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SAPPHIRE NOW 2016, SAP’s largest annual conference, was marked this year by a profound shift around the notion of empathy. Empathy was used in many contexts and in many forms: as a lightning rod for becoming a customer-centric company, as an lens through which to create revolutionary products, and as an operating philosophy for being easy to do business with. By aligning and clarifying the company’s focus around this singular notion, SAP has promised further breakthroughs in what it creates, who it serves, and how it operates.


Today, there are five generations of employees in the workforce, and SAP SuccessFactors helps manage their full talent lifecycle: attracting, onboarding, developing, and retaining talent across an enterprise. SAP Fieldglass similarly manages the lifecycle of contingent workers, or contractors, encompassing everything from statements of work to procurement and payment. A range of companies across industries rely on these products and services to manage their human capital.

But the nature of work is radically changing. By 2020, more than 40% of the US workers may be freelancers, according to a study by Intuit. Reid Hoffman’s well-regarded book The Startup of You points to a world in which the employer-employee relationship becomes a kind of “permanent beta,” and forging a career becomes a process of incremental self-realization. Labor economists are divided about what increasing machine intelligence would mean for entry-level jobs, and whether long-run employment might even remain feasible in developed economies.

It is clear that SAP must apply the notion of empathy to its already strong human capital suite in order to anticipate and react to a set of changing structural forces in the labor market. Empathy means, simply, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” By tapping into this wellspring of human understanding and connection, SAP can continue to refine and evolve its human capital products as the nature of work changes.

During Sapphire, I walked around the showroom floor asking both SAP employees and some partners, exhibitors, and customers, what their thoughts were on the future of work. Reactions varied on the urgency of the shift, but all agreed that major changes were underway. Most hoped that as technology took over more and more entry level work, contingent work would act as a “buffer” for people to retrain and educate themselves on new opportunities. A few suggested that these changes would “free us up” to do more creative work.

In all cases, SAP’s human capital suite can help both people and companies manage the transition — assuming the suite itself evolves fast enough for it. SAPPHIRE NOW 2016’s focus on empathy thus points a way forward, and couldn’t have come at a better time.

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