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Three reasons why SAP SuccessFactors is making diversity & inclusiveness a product focus (1 is most important but 3 is most impactful)

At SAPPHIRE NOW 2016, SAP SuccessFactors announced a major cross-functional initiative to leverage HCM technology to improve workforce diversity and inclusiveness.  The initiative addresses all aspects of diversity, but the initial emphasis is on addressing gender equity in staffing, management, development, retention, compensation and promotion.  People have asked why we are doing this now and why we are starting with gender equity.  The second question is about science and economics so I’ll answer that first.  Then I’ll get into the first question of why.

The reasons we are starting with gender equity are fairly straightforward.  Gender equity impacts the largest portion of the global workforce with women representing around 50% of the workforce in most major economies.  In addition, many of the solutions that address issues causing gender inequity can be utilized to address other forms of inequity.  For example, using technology to reduce implicit biases in hiring and pay decisions.  Last, compared to other areas of diversity, gender equity has received the greatest amount of empirically rigorous psychological and economic research.  This research provides us with a tremendous amount of knowledge to draw on as we work to address the complex and challenging obstacles that impact diversity.

But why is SAP SuccessFactors making diversity and inclusiveness a product priority?  And why are we deciding to focus on them now?  Issues of workforce inequity have probably been around as long there have been workforces.  Why do we think we can make a difference now?  There are three primary reasons.  The first is the most important but the last is the most impactful.

First, increasing workforce diversity and inclusiveness has become a major priority for our customers.  Customers have told us their future business success hinges on the ability to utilize the full potential of all employees from all backgrounds.  The world economy has become far more diverse and companies that reflect the diversity of their customer base outperform those that don’t.  We are also in the midst of a worldwide shortage of skilled talent.  Companies that fail to take full advantage of the talents of people from all walks of life will struggle to get the skilled employees needed to run their businesses.  SAP SuccessFactors is a customer driven company – so what is important to our customers is important to us.

Second, diversity and inclusiveness is one of the core values of SAP.  As stated on our corporate website, “We embrace and encourage different perspectives and believe we are made stronger by our unique combination of culture, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental ability, and work-life situations.”  This commitment to inclusiveness runs throughout our company and we have even received awards for our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce.  SAP’s mission it to help the world run better and to improve people’s lives.  Part of this is creating a more inclusive world economy.

Third, SAP SuccessFactors technology is uniquely positioned to address the underlying issues impacting workforce inclusiveness in a way that has never been possible before.  For over 40 years companies have been struggling to increase workforce diversity.  Every year reports are released that basically tell us that the pay, staffing, and promotion gaps that existed last year still exist this year.  While this data is useful for telling us we have a problem, it has not enabled us to solve the problem.  It’s a bit like trying to lose weight by getting on a scale every day.  A scale reminds you of the need to lose weight, but it doesn’t actually enable you to take off the pounds.  And over time it may just make you feel bad and frustrated to the point where you no longer even try to lose weight anymore.  The same is true for diversity.  If we are going to improve workforce inclusiveness, we need more than analytics.  We need to address the actual causes of inequity.

The reason it is hard to address workforce inequity is that much of it arises from subtle and often unconscious biases occurring throughout the employee lifecycle.  It starts with hidden biases in job postings that influence who applies.  It continues in the decisions that determine who gets hired, how employees are managed and developed, how employees are rewarded and supported, and who gets promoted and retained.  Furthermore, biases at one step impact other steps.  For example, biases affecting how employees are managed creates biases in who applies to begin with, and vice-versa.  Because of the complex nature of inequity, it is not sufficient to just focus on a single HR process such as training managers or changing staffing methods.  Issues of inequity can only be fully addressed using a comprehensive approach across the employee lifecycle.  Until recently, organizations have lacked the tools needed to address such a complex issue.  But SAP SuccessFactors has now developed a full suite of HCM tools that allow our customers to tackle equity problems in a comprehensive manner across the entire employee lifecycle.

So why is SAP SuccessFactors choosing 2016 to be the year to make major advances in using HCM technology to improve workforce diversity and inclusiveness?  The answer is simple: creating inclusive workforces is important to our customers, it is important to us, and it is something we can impact with our technology in ways that were not possible before.

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  • This is so important!  Technology can be part of the problem, and should definitely be part of the solution.

    I live in San Francisco, where we see daily reminders of how technology can divide us and turn us into separate classes - the gentrified and the folks left behind.  And overall in the Valley we have daily reminders of gender inequality where it really counts in our hyper tech world.

    So when I see SAP stepping up to actually use technology to address the issues, it makes me very proud to be here.  Thanks for writing about this important story and evolution. I hope to see and use more of this functionality going forward!

  • The most impactful diversity and inclusion program I have ever encountered is one I discussed on a panel at SAP TechEd a few years ago; Marilyn Pratt hosted the evening and I was honored to share the stage with Thorsten Franz.  I invited Joan Buccigrossi, a former colleague, to discuss the program.  Known as "White Men as Full Diversity Partners", it enabled a genuine, marrow-deep culture change at a company where I was employed for over a decade.  It WORKS.  I was pleased to see that Michael Welp of that organization has recently published a book; I strongly recommend that, if you are TRULY committed to diversity and inclusion (and I confess I am a skeptic - happy to discuss why if you ever want to have a chat), that you read the book and attend the White Men's Caucus.

    As a side note, this SCN community is an absolute GIFT to you - it's most active members tend to demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity, and they have opened my eyes in so many ways.  I am grateful.  Be sure to reach out to them, both publicly and privately, for commentary and feedback as you progress through the SuccessFactors journey.  They will see things you don't - and vice versa.

      • Yes.  I have not yet read the book (it was JUST published), but I worked at an organization that had a very serious inclusion problem, and the program that is described in the book accomplished in one year what I thought would take a decade of culture change to do.  I'm happy to share my experiences if you're interested.  A key difference between this program, and what is often done in well-intentioned diversity programs, is that it starts with the white men in power.  They OWN the change, they enable it, they become committed to it.  Far more powerful than the well meaning (but ineffective) approaches like mentoring, etc., that put the onus on the marginalized population to create miracles in a culture where they are often suffocated.  Another major difference in this program is that it is BLAMELESS.  That is an absolutely essential element - no one is to BLAME for what is happening - yet everyone is RESPONSIBLE.  Some of the case studies on the WMFDP website describe the successes far better than I ever can - I am just grateful that I was there to see it happen. 

        • Many thanks for your reply. Yes, I'd like to listen you. I found the site and first of all I'm going to see it in details and send you my impressions. I'm the leader of Business Women's Network here at SAP, in Brazil. And I have lot of ideas. It seems this approch is so important for my activities. Is it possible to send your contacts, please to ?Thank you so much.

  • Thanks for the positive comments and suggestions.   One of the things that really excites me about this project is we aren't just focusing on awareness and metrics.  We are looking at how technology can be used to shape and influence how employees and employers make the actual decisions that impact gender equity at all phases of career growth.   The goal is to guide people to make decisions based on truly job relevant criteria and not misleading assumptions by employers about people's capabilities or false beliefs by employees about job requirements. 

    I personally believe that most of the gender bias in many large, global companies tends to be unintentional but since people don't know they are doing it they are unable to avoid doing it.   Since bias is ultimately about decisions, the best way to address it is by changing the criteria and methods people use to guide decisions.  I also believe that whatever technology we create, it will only be fully effective if current leaders in the organization role model its use to create more effective decision making processes at all levels. 

    • Many good points Steven.  I would love to see the focus be on inclusion overall, not just gender.  For example, if someone took family and medical leave (FMLA in the United States), how were their subsequent performance reviews / bonuses / career opportunities impacted, if at all?  Were resources from certain schools more frequently teamed up with those from the same school vs. a diverse team (this is frequently attributed to "effective networking", which is often unconsciously influenced by gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc., and can lead to very insular, exclusionary cliques) I'm concerned that technology-based approaches can lead to a "compliance" mindset, where managers are careful to say the right things/do the right things to not get "caught" by the tool (making dumb comments on a performance review, for example), but their behavior and attitudes do not change.  The best thought leader I know on this topic is Joan Buccigrossi, mentioned above.  I'm happy to make a connection if you're interested.  For my part, I grew up all over the world, in multiple cultures, and thought I was very open minded and inclusive! Joan helped me to see ways in which I was blind, to question assumption I didn't even know I had, and I'm a better person (and a better employee) for it.  It also helped me to be forgiving toward those who, to your point, are biased without knowing it.

      I'll also throw down a challenge, Steven.  Will SuccessFactors / SAP drink their own champagne?  Will you publish the metrics you uncover from using this technology within SAP itself?  For example, it is intriguing that having women on stage at SAPPHIRENOW is still so rare as to be worthy of extensive comment, as noted on Twitter and other platforms.

      Looking forward to the results of your grand experiment!

      • Marcia, thanks for actively engaging about this project.  The goal is definitely to expand well beyond gender and we are already looking at things that affect other areas of inclusiveness beyond gender.   We stress that this is a long-term commitment.  We clearly are not going to solve an issue as complex as this in one year.  But we are making real progress already in terms of the solutions we can offer to our customers in this area.  

        I would be happy to meet with Joan Buccigrossi.  She sounds quite interesting.  Please feel free to make a virtual introduction via e-mail to myself as well as my colleagues Patti Fletcher and Gabby Burlacu who are coordinating our subject matter expert relationships.   

        Last, I encourage you to connect with Anka Wittenberg's group about what SAP is doing internally on this topic.   SAP is making diversity & inclusiveness a major internal focus and we have made some very impressive strides over the past few years.  Athough there is always much more we can and will do!

        • Dear Steven:  I have reached out to Joan and she has given me permission to share her contact information with you & team.  I'd rather do that privately, vs. this open platform!  If you'll follow me, either here or on Twitter, I'll send you her contact information via DM and you can take it from there.  You have the potential to positively impact thousands of lives, and I wish you great success.

  • Steven, I attended the very inspiring Called to Lead Summit at SAPPHIRE last month and I love seeing everyone's comments in this thread. Similar to Marcia learning from Joan to see beyond her biases (we are all human, therefore biased), I've been inspired by the philosophy and work of the Arbinger Institute. They work with many large SAP customers (globally) to bring about individual and organizational transformation that goes deeper than changing behaviors. Very simply, they teach a tangible way to make the shift to an outward mindset, seeing people as people first. This seems to be the underlying core of the issues you are trying to address. Their new book is out next week and I'd like to have them send you a copy (if you'll send your mailing address offline). For now, here is the launch interview with the authors and Managing Partners, to whom I'm happy to introduce you to: The Outward Mindset Book Launch Interview - YouTube  Keep up the great work you are doing to keep the Human in HCM!

    • PK, thanks for the positive feedback.

      I looked through the youtube interview and was struck (in a good way) that the change model they use is almost identical to the model used in my book Common Sense Talent Management to discuss how HCM methods are used to increase employee performance.   The only difference is they use the word "mindset" and I use the word "attributes".    So, "attributes/mindset -> behavior -> results".   

      Their change approach reminds me of a passage in my book pointing out that "Employees don't do things because their companies and leaders want them to.  Employees do things because the employees themselves want to do them, they believe they can do them, and they have the resources needed to do them."