SAP Develops Workforce of the Future

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SAP employees share their knowledge with the crowd at SAP Mentors TechEd Las Vegas in 2012.
SAP employees share their knowledge with the crowd at SAP Mentors TechEd Las Vegas in 2012.

Can a capitalist society, emerging from a legacy of exploitation of both planet and workers, give rise to companies that value the unique gifts that each employee brings to the table, rather than molding them into cogs in a giant machine as they once did? These two workforce management approaches just might be the difference between a sustainable society and a failed one.

We spoke with leaders at the business software maker SAP about this issue and the leading role that the company is taking to establish the workforce of the future.

Anka Witenberg, chief diversity officer for SAP, told us about the inclusiveness that defines the company’s workforce — extending, in some cases, beyond where other companies might look for workers. Then, Alicia Lenze, head of global CSR, and Markus Krug, who runs the global intrapreneurship program, spoke with us about opportunities that employees are being given to explore their passions in the context of their work.

While these initiatives sound like they are all about doing the right thing, it turns out, they also pay off in dollars and cents. Wittenberg pointed out that, in its 2014 Integrated Report, SAP quantified for the first time all four of its key performance indicators related to sustainability:

  1. Employee Engagement
  2. Business Health Culture Index
  3. Employee Retention
  4. Carbon Emissions

Based on an internal model, the company determined that its operating profit improves by $40 million to $50 million when its employee engagement index rises one percentage point. SAP also found that, for each percentage point increase in its business health culture index, operating profit benefits by somewhere between $74 million and $85 million.

“We conducted a survey with the Oxford Economics Group, where we interviewed 5,400 executives and employees across 27 countries, focusing on the future of work,” Wittenberg said. “We found four key factors, rapidly driving the transformations that are taking place right now. These are: technological advancement, shifting demographics (including the rise of millennials), globalization, and the increasing pressure for innovation. Each of these are shaping the future and each are connected to diversity.

“Globalization means more and more cultures working together. When we talk about shifting demographics, our leaders need to lead five different generations. For example, millennials want immediate feedback — all the time. Our leaders are not used to that. Given the pressure for innovation, we have to bring people in who think differently.”

The company’s inclusion strategy extends across gender, generation, cultural identity and differently-abled people. “What they all have in common is that we have to create a different kind of inclusive environment,” Wittenberg added.

For example, “We have been training women to behave like men — to negotiate like men, to use body language like men — because those were considered success factors. But what we’ve learned is that this takes a lot of energy from these women. If you cannot be authentic, you cannot be yourself, you’re losing a lot of energy in the process.”

This, is in a nutshell, underscores SAP’s human-resource philosophy and practice. It certainly applies to members of the LGBT community, who, Wittenberg said, lose about 20 percent of their productivity if closeted, from the effort of hiding their true identities.

But perhaps the most impressive initiative that SAP has undertaken in its quest for an inclusive workforce has been its efforts to recruit people on the autism spectrum. One of the actions the company has taken is to provide training for the entire workforce to examine their communication styles and learn to focus on the strengths that different people bring to their jobs. People on the autism spectrum tend to be very good at concentrating on a certain task for a long time, which makes them a very good fit for the IT world. But they tend to take language literally and to have difficulties with many different kinds of social situations. In response to this challenge, SAP creates an alternative to traditional interviews. Applicants are assessed over a trial period as they become comfortable in the environment. In places like Silicon Valley, where skilled tech workers are in high demand, looking outside the box like this for talent really provides a competitive advantage.

Once people become SAP employees, they have a number of opportunities to explore their interests and pursue their passions, both within and beyond their regular jobs. Alicia Lenze described SAP’s Social Sabbatical program, which provides “short-term assignments for top talent to go and work on international cross-functional teams to solve business challenges for entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurs in emerging markets.”

The program involves a four-week residency, working onsite with social entrepreneurs or emerging NGOs. This gives those selected the opportunity to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills while participating in some very interesting and challenging projects. The work is generally not so much technical consulting as in the business process and strategy area. The experience has been consistently shown to improve employee engagement, morale and loyalty. The company is looking into expanding the program, including a local version that more easily integrates into an employees’ work and home life.

This also allows the company to capture some of the entrepreneurial energy that highly motivated individuals tend to have, and keep them around for a while rather than having them wander off to start their own companies. Also in that vein, two other corporate social responsibility programs also focus on this. Social Impact Start, a European program where employees provide mentoring to local entrepreneurs, and Emerging Entrepreneurship Initiative (EEI). “EEI looks specifically at opportunities in emerging markets such as Brazil, India and East India. The idea here is to help accelerate emerging entrepreneurs to the next level,” Lenze said. “We also provide mentoring here. We’re now creating a leadership development fellowship where we bring the entrepreneurs back to Palo Alto for a two-week learning experience. Both of these programs provide opportunities for employees to get involved at an entrepreneurial level, which they tend to find very inspiring.” The company works with several partners to help them identify appropriate startups to work with.

Finally, there is the Global Intrapreneurship program. This is really a grassroots program that provides a mechanism for people to propose their own career paths with ideas that they think are worthwhile and that they would like to pursue. The idea behind it is, in Markus Krug’s words, “to give all SAP employees a new channel to come up with game-changing new ideas, address new markets, and to take those new ideas and turn them into successful products.”

Successful applicants would be given end-to-end responsibility and support for driving the product in an environment similar to that of a startup. Not only has this helped SAP developed new products (like its TwoGo carpooling app), but it’s also given the company deep insight into how startups work, which is helpful, since startups represent an important part of SAP’s business. The applicants must apply for support from an internal investment fund, much as any startup would. Projects move through the three phases of: ideation, where the project is conceived and refined; validation, where it is reduced to practice; and incubation, where the product becomes a business. Support is provided by coaches, mentors and experts.

In the first round of the program, the company collected 400 ideas covering a broad conceptual range. Ultimately, after a semi-final round, five teams will move on to the validation phase, where they can work full-time on their ideas for three months.

As the program moves forward, Krug envisions giving every SAP employee 40 hours to work on an independent idea if they have one. “It’s really about creativity and an entrepreneurial mindset, which we would like to foster across the company.”

It’s clear that SAP has been giving a lot of thought to the workplace of the future. Not only will the company be prepared when it comes, but it will be among those who helped to get us there.

Image credit: Flickr/Ali Samieivafa

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com