When she joined SAP’s Innovation Centre in 2013, Jessica Baxmann started working with a small team of 30-40 developers who were building new products – effectively acting as a start-up incubator within SAP – supporting them with communications and marketing questions. As the innovation team grew, so did Baxmann’s remit. She is now executive communicator for SAP’s chief innovation officer Juergen Mueller, based in Germany, shaping all SAP’s communications around product and technology innovation. Before joining SAP, Baxmann had a political science background, advising tech companies on political consulting. She talked to the Holmes Report about her experience of building powerful communications around tech and product innovation.

How important is the role of communications in product development and innovation at SAP?

Big corporations constantly have to think about how they can renew themselves so they don’t become obsolete at some point. Companies are vanishing because they don’t take digital transformation seriously. Of course, companies have their core business, but they also have to think about new developments in the market: which ones to bet on, or not to bet on yet, or not to bet on at all. Communications plays a super-important role in all of that. It’s about helping to find the right time to go out and say “We are betting on a certain technology or new business model”, or that a new market is relevant for the business.

For example, in the field of machine learning, which has been an important movement for many industries, you didn’t want to be too early, but didn’t want to be too late to the game either. Communications is a key component of the innovation process, from creating early market awareness and putting a stake in the ground, to onboarding partners and customers and working with them to look at their business problems and where technology can help them make a step change, to later in the development process.

So when is the best time to publicly talk about a new business idea, especially for well-established companies?

There’s no golden rule – there’s a little bit of gut feeling to understand how the market is moving or if there is a public agenda that your activity fits into. Speed can be your friend and your enemy, but in my experience it’s always better to communicate that you plan to do something, that you are exploring a new technology or market and to be transparent throughout the process, including if things don’t work out the way you planned or if the technology isn’t ready yet. Transparency about what you are working on always pays off, and it’s better to communicate too early than too late.

However, where there is big hype around an area like blockchain, don’t feel pressure to talk about it unless you have something to talk about and the business is serious about it. It’s a balance between being credible and being open. Especially for public companies with shareholders, which have to be careful not to irritate the market and claim you’re going big on something the whole time. And if things don’t work out in the way you thought they would, communications can help navigate pivots.

What about attracting talent to companies like SAP so that innovation can happen? What role does communications play there?

The talent question is a big one. Of course, if you bet on a new technological development, you have to have talent to build it. Machine learning, for example, is a fairly new discipline in software engineering and wasn’t really being taught at scale in universities ten years ago. Only huge advances in technology from big data and increased computing power to better algorithms have made it more mainstream. Blockchain – and likely quantum computing – are also important areas.

But technology itself doesn’t create business value: you need the experts to create that. So you might need to go public on your commitment to an innovation early, and be visible and transparent in the market, to attract the talent that can start exploring and building. You might not know exactly what you want to do, and there is a lot of “failing early and failing often” in innovation, but it’s a iterative process and communications plays a key part in that.

In-house comms teams and their agencies often sit on a lot of valuable data and insights – in your experience, can the communications function contribute to product innovation?

Yes, absolutely. Like many big companies in the tech industry and other sectors, we apply the design thinking methodology developed at Stanford. One of the key elements of the methodology is that to come up with innovations that are viable, feasible and desirable, you need to have diverse teams in the process, not just engineers or sales teams deciding what they can build or what customers want.

Communications is an important part of that, because we interact with industry and financial analysts, customers, partners and journalists, and can help feed back where the market is going and how we can develop and improve the product to make it more viable, feasible or desirable.

What can go wrong if communications isn’t embedded fully in the innovation cycle?

It’s no longer an option to not talk about what you are working on at all and then try to go to market with a finished product. If the market isn’t aware that you are even in the field, the worst-case scenario is that you have developed a solution or product for three or four years, no-one has heard of it, you haven’t attracted the right talent on board so it might not even be a top-notch product, and you have no feedback loop to improve the product.

If you’re locked in a room for years and come out and try and develop a position in the market from nothing, there’s a big danger you could have wasted a lot of time and the competition is already ahead of you so it’s even harder to create awareness, especially in the technology industry where the innovation cycle is super-fast.

Technological shifts can have a huge impact on society as well as business. Is there an aspect of social responsibility and education for communicators in this space?

New products and developments in areas like machine learning and AI will of course have bigger implications than a new nail polish, not just on business but on society and the workplace. There’s great potential for automation to take over tedious tasks, and some of the jobs that exist now won’t exist in 20 years. Technology plays an important part in the evolution of society, but as a tech company it’s our job to explain how technology might affect us, and go beyond product or corporate communications to education and engaging constructively in the public conversation.

We joined the Partnership on AI industry consortium, for instance, to contribute to the discussion on how to advance public understanding of AI alongside the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and IBM. Another point on responsibility is that innovative topics can become so attractive they get over-exaggerated as having the potential to solve the world’s problems, so communicators must stay honest and explain what tech can’t do as well as what it can do, rather than indulging in jargon-filled puff pieces.

Finally, can you sum up your three key learnings on how big corporations can best communicate product innovation or new business ideas?

1. Communicate early, but don’t jump on the hype wagon.
2. Be bold and be ready to take some risks.
3. Transparency, honestly and authenticity pay off.