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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- For a little more than a year, Denis Browne and a small team of developers and engineers at SAP have been given carte blanche to dream up, tinker with and ultimately deliver an entirely different breed of applications to complement its core business software franchise.
This group, which SAP (Quote) calls its Imagineering unit, is set up to run just like any other Web 2.0 startup but enjoys the distinct advantage of incubating within the confines of the world's largest enterprise software vendor.
The goal is pretty straightforward: Incorporate new ways of using emerging Web 2.0 technologies to harness the power of its customer relationship management (CRM) (define) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) (define) software into tools that are easy to use, engaging and eminently attractive to an increasingly younger and tech-savvy mix of employees and customers.
"Were focused on bridging the generation gap and figuring out the best ways to engage this new generation of digital natives who are ADD -- and have their IM and their iPods and multiple other things going all at once -- to find out how they will work in the enterprise of the future," Browne, Imagineering's senior vice president, said in an interview with internetnews.com.
"We're also tapping into the wisdom of the crowd through social networking, blogs, wikis, widgets and portals, all these things that blend together to provide the underpinning for tapping into knowledge inside and outside the enterprise," he said.
Browne said he loves all of Imagineering's projects but is "super hot" for a slew of enterprise widgets designed to piggyback on the immense concentration of customer data stored within its customers' ERP and CRM systems.
On Wednesday, a trio of these new widgets were launched for use by about 20 of the company's North American sales representatives. The relatively small rollout was by design because, Browne said, SAP wants to see just how viral these handy tools will become without artificial saturation.
One of the widgets, called My Pipeline, was designed for sales managers who need to keep tabs on their small army of sales representives. A nifty interface allows the sales manager to quickly check on the progress of individual reps as they make their way from customer to customer, providing an at-a-glance view of existing or potential deals in the sales pipeline.
My Open License Opportunities tells sales reps what it is they've already sold to the company, what else they should be trying to sell and when existing licenses are up for renewal. Contacts is what it sounds like: a quick synopsis of who's who and what's what that salespeople can access in a few minutes just ahead of a sales call rather than launching the entire, cumbersome CRM system.
Taking it a step farther, a mash-up of third-party data from, for example, Google Maps could be incorporated so that a salesperson would not only have all the key customer data and licensing information but also the most efficient driving directions for hitting every sales call throughout the afternoon.
Imagineering also birthed the company's first social-networking site, Harmony. Browne said a little more than half of the 1,700 SAP employees working in its North American Labs division are logging on to the site to share information.
Some use Harmony to place and respond to classified ads selling personal items. Others are establishing communities with shared interests like ping-pong or cycling. Still others are actually using it for real business issues like discovering who is most familiar with AJAX programming or who has worked on ERP implementations at specific customer sites.
"The point of it all is to figure out the answer to the $64 million question: will social networking work in the corporate environment," Browne said.
Finally, there's the Second Life thing. Second Life, the virtual world game/community/marketing Petri dish, already has been infiltrated by a number of large corporations including SAP, Cisco Systems(Quote)and IBM (Quote). Many these companies, including a large number of corporations outside the information technology industry, are holding virtual press conferences or product releases in this virtual world, trying to build their brands and, occasionally sell some product.
"I've been thinking about Second Life for a long time, hunting to find something," Browne said. "I knew there was a there, there. I just couldn't crack it."
But Browne said inspiration came from one of SAP's clients, the Swiss construction firm Implenia, which builds skyscrapers and athletic stadiums around the globe. An Implenia developer built a real-life, fully functional dollhouse and replicated it in Second Life, complete with a garage-door opener, light switches, temperature gauges and other details.
The idea is that when a light bulb burns out in real-life it also burns out in the Second Life version.
Take the dollhouse out of the equation and replace it with a $400 million soccer stadium and, instead of spending between 100,000 to 130,000 euros for a small-scale, physical mockup of the proposed stadium, the design and modification of these enormous construction projects can be accomplished for a fraction of the cost and still deliver a realistic rendering of the proposed building.
"Obviously this is still a long way out but it does get us thinking about something that may be a new class of services for our customers," Browne said.
This article was first published on InternetNews.com.