How SAP Builds Bridges Between Research and Development

Through academic fellowships within the SAP Innovation Center Network, SAP is breaking new ground when it comes to getting academia and business to work together on the problems of the future.

Prof. Mathias Weske, head of Business Process Technology at the Hasso Plattner Institute at the University of Potsdam, provides insights into his work with SAP.

“My specialty is processes,” shares Weske, who worked as an academic fellow at SAP during a sabbatical over the last six months. “And when it comes to processes, SAP software — with its extensive features and broad coverage — is simply the ideal environment.”

“To put it bluntly, scientists often create their own problems and then develop solutions for them,” he says. “Research projects only get specific when they address questions from real life. That’s an important reason for me why industry and academia should work more closely together.”

Businesses also have major interest in collaborating with experts from the research field.

“Technical innovation moves so quickly that we at SAP need to work closely together with academic experts, to evaluate early on whether we should invest time and resources in a budding topic,” explains Dr. Matthias Uflacker, head of the SAP Innovation Center in Munich.

Academic fellowships from the SAP Innovation Center Network were conceived with this very thing in mind, he continues: “Instead of starting a five-year project on a technological trend and not knowing how it will develop, or whether it will even be relevant for SAP in two or three years, we can utilize external expertise very well in the framework of six- to 12-month academic fellowships.”

Weske, a computer scientist, first got involved with the technical modeling of processes after being accepted as a postdoc at the University of Muenster. After his first professorship at the Eindhoven University of Technology, where he concentrated on business process management (BPM) within service-oriented software architectures, Weske was appointed to the Hasso Plattner Institute of the University of Potsdam in 2001.

“I’ve been there for over 20 years now,” says Weske. “We deal with software systems that support especially knowledge-intensive, flexible business processes. Knowledge workers are the focus of these systems: they have major leeway in process execution and can even decide to deviate from a predefined process.”

Under the central theme of addressing real-world BPM problems with formal approaches and engineering useful prototypes, Weske and his group solicits specific questions from their collaboration with industry partners. Instead of conducting purely theoretical research, the group actually builds software itself.

“We have spawned a number of spinoffs, including Signavio,” says Weske.

Inspired by Wikipedia, Professor Weske and his group began working on web modeling for processes around 2004. “It’s a kind of online reference work for processes,” says Weske about the idea. “It was intended for use by anyone, without requiring installation. We were fortunate that browser technology was so advanced back then that it could execute programs as well.” In 2009, the solution was spun off from the Hasso Plattner Institute under the name Signavio, which was acquired by SAP in 2021.

This acquisition has had no small impact on process intelligence at SAP. Uflacker confirms: “We have to set the course now if we want to defend our thought leadership in this area and help shape new trends. That’s why it was an easy choice to work with Weske as an academic fellow in this area.”

Due to the traditionally close cooperation between Hasso Plattner Institute and the SAP Innovation Center Network, Weske was already known to many of the SAP employees whom he worked with during his academic fellowship. “My academic fellowship at SAP taught me once again how important networks are. After all, the topic of processes has many points of reference throughout SAP.”

Uflacker underscores this: “From products like Signavio to a variety of innovation projects in the process mining and analytics area, this topic is spreading throughout our company. We highly benefit from Weske’s knowledge and experience when it comes to launching research-related projects at SAP and supporting new ideas.”

In one example, the topic of composable enterprise is being researched in depth with the New Ventures & Technologies area. It involves the ability to compose processes dynamically as needed, like exchangeable modules. Among his other activities, Weske contributed to a research project here with a horizon of five to 10 years, which the SAP Innovation Center Potsdam is pursuing.

“Of course, it’s still too soon to tackle specific technical implementations,” says Weske. “But I hope that I was able to help with understanding the fundamentals and with the system design.”

Weske was also involved in Signavio-related activities. “I’m proud to see that Signavio is being deployed, integrated, and enhanced in so many places at SAP,” he says. “During my academic fellowship, one of our focuses was exploring how data gained from process mining can be used for process analysis.” In the area of event log generation, Weske and Signavio conducted a survey among SAP employees to identify the most important questions involving this topic at SAP.

The fellowship has opened up new possibilities, encouraging the collaboration to continue. In ideal research, a finished project is always the start of something new, says Weske: “The white paper on the event log survey raised a number of questions that can be pursued as part of doctoral or master’s theses from my group.”

This, too, is an important incentive for academics like Weske to work together with SAP and other companies. “When we as a research institution point out what companies we work with; that our doctoral candidates, master’s candidates, and postdocs don’t stay confined to ivory towers, but that what they do has the potential to be implemented and used by thousands of people, then we can attract outstanding talents.

Uflacker hopes to expand the academic fellowship program in future: “We at SAP want to acquire targeted expertise for strategically relevant projects. We’re looking for international experts for this program.

“SAP is an outstanding partner for academic cooperation, not least due to the wealth of features in its software,” says Weske. “This type of fellowship benefits both sides.”