Prof. Dr. Sonja Salmen (Steinbeis) (left) and Katrin Redmann (SAP SE)


Steinbeis experts conduct research at the Next-Gen Lab on the education campus in Heilbronn

Can using more efficient, purely digital solutions optimize or even replace complex offline innovation processes? This is the question being examined by an interdisciplinary, international think tank called the SAP Next-Gen Lab on the education campus in Heilbronn. The test lab is looking at new types of digital methods and “innovation generation” techniques. Its goal is to revolutionize established offline innovation processes and methods by turning to cloud-based solutions with the aim of creating unique products, services, and smart business models for small and medium-sized business – and doing this more cost-efficiently. One way to achieve this is to use cloud-based software to come up with innovations through new methods, approaches, and use cases. The Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation is a partner of the Next-Gen Lab.

The Next-Gen Lab sees itself as a kind of micro testbed for international, interdisciplinary, application-centric transfer research that transcends different universities in order to come up with methods and approaches for developing sustainable innovations in the cloud. Experts at the micro testbed are currently researching the possibility of digitalizing two approaches: Science Fiction & Design Thinking and Business Model Innovation. These are being looked at as a part of interdisciplinary, exploratory, experimental studies and involve analyzing methods in multi-generation teams of students, scientists, and experts from actual business practice.

This application-based secondary research on developing investigated methods and procedure models is aimed at generating digital, disruptive innovations and is being carried out in collaboration with SAP Germany, Cisco Systems, Vico Research & Consulting, and Lamano, plus universities, research institutions on the Heilbronn education campus, and other international partners such as MatchLab from the United States.

This is where the experts at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation come in with their specialist know-how. Depending on the focus of research, they are testing new kinds of cloud-based software systems, working with partners and testers on an interdisciplinary level to look at things such as compatibility, the user experience, usability, and expandability in actual application areas with respect to generating innovations.


The micro testbed provides all of the partners involved in the project with a kind of “forum of trust” that makes it possible to pinpoint overlapping interests and develop joint solutions which correspond with the expectations of all partners. The companies work in testbeds pragmatically, as partners, and across all sectors of industry in order to realize and experiment with common value creation scenarios in a real business setting and experiment in ways that have not been tried out before. In doing so, the focus lies in using small application scenarios. This makes it possible to come up with new types of products and services within the context of digital technology and networking. It’s an approach that has already been found to work and has already been used successfully a number of times at the Ferdinand-Steinbeis-Institute (FSTI), which belongs to the Steinbeis Foundation.

The transfer research conducted at the Next-Gen Lab allows partners from industry, medium-sized firms, research institutions, and startups from all sectors of industry to act as customers or research partners. They are called Challenge Providers.

Complex applications no longer need to be set up or maintained “on demand” or “as a service” by companies or universities themselves. At the same time, this approach minimizes investment and security risks. This comes hand in hand with reductions in the implementation and maintenance outlays of new types of IT applications, since infrastructure and applications can simply be taken from the cloud for a small investment. Cloud computing, the internet of things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) offer new approaches to optimizing workplaces in a way that adds value. They also pave the way for collaborative working methods based on smart networks of self-controlled equipment and applications. Approximately 60% of people working in Germany believe that their current IT workplace no longer meets necessary requirements (PAC 2017).

It is predicted that digital transformation of the workplace could raise productivity by up to 33% and reduce delivery costs by 26% (IDC 2016).

One important factor when optimizing digital collaboration is the ability of existing applications to allow different communication channels to be integrated, not just within the right context, but also across different manufacturers (e.g. voice communication, video, persistent messaging, chatbots, whiteboards). In an economy based on collaborative networks, straightforward interaction is essential across different value chains and companies, and this must come with coherent identity management and end-to-end encryption.

The Next-Gen Lab is still developing – and doing so successfully. In September, Prof. Dr. Sonja Salmen, director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation, was asked to head up the Chapter of Digital Design Thinking & Business Model Innovation and thus represent a lighthouse location: “The SAP Next-Gen Lab on the education campus in Heilbronn can now consider itself an innovation hotspot of the worldwide Next-Gen community. These hotspots stand for tried-and-tested methods that help forge and promote links between industrial partners and academic thought leaders, researchers, students, startups, partners from the tech community, partners, and SAP experts – all with a shared purpose,” explains Salmen. Her work on transfer research will involve working alongside specialists from the Steinbeis Network, colleagues at universities, and industrial enterprises to conduct interdisciplinary, international studies on accelerating innovation as part of the SAP University Alliance Community. This innovation ecosystem allows Challenge Providers to realize new kinds of sustainable products and services faster and more intuitively. They can also engage in brainstorming sessions, science fiction methods, design thinking, business meetings, and different phases of business model innovation processes.


The experts at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation have conducted experimental studies with over 50 specialists and managers since 2015. One thing all studies had in common was the outcome: The digital customer experience and innovation can be realized globally for a small time and money investment, and it will be accepted by business and science. The underlying technologies used for the experimental studies were SAP Jam, Cisco(r) WebEx Meetings and Teams, and a selection of special software solutions. The pilot studies were conducted within the context of several research projects: Smart Homes for Best Agers (partner: Stuttgart Chamber of Craft Industries); A Self-Integration Platform for Migration to the EU (a startup concept); Digital Sales Innovation in Stationary Wholesaling (partner: Transgourmet Deutschland); Reconciling Careers with Families within the Context of Smart Homes (partner: Better@Home Service).


  • The benefits of online collaboration
    • Substantially shorter meetings since people no longer need to travel; more straightforward preparation
    • No disadvantages when it comes to implementing creative tasks with digital technology; blending learning methods appear particularly promising
    • Shorter iteration cycles possible during projects – especially relevant with respect to the rapid pace of AI-centric change
    • Practical experiences with research projects are replacing preconceptions regarding inefficient online collaboration
    • Digital added value: Automatic documentation makes it easier to concentrate on active collaboration; possibility to export materials; integration of digital content; different ways to offer feedback; surveys; presentation options
  • The benefits for industrial partners in the innovation ecosystem
    • The business units of industrial partners receive support with innovation
    • Customer behavior forecasting provides customers with an inexpensive option for making personalized products and services available in advance
    • Development of novel and new kinds of business fields, products, and services
    • The customer experience makes it easier to realize more fail-safe innovations and services
    • Functional prototypes can be made to showcase innovative products or services
  • The benefits for SMEs and education bodies in the innovation ecosystem
    • A space for experimentation and proactively trying out a culture of failure, ICT tech, network leadership, and new techniques – without risk
    • Employees become ambassadors of new tech-driven innovation methods Digitalization potential becomes tangible
    • Media skills for students, company employees, and professors
    • Development of ideas for introducing innovative, new kinds of research and learning
    • Research projects in partnership with business can be positioned within an interdisciplinary context, across individual or multiple universities
    • Usability testing of collaborative tools
  • The benefits for other industry sponsors in the innovation ecosystem
    • Identification of business opportunities
    • Empowers the next generation of innovative engineers
    • Combines German engineering culture with the spirit of Silicon Valley Integrated within the global innovation network of SAP Next-Gen Labs


Interested in finding out if you’re already reaping the full potential of digital transformation? Find out in no more than 15 minutes by using the Online Quick Check. It’s part of a research project being conducted by Heilbronn University and the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Innovation: Smart Service at SMEs. The quick check is free and you can view your confidential results immediately.

Interested in becoming a Challenge Provider? Are you a specialist interested in experiencing the Next-Gen Lab? Simply get in touch with the authors!



Prof. Dr. Sonja Salmen (author)
Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation (Nordheim)

Alexander Friedrich (author)
Project manager
Steinbeis Consulting Center for Social Media Management & Digital Business Model Innovation (Nordheim)


  • Höttges, T. et al. (2016): What Drives Digitalization, Igarss 2014. doi: 10.1007/978-3-65810640-9.
  • IDC (2016): Advance Workplace Strategies in Germany. IDC Central euros GmbH, Frankfurt.
  • PAC (2017): Digital Trends 2017. From vision to reality! Trend Spotlight, Pierre Audio Consultants PAC GmbH & Swisscom AG, Munich.
  • Rosenburg, A. (2019): Science Fiction: A Starship for Enterprise Innovation (English Edition), Sissel Hansen Publishing, Copenhagen K.