The Platform And The Swarm: Strategy For Continuous Finance Innovation

Joel Bernstein

In my time here with the finance group at SAP, we have made tremendous strides in our digital transformation. One lesson I’ve learned throughout all the change is that innovation never ends – and if it does, beware.

It is natural enough to work toward a specific goal and desire a sense of completion. The urge to stick a flag in the ground and declare “mission accomplished” is hard to resist. With digital transformation, however, such celebratory moments can mask the work that remains.

Making transformation continuous

Here, the distinction between “continual” and “continuous” is instructive. “Continual” means something that is repeated but with breaks in between. “Continuous” means something that goes on without interruption.

We keep this distinction in mind as we pursue our own transformation within the finance group at SAP. Taking stock of where we stand with our efforts, we recently found that in many areas, we had pushed only 80% of the way toward completion.

The upshot was that a number of people had been left continuing to do manual tasks on top of absorbing increased work due to growth. By now, our people are conditioned to seek automation wherever possible. Nobody wants to be stuck doing lower-value work on top of their day job – least of all our seasoned pros who could be dedicating their energies to higher-level activities.

Focusing on the customer experience

So, what was the issue? To find out, we dove into an analysis of our end-to-end financial process in support of the customer’s purchasing journey. This process ranges from opportunity to cash – from the moment a salesperson identifies a prospect to the time payment is received on a product delivered. Along the way, we have steps such as pricing, quote creation, deal approvals, cross-border tax calculations, order booking, revenue recognition, and much more.

In all, about 25 different teams across multiple organizations touch this process. In and of itself, this is perfectly fine – required, in fact. What we realized we lacked, however, was a sense of ownership for this “service” on behalf of the customer.

The question became: Who owns the customer service for finance at SAP? If nobody owns it, then nobody is working on behalf of the customer to continuously innovate and optimize the way things are done from the customer perspective.

Not that we had ignored innovation or improvement projects. To the contrary, we had many in the works – normally pursued by especially motivated people who identified the need for innovation within their own responsibilities in customer service. Typically, they also drove individual projects forward in their spare time, in addition to their day job. Something needed to change.

Institutionalizing innovation

Toward that end, we are now pioneering a structure that is split between two main parts: the “platform” and the “swarm.”

The design principle of the platform is an obsession with the customer. The platform is where services are delivered – where day-to-day transactions get executed to complete the end-to-end process I’ve described. Across this process, some of our best people are engaged in the daily activities of making sure the steps are executed. Many of them have worked on multiple aspects of the process over the years. These people – the ones who have cross-functional experience – have the best vantage point on what can work better for our customers. Additionally, we have added employee exchange programs to enhance each team’s understanding along a process.

Today, on a rotating basis, a subset of these people will be repurposed for the swarm. Budget will be provided to hire “early talent” onto the platform, supplementing resources assigned to the swarm. Naturally, this allows for a development path – but it also allows the swarm to focus full time on continuous innovation. The swarm’s job is to get innovation done and move it to the platform.

In addition, we also have the “plexus,” responsible for providing a structure for prioritizing specific innovation topics. It is important to note, however, that the plexus is not a governance body that puts the breaks on innovation. The swarm is encouraged to push onward. “Fail if you have to,” we say. “Just keep iterating and driving change – no regularly scheduled PowerPoint presentations, no heavy governance meetings needed.”

For continuous innovation focused on the customer, this structure works quite well.

  • Innovation gets funded: The work of the swarm has its own budget, and platform resources are backfilled. There is no scrambling to secure funding for an idea. This approach institutionalizes our commitment to innovation on an ongoing basis.
  • Testing gets done: In the past, testing for innovation projects was often put off for nights and weekends – with people committing time on top of their regular duties. Depending on individual heroics, however, is no recipe for sustainable transformation. Today, testing (and thus, quality) is an integral part of the swarm’s job.
  • Emerging talent gets exposure: As experienced finance people are pulled into the swarm, our newer recruits get a turn at the helm of the platform. The exposure is great training. And as these beginners interact with the swarm to test and implement new innovations, they get acclimated to the culture of continuous change that is always striving to deliver what’s best for the customer.

Moving forward, we expect the platform and the swarm (and the plexus) to deliver the innovation we need – continuously. Our goal is to help SAP make it easier for our customers to innovate and transform – so that they, in turn, can deliver the kind of experiences their own customers expect and demand. Although we don’t have all the answers around this new model, it’s hard to argue that a finance organization shouldn’t make an investment in full-time innovation.

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Joel Bernstein

About Joel Bernstein

Joel Bernstein is the CFO for SAP Global Field Finance, which includes responsibilities in the Cloud Business Group, Digital Business Services, and Global Customer Operations. In this role, he is responsible for leading the financial activities and profitable revenue growth for the company’s customer go-to-market organization and driving financial support for the Cloud and Professional Services organization. Joel’s direct Field Finance organization includes all finance functions in the multiple regions and market units worldwide for all SAP revenue-generating businesses. Prior to being promoted into this global position, Joel served as CFO for the SAP North America region. There he led all field finance-related activities for the United States and Canada. An accomplished finance professional, Joel earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting at Wilkes University. He is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Joel is an ardent supporter of SAP’s social corporate responsibility initiatives, often serving as the executive sponsor for programs that connect SAP employees in the communities where they live and work. Reflective of that commitment, Joel is a member of The Franklin Institute’s Board of Trustees, an esteemed organization founded in 1824 whose mission is to inspire a passion for learning about science and technology.