Visits of Board Members of Global Corporations to headquarters can be compared to visits of state level representatives. While certain meet Prime Ministers, demand red carpet protocol and expect all the flashlights shining on them, others come to listen, acknowledge and shine the light on others. Stefan Ries belongs to the second category. Came on time, perfectly prepared, smiling and shared his views not only on SAP’s purpose, but also on trends and the latest developments in HR and technology business. Moreover, he was genuinely appreciative of all the achievements and growth SAP has achieved in the Czech Republic.
It was a very special day for SAP, as they were officially opening a new office centre at the Metronom Building in Prague 5. The offices were designed according to the latest trends “Future at Work” reflecting global 24/7 connectivity, enabled by cloud and complex infrastructure. For Stefan, the notion of work-life balance is outdated, as there is truly life balance in reality.
To me, he represents a living symbol of an authentic leader of the 21st century, winning both minds and hearts of all people around. Stefan Ries, Chief Human Resources Officer and Labour Relations Director, is also a member of the Executive Board of SAP with global responsibility for Human Resources. He was appointed to the Executive Board of SAP in April 2016. He was born in Bavaria, and is currently based in Walldorf, Germany. His career path has taken him through various functions at IT companies such as Microsoft, Compaq and SAP and he also spent four years at Egon Zehnder International as a member of High Technologies/Information Technologies Practice Group. His passion themes include diversity, innovation, talent management and sustainable workforce.
Mr. Ries, it is a true privilege to interview you, as we both share passion for many HR issues. As Chief Human Resources Officer and a Member of the Executive Board, which global HR strategies do you find the most relevant for 2017?
First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to meet and I am especially glad to be here in Prague as Prague, and the Czech Republic in general, represent a very special place for SAP. We, as a company, find ourselves in a very fortunate situation as the company is growing. Our growth is fast not only thanks to the growth of the industry in general, but we in SAP have managed to outperform that. All the subjects that have been already covered by my colleagues in previous interviews, such as cloud computing, big data, smart data, artificial intelligence – these are the key relevant topics for us from the business perspective. However, moving to the cloud has to be reflected also from the HR strategy point of view. The cloud strategy is important, because customers see the benefits of faster implementation cycles, robust best in cloud solutions can be implemented very easily and software development having much faster cycle time. Now, let me address the HR perspective. The first key topic for us, but also for many our customers is linked to business transformation and how we can support that while keeping a motivated and excited workforce. The second topic is linked to the talent and how to make sure that we are continuously seen as the employer of choice and how we can retain talent. Leadership development comes as the third topic; in terms of SAP environment, we currently have 85,000 employees worldwide and 7,500 managers and leaders who are the key drivers of the business transformation. Learning comes next, as during the business transformation we need to make sure the organisation as well as the individuals continuously learn. Last year, we spent 100 mil EUR on learning exclusively and this year we are planning to spend 140 mil EUR and the trend will continue. It is a large sum but we see this investment as necessary. Last but not least comes the issue of sustainability of people , comprising of all activities associated with diversity and inclusion. I am happy to share with you later more about latest initiative, Business Beyond Bias. We combine the latest technology and machine learning to select the best talents for your organisation in order to reduce unconscious bias when looking at CVs and much more…
Let us now move from the global perspective to the special position of the Czech Republic…
I remember that in 2004, which is only 12 years ago, I was sitting just on the opposite side of the street, having the pleasure to open our shared service centre that had 25 employees! Today, I am back to open a new building for 1,700 employees. That is an incredible success story. Not only from the HR perspective as we are proud to find excellent talent that we are employing both in the Czech Republic as well as abroad, but also from the business perspective. In Prague we have a human resources shared centre. Last year, we decided to have a small special team to help with on-boarding all new hires across the world. At the beginning, almost everybody thought that this was complete madness to try to ensure that everybody has a good on-boarding experience all the way from Tokyo, Japan to Sao Leopoldo, Brazil. But today, we see that it works. We have very positive employee feedback and customer satisfaction rates and both speak a lot not only about the quality of the work but about the contribution of the Czech Republic for SAP world. And we look forward to further supporting the unbelievable success of the last decade.
Thank you for your words of appreciation, it all sounds very nice. However, Prague is a place for many subsidiaries and from my own experience the relationships between headquarters and a subsidiary can sometimes have rather challenging nature, perhaps resembling a mother-daughter relationship during the time of adolescence…
I have been involved in the HR for 26 years, so I truly know what you are talking about. We tend to see that the headquarters have a gravity around the location and as a subsidiary you might feel either detached or attached. In our case, it is different. Out of 85,000 employees, only 17,500 are based in Germany, the rest is abroad. There is no gravity around Walldorf as being the heart of SAP. We have so many hearts around the world and we love to support the distributive “power”, in the absence of a better word, for all of our organisations. I have already mentioned the example of Prague and on-boarding processes, which in fact has become a headquarter itself since it has the expertise and accountability to drive certain processes.
I myself experienced the stereotypical challenging relationship headquarters vs. subsidiary when working for American companies, but it is not the case in SAP.
I think the issue at stake is the identity. Prague for us has a huge identity. We stand not only for shared services but also consultative services, such as on-boarding but also payroll. Again, it is our team in Prague that runs payroll for the rest of the world, and the same is true for data management and many other functions.
We are meeting at the occasion of opening new premises at Metronom building that reflect the trends associated with the theme Future of Work. What are some specific elements linked to this notion?
We like to share our best practices with others and that is also the reason why we have invested a lot of money and space into a new building that will allow us to accommodate, in addition to employees, both guests and customers. I have never heard anyone leaving Prague without being amazed by its success story. We therefore leverage our experience when we talk about our HR software, called SAP SuccessFactors, since customers can touch, look and feel people but also system solutions in one place. Trust is the essential component, I call it the ultimate currency, to the Future at Work concept. It is important to establish the business environment that gives a person complete trust with regards to tasks and responsibilities. That is why we do not see much sense in introducing any time keeping record system. Is that easy to introduce something within a company having 85,000 workforce members? No, you still need some hierarchy to make sure that the strategy will be linked to individuals’ tasks and responsibilities. Given the latest technology, we can perform our roles and tasks anytime, anywhere. You are just given a task and trust. The rest is up to you. However, when you look around these nice and modern premises, we also consider important coming to work to connect and network. You cannot create only in isolation and continuously work from home. As an organisation, you are only as smart as the collective wisdom of the individuals together. I am a strong believer in the future of the work consisting of new usage of technology, working from various places, including abroad, independent work but also team collaboration. Therefore, offices where people come, meet and connect together, will be still needed. But with technology and connectivity comes also a need and responsibility to recharge the batteries. We could easily come and work 24/7 but that is not the right balance. I do not believe in work-life balance, as I think it is the life balance that is desirable. The key element is to educate leaders and managers to have a dialogue with employees as to have the clear understanding of the expectations from one another. Receiving an email during the weekend from an executive does not mean answering it during the weekend because there is a need to recharge the batteries, spend time with family. I really try hard to keep my weekends free for the family, unless there is a case of emergency. I am also trying to find some time during the weekdays, be it either in the morning or evening to make sure I also recharge my battery.
I am not a fan when the government tries to get involved and set conditions. I have recently met with the German Minister of Labour about the need for a mechanism that would switch off the devices by 7 or 8 pm. And my reply was simple: Excuse me, but in which world are you living? Look at the youngest generations, being born and raised with social media. Do you really believe that they will join our company if they know that by beginning of the evening their devices will be switched off ? And as we are connected around the world that will never happen.
We are both passionate about diversity and inclusion. You have just launched Business Beyond Bias program. What results are you expecting?
Over the last couple of years, SAP was very successful in diversity and inclusion. We also received the Economic Dividends for Gender Equality (EDGE) certificate in March 2016. Being a leader, many companies look at us and ask why we are doing that. And the answer is simple. We have such a wonderful experience with diverse workforce and we know that such diverse workforce also represents our customer base. Our customers cannot be treated as a one-size-fits-all organisation, they are super diverse themselves and that is what we need to reflect. We think in terms of a number of locations where we are based, how many nations we address and referring back to our debate on headquarters, there are more than 85 nationalities in Germany alone. This is something special. In the past and particularly in Europe, diversity has been a lot associated with gender diversity. We have managed to overcome that notion. We have a great initiative that hires people with autism, currently we employ more than 150 of them around the world. Last year, during the refugee crisis, when thousands of people were coming to Germany, we used the welcoming DNA we have and now we work with more than 150 students and interns working.
Business Beyond Bias is a programme that allows to overcome personal bias during the recruitment process. To be more specific, just imagine that you have got several CVs in front of you and there is a candidate who got a degree at the same university as you had. Well, most probably, based on your bias, this person will make it to the next round of the selection process. Because just by the definition that you come from the same university, you have a bias. The second example will be about a job description. Think about a nurse. Is it written for a women-nurse or a male-nurse? So, again there is a gender bias because we prefer nurse with female gender.
Now, using the latest software technology called machine learning in combination with HR software, called SAP SuccessFactors, you can eliminate the bias. How is it possible? The machine software will propose the first round of candidates for the interview. The person will still have to make the decision but based on the computer pre-selection, you will look at a completely different set of candidates. We have tested it ourselves with literally millions of data sets and it works. It helps you improve the process and not to disregard a certain part of the talent pool that was not considered before. Therefore, I do not agree with the complaints on war of talent or tiny talent pools. For me, this is not the case. The talent is there and we need to learn to look at them differently.
Speaking at the beginning of the advent period, what are your expectations and wishes for 2017?
SAP’s purpose is to improve people’s lives. That is our role within our broader ecosystem on this planet. We do not want to see people dying from diseases. Here, we can help with our technology: for example, with our technology SAP HANA we have connected all global cancer treatment centres around the world, so they have information about patients available. A doctor in Tokyo can, in real time and within seconds, consult and compare the symptoms to another patient, for example from Brazil. Just think about the massive power of data available and I hope that our technology will continue to help the people to improve their lives and ultimately to make a difference. Our employees are proud of that fact. Now we have five generations at the workplace, and particularly our youngest generation, the digital natives, want to contribute to the success of the company with an impact to the role and purpose in their lives.
For myself, I am looking forward to spending time with my family, recharging batteries and dealing with stress effectively. However, visiting all our locations around the world is extremely rewarding and energising for me, I love looking into SAP people’s eyes and seeing them proud and fulfilled.
Photo By Vladimír Weiss
This article was published in Czech&Slovak Leaders Magazine.