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SAP's New Hybrid Approach Will Make Human Resources Fun

by Q&A with Dr. Jan Grasshoff | insiderPROFILES

January 1, 2013

Dr. Jan Grasshoff, SAP Senior Vice President and Head of Talent, Leadership, and Organizational Design, believes that the most important asset to SAP is its people. In this Q&A, Dr. Grasshoff shares his perspective on human resources trends, the challenges HR teams face today, and how HR can produce happier, more-productive employees.

SAP has a reputation for developing enterprise software that works. Whether it’s intended to shorten processes, reduce costs, or simplify any one of a hundred different enterprise functions, an SAP product is backed by the company’s wealth of experience in creating service-oriented solutions. But if you ask SAP Senior Vice President and Head of Talent, Leadership, and Organizational Design Dr. Jan Grasshoff what makes SAP unique, the company’s products, technology, and innovation are secondary to what he considers the most important asset: its people.

With robust human capital management (HCM) solutions and its acquisition of SuccessFactors, SAP is banking on the notion that enterprises across the world share Grasshoff’s point of view. With his extensive experience visiting SAP customers that have invested in HCM solutions, as well as a responsibility for processes for SAP’s nearly 60,000 employees, Grasshoff has a unique perspective on human resources trends. In this interview, insiderPROFILES spoke with Grasshoff about the challenges HR teams face today and how they can better produce happier, more-productive employees.

Q: What are some of the challenges you hear from SAP customers in the area of human capital management?

When I visit customers, they often share three common struggles:

  • Helping employees learn throughout their careers
  • Understanding their talent landscape
  • Empowering their people

I’ll start with lifelong learning. In our industry, when you have a new release every year, there can be a certain learning fatigue. How do you instill this desire to learn, and how do you support it with software that will make knowledge very easy to consume? With different channels today like social media, you want to leverage software to ensure you have a role-based learning curriculum that builds on various learning components and makes it relevant for the employee.

A lot of companies are also struggling with understanding their talent landscape. If you have several talent management processes that aren’t integrated, such as one system for succession management, a different one for performance, and so on, it’s difficult to see talent management potential as a whole. What are the career development planning opportunities?

The third challenge I frequently see is how to empower employees and their managers to be in the driver’s seat. Often, HR is seen as a governing body, or the police. When a manager and an employee discuss growth opportunities, the first thought is usually to go to HR, which is effectively outsourcing career development to HR. But that’s a meaningful dialogue and an engagement that should occur between a manager and an employee. We have a beautiful solution in SuccessFactors that helps, but companies need to first move away from this idea or thought that HR is there to govern. I showed one chief HR officer of a large North American company how we now use SuccessFactors, and she said to me, “Jan, this will make HR fun again.” I think a lot of HR people feel that HR is not fun — that they’re burdened with all sorts of compliance and legal processes. Well, for SAP as a software company, where our biggest asset is the brains and the intellectual properties of our people who are making robust solutions, it should be fun. I’m confident we can rise above the old definitions of HR and think about how we can introduce something meaningful and impactful, instead of doing something that is more process compliant.

Q: How was SAP’s SuccessFactors implementation received internally, and how is it helping empower employees?

Because SuccessFactors is so intuitive, it helped us with what we called a viral adoption. We actually went live for 60,000 employees after three months. We gave everyone access and told them to play around with it, leaving it up to them to use the processes or not. I think around 25,000 people started to play with it. So that showed us that this kind of viral adoption will only work if the solution is intuitive and easy to use and consume. But going live is different from an actual rollout, where we run our processes. Starting in 2013, all of our people processes will be based on SuccessFactors software. But when we started mid-year in 2012, it wasn’t a mandate so it was very non-disruptive.

Before, I mentioned that the SuccessFactors solution can help empower your people. In addition to being very intuitive, it’s relevant to each employee. There’s one module called the “people profile” — it’s like an internal Facebook. You can create your own profile, upload photos, and post what motivates and drives you. It engages the employees and gives a more human touch to the workplace. Our employees are passionate about it because it’s relevant to them as people.

Q: What do you advise customers who ask about moving into cloud-based HR software vs. on-premise solutions?

Customers ask me all the time, “We know SAP has HCM software and SuccessFactors, so what do you actually have — one or the other?” I tell them that SAP has both, and I describe it as a hybrid approach. There’s a misconception that HR solutions have to be either entirely on-premise or entirely in the cloud, and it doesn’t have to be just the ends of the spectrum. It’s not as extreme or binary as we sometimes tend to be in the IT industry.

At SAP, we give our customers options. We initially put our talent management processes in the cloud and kept payroll on premise because there are very specific laws around that. Other than payroll, I don’t think there’s really a different approach with HR solutions and other solutions concerning cloud strategy. If you look at talent management or any kind of learning offering, it’s all in the cloud. And obviously, when you talk about privacy and data protection, SuccessFactors is secure so there aren’t any issues or concerns there.

I think the hesitation is due to the perception that HR is a governance function. But this is why we give customers a choice. Look at what’s offered in the cloud, and decide which modules make sense for your company. If you want everything in the cloud — that’s fine. It’s also fine to have a hybrid approach — whatever works for you. For us, our mid-year SuccessFactors adoption was fast, non-disruptive, and easy to use. The approach we chose works beautifully.

Q: Are you involved in any new HR initiatives?

There are a few interesting concepts and ideas we’re looking at that aren’t necessarily unique to SAP, but inform us how to move HR in a new direction.

  1. We’re very interested in generations. How do we help employees who have been with us for 20, 30, or 35 years still grow meaningfully? This is new to us. SAP has been around for 40 years now. So for the first time, we have employees completing a whole life cycle with us. This leads to talking about work-life integration, which doesn’t necessarily mean kids but how to help employees cope with aging parents, for example. We also need to understand how the millennial generation is different and find space for everyone.
  2. In our leadership development approach, we’re now trying to pilot what we call design leading, which will help leaders focus more closely on end users. Normally, people think a senior leader is up high in the hierarchy and everything has to be complex. But, design leading means simple is smart. This combination of leadership development and design thinking is unique to SAP.
  3. In Germany, we have vocational students who work for the company while getting a bachelor’s degree. This model is extremely successful across Germany for many companies. And SAP is now exporting this concept to our growth markets like China, India, Russia, and Brazil. We have more than 700 students worldwide. This is just one example of something successful in one country that we are leveraging as a best practice across the globe.
  4. I have a very deep passion for leadership, and at the end of the day, leadership always comes back to behavior, culture, and value system. We call it diversity inclusion, and inclusion is what I’m after. I think diversity for a lot of people means creating awareness that there are differences. It’s good to create awareness, but if you stop there, you put people into boxes, and then you have stereotypes. So once you acknowledge differences, what is the next step? It’s understanding that differences mean you bring something more to the table. With an environment of inclusion, you get people out of the mindset of thinking of themselves as minorities so they can then invest all of their energy into being innovative and creative. We want everybody to unleash their power and be who they are. It’s my fundamental belief that for a company to be successful, an environment of inclusion is critical.  I’m often asked, “What is the business case for diversity?” And I say, “If you are an innovative company, there is no business case. It’s just the norm.”

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