Interview with Ingrid-Helen Arnold, President SAP Business Data Network


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 4 2016)

In view of the digital economy and the Cloud, CIOs are today taking on important strategic leadership roles. Forward-looking CIOs have recognised that the Cloud is here to stay. For this reason, they are preparing their companies for a digital future that will be characterised by constant change, at the same time also endeavouring to achieve solid results. As innovators, they step out of the traditional role of the implementation manager and consult their companies on how they can exploit new technologies to tap into innovations. They enable new forms of collaboration and future-oriented business models. The software corporation SAP has now moved to the USA to establish a new business model. There, the enterprise is currently creating a new division focused on the business of data. Ingrid-Helen Arnold knows what she is talking about. She was CIO at SAP for many years and meanwhile heads up the new unit in Palo Alto. She spoke to us about the background and details of the venture.

Ms Arnold, why is SAP now becoming involved in an area that focuses exclusively on data? 

Today, innovations comprising data and their intelligent utilisation are a decisive competitive factor – practically the key element on the path to digital transformation. The consequence: companies of all kinds and sizes are asking themselves the question of how they can use the available data to generate added value in the form of new business models, efficiency improvements and innovations. Fundamentally, it is therefore about supporting our customers in implementing their data strategy and developing new data-driven business models with comprehensive solutions and implementation strategies. The technologies are available and must be intelligently exploited – it is now about gaining the impetus to get the implementation going.

How much preparation time have you allowed yourself for this?

In the case of innovative topics such as this, it is not a long preparation period that is decisive, it is much more a case of the need for a rethinking process. We do not have to ring-fence everything or analyse and minimise all the risks in advance. What’s important is that we move swiftly. ‘Getting things done’ describes this quite well. We are not talking about protracted implementation projects but about fast prototyping with a design thinking approach where the end user is the focus. Anything that does not directly benefit the customer is always critically questioned and the strategy continually adapted to market developments. Data-driven business models are completely new ground for most companies. We have entered the market very early here, something that is evident in discussions with customers, analysts and venture capital companies.

What is the purpose of your new strategic orientation? 

Our purpose is simple: we want to support our customers in bringing the potential in the data to the surface and in using it to create drivers for innovative business models and growth. This is our constant mission and our primary objective.

What are the first steps on this path? What are the fixed milestones?

The steps are very concrete. We are working on several projects that focus on concrete problems. We deploy an agile method – ‘design thinking’ – and start out from the concrete business problem to be solved, progressing through to the required data pools and data flows. Within just a few weeks, we construct a prototype, which we test with our customers at a very early stage, and then immediately incorporate the feedback. To this end, we very swiftly create a product that we can expand in very fast cycles even after market launch.

With how many people have you kicked off this new project? To what extent do you want to grow in this area in the foreseeable future?

We are working in small agile teams of ten and are carrying out several projects in parallel. Here, one important success factor is the focus on customer benefit. Our ‘teams of 10’ work in a cross-functional way and integrate customers and partners and their respective teams from the very outset. Classic ‘departmental thinking’ is alien to us, and the structures are per se oriented on collaboration. Networking is a further important success factor because you learn something new with each and every contact, opening up and revealing new options and possibilities. 

Initially, it is often unclear what data, and of what quality, are actually even available, under what conditions the data may be used, what new knowledge can be acquired through intelligent processing and how we can generate value from this. It is for these reasons that it is all about ‘trial and error’: achieving results as quickly as possible, conducting validation with customers at an early stage and dropping anything that doesn’t work. Our outstanding strength is our dynamism. 

The name SAP stands for efficient process design by intelligently exploiting
technology. A value that will also be the basis of your new division. What benefits will your customers derive from this collaboration?

That’s right. One of the most important factors for developing innovations focused on data-driven business models is combining intelligent technology with data analysis and process knowledge. Based on our profound business process knowledge, we transform big data into smart data, creating the basis for new business models. 

Primarily, it is always about securing competitiveness in an increasingly data-driven economy. Customers benefit in numerous respects. By means of complete transparency and knowing where processes are not working well in a benchmark comparison, we can implement efficiency improvements faster and in a considerably more targeted manner. Let me underline that with an example. We have a service focusing on contingent workforce. This service provides our customers with total transparency in terms of resource availability, the average time for successfully filling a vacancy and the prices for specific job profiles. As a result of these, contingent workforce-intensive events can be accurately planned, processes can be more efficiently designed and bottlenecks can be avoided. The service also offers real-time simulations, for example whenever projects are to be relocated to other sites. What impact would this have on the result? They can see how our services make a direct contribution to improving the process by means of the intelligent exploitation of data.

How do you access in advance the data required for this and how do you uncover exclusively relevant contents?

We have an extremely target-oriented approach that is always aimed at the specific business problem we have to solve. On the basis of the concrete problem, we then acquire the data flow which in turn points directly to the data pools and further details such as, for instance, data quality, data protection, etc. In parallel, our Data Science Team is working on problem solving. This can be very diverse in nature – which is why the user, the person for whom we are solving the problem, is also of the greatest relevance. Together with the end user, short, iterative cycle designs are developed to visualise the results. 

How do you manage to ultimately translate the huge amount of content into meaningful information? 

It is not the ocean of big data that is exciting here – however, being able to swim in it certainly is. It is all about intelligently and efficiently deploying an ever-growing volume of data. This requires big data and analytics methods as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence – these are the key elements on the path to unveiling the intelligence behind the data. What stories do the data tell us? Things become interesting when I deploy algorithms for very specific business application cases and do not merely analyse the facts. When – on the basis of the data – forecasting models and simulation models are run, companies are enabled to adjust to change in a timely manner and the impact of various action alternatives can be calculated in real time and recommendations can be provided. 

How do you in turn transfer these to your clientele?

The solutions are all-encompassing and run on the Cloud. Our platform provides the data in customer-specific spaces, so-called protected workspaces. Here, access authorisations, security and anonymity are ensured at the very highest levels. We believe that the added value lies in the findings and the processing, not in the data themselves.

You will be unveiling the first data services to the market in a couple of weeks. How difficult do you think it will be for your company to put down roots here in the US? How do you plan to outdo competitors in the long term?

We are proud that we are now able to launch the first data services after a very short period of time. Everything we do is carried out in close cooperation with our customers, with some actually accompanying us closely throughout development. On the one hand, it is this special relationship of trust with our customers, and on the other hand, the business processes data pool with the profound process knowledge that makes SAP so unique. At the same time, our technology and our knowledge in processing large volumes of data are top-of-the-class. All in all, the perfect combination for playing a leading role in this new market. 

What share of SAP’s overall business will the new data division constitute? To what extent will this correlate with other divisions of the SAP Group?

We clearly see the new division as a growth area and have big plans on which I will be able to report to you in a few months. We work very closely with various divisions of SAP. In part, the results of our analyses are directly integrated into existing products as content. Customers can then ‘consume’ the data services, directly using their familiar applications. 

What appeal did the task of becoming the captain of this ship, in a manner of speaking, personally have for you?

What could be more exciting than setting up a new business and spearheading its success? I am somebody who drives innovations forward with passion and dedication and who wants to change things with unconditional willpower. I am never satisfied with the status quo. At the same time, I am also a realist – for me, what counts is the measurable customer benefit, the speedy implementation of our strong vision in very close collaboration with our customers. Our team is outstanding. I work with many young and talented people in new areas, something that very much enriches my life. I didn’t hesitate for one second when the SAP Executive Board asked me to take on this task. Also because I am convinced that data-driven business models are the future of business and the basis for progress – globally. Our customers are demanding comprehensive solutions. And we provide this tremendous benefit. 

What was it like for you to move from the German site in Walldorf to Silicon Valley, one of the most important IT and high-tech regions in the world?

I had, of course, been to Silicon Valley numerous times in the past. Working and living here is, however, something completely different. The way of thinking and the mentality make the difference, the mind-set is determined by convinced entrepreneurs, risk-takers who think in terms of opportunities and possibilities rather than in processes, rules and general conditions. Get stuck in, rather than think about the consequences and risks. Here, there is a fundamental spirit of innovation and a euphoria for trying out new things. Anything is possible – and if things are not successful from time to time, then you have to try something different. 

Those looking for and trying out the new and the great will occasionally fail. That’s part of the process. The speed with which things are implemented is incredible. This mentality, coupled with the incredible pool of talented people, is the ideal environment in which to cultivate our still relatively small, but fast-growing, plant and to reveal the innovations in data. 

If you had to describe your everyday working life in just a few words, what would they be?

No two days are the same. Three things are decisive when setting up a new business: entrepreneurial spirit with a clear vision, an absolute focus on the customer and – the most important success factor of all – the team. My everyday working life comprises all aspects. From defining the strategy, appointments with customers and potential partners, recruiting new team members all the way through to the tiniest operational details – it is constantly about making decisions in an environment of uncertainty. And even if my days are long – I really enjoy my work and would not want to do anything else. 

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Ingrid-Helen Arnold was called to the Managing Board as President of SAP Business Data Network in April 2016, commissioned with establishing a new global ‘data-as-a service’ business for SAP. Between May 2014 and April 2016, she was a member of the Global Managing Board as SAP’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Process Officer of SAP SE. As an innovation leader with comprehensive experience in how the company redefines its business practices, Ingrid-Helen Arnold has always continually driven forward the topic of innovation over the years.

Picture credit © SAP/Ingo Cordes

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