classic ‘plan-build-run’ paradigm may still be present throughout the IT world, but under today’s fast-paced market conditions, the innovation cycle needs to be sped up,” Elisabeth Lueth, lead of SAP Business Challenge Network, said.

With its obvious potential for automation, Lueth considers the financial forecast a very good challenge for academic young talent to address: “This project fits exactly what we at the SAP Business Challenge Network have committed ourselves to: Connect our customers to future talent in order to turn data into insights.”

New and Beneficial Way to Intensify Customer Relations

Over the course of 10 weeks, 16 students from Dartmouth College worked on the challenge of applying SAP Business Technology Platform (SAP BTP) machine learning and predictive technologies, such as SAP Analytics Cloud, to the financial data provided by Siemens. They were supported by mentors from Siemens, SAP, and Dartmouth with whom they were in bi-weekly contact.

SAP BTP is the platform for the Intelligent Enterprise and the foundation for all SAP applications. SAP BTP powers customers to become intelligent enterprises through integration, extension, and data-to-value from all SAP and third-party application and data assets while helping ensure customers’ long-term success through agility, value creation, and continual innovation.

“Each of the groups that participated in this hackathon came up with interesting insights,” shared Sebastian Schaumberg, financial analyst for Siemens Digital Manufacturing. “We were deeply impressed by the result the winning team presented to us. Their prediction model offers a very promising basis for further exploration.”

“Leveraging our financial data from the last three years, five students managed to develop a model to predict the course of our current fiscal year with an accuracy of 99%,” said Carsten Speckmann, head of Finance, Siemens Digital Manufacturing. “We now have a very promising starting point as to how to approach such an ambitious project.”

Schaumberg went on to explain the multiple benefits the model could offer to Siemens’ finance department. “For starters, the immense effort that currently goes into our forecast could be greatly reduced. Ideally, the forecast will become available by the push of a button in the future. Also, the purely mathematical construct of this model would eliminate distorting effects due to individual appraisals that are currently part of any prognosis.”

Carsten Hahn, senior director of Technology and Innovation at SAP, was also pleased with the results: “Siemens has been a customer of SAP for many years. This project was a unique opportunity to get to know and understand Siemens and its challenges even better. At the same time, the solutions that the students of one of the most renowned engineering schools came up with have far exceeded our expectations.”

Business Challenge from the Real World

The Dartmouth students participating in the hackathon had already gained theoretical knowledge about data-driven solution models for precisely the sort of challenge Siemens and SAP presented to them. Now, they were given the chance to apply their skills to actual data from an actual company under the tutelage of experts from SAP and Siemens.

Giselle Perkowski, one of the students, said, “This project allowed us to learn multiple types of machine learning techniques and apply our knowledge to real-world applications.”

Their professor, Geoffrey G. Parker, added, “Partnering with companies with enterprise technology, data, and real problems to solve offers the students an opportunity to immediately apply what they learn. This creates a linkage between what firms are looking for and the student experience. The SAP and Siemens teams are a joy to work with. This is a great partnership and a template upon which we can build and extend.”

Overcoming Difficulties Together

“The collaboration with SAP was very constructive and cooperative from the start,” Schaumberg said, while also acknowledging that there were some issues on both sides. “During the initial phase, we had some trouble at Siemens providing the data. Our financial data was relatively unstructured and – together with our internal reporting structure and the forecast process – that was a bit much for the students. Over time, we structured our data more thoroughly and narrowed it down.”

Using SAP Analytics Cloud also was a challenge for the students in the beginning, as they were not yet familiar with the tool and its functionalities. “Most of these issues were solved by the close collaboration, even though they did cost us approximately three to four weeks of development time,” Schaumberg explained.

The collaboration among Siemens, SAP, and Dartmouth College is not finished just yet. “Our goal now is to develop a common approach for Siemens and SAP to improve the model further and make it applicable,” Speckmann said. To do so, Siemens and SAP met again at the end of September for ongoing discussion on on the further development of the model, with the students from the winning team joining remotely.

As the pipeline for SAP Business Challenge Network fills up with similar projects for 2022, Anja Schneider, chief operating officer for Technology and Innovation at SAP, emphasized that the program is open to all SAP customers with the goal to jointly develop solutions based on SAP BTP: “Our project with Siemens shows the new ways to create value for the customer this symbiotic online collaboration network can provide them.”

Florian Roth, chief information officer of SAP and co-sponsor of the program, confirmed: “We want to make this program available to many more students and universities globally.”