Sustainability Can Be Powered By Technology Innovation – Forbes

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Technology has the ability to significantly impact the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as improve work/life balance, enable commerce and so much more. With the COVID crisis in full effect, many white collar workers are working from home and collaborating in new and different ways. One of the major tech brands that has enabled this transformation is SAP.

Brands are at the center of much of the change we are feeling, focused on bringing innovation and sustainability strategies together to make change fit into new business models and frameworks.

In an effort to better understand SAP’s purpose strategy and how it connects to their business model I spoke to Vivek Bapat SVP of Purpose and Brand Experience Marketing at SAP.

Jeff Fromm: How are you using sustainability clients and innovation to bring positive change to people, communities and the planet?

Vivek Bapat: The way that we look at sustainability is that it’s a major component of our purpose and vision, which is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. One of the things that we have done is we have paid a great amount of attention to making sure that from a purpose and sustainability point of view, we are engaging with the world, both as exemplars of sustainability, which means that we embrace sustainability in all of the right forms within our own 

business practices, but that we also are engaging with our customers as enablers of their sustainability and purpose initiatives. We feel like we have a dual role to play. And in both of these roles it is important that we do so with authenticity and credibility in the way that we engage, whether it’s through our products, services, people or partnerships that we create through our brand engagements Through our brand and any relationships and partnerships that we create. 

Fromm: How are you connecting your purpose to the SDGs and then ultimately, how do you connect that to your internal culture? 

Bapat: The purpose of the company at the highest levels is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. So that’s the top level architecture, that is at the top of the house. The next level is the defined roles where we see  sustainability both as an exemplar and enabler. The third level is to define specifically which areas or themes we can impact in the most authentic, credible way both as enablers and exemplars. Those 5 big themes are:

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  1. Climate Action
  2. Circular Economy
  3. Equality for All
  4. Social and Inclusive Entrepreneurship
  5. Building a Skilled and Inclusive Workforce

We’ve used the SDGs as the vehicle to come up with the strategy because they are well understood internally as well as, externally to our partner ecosystem. While the themes relate to 8 specific SDGs, we believe that by impacting these SDG’s directly, we indirectly uplift and add value to all of the 17 SDG’s.  Finally, we map each of these themes to our products, our people, our programs, and our partner ecosystem. In this way, what we’ve laid out is a very clear architecture that connects right from the top levels of a brand position around purpose, right into the products, the core of the business, the customer relationships, the partnerships and our employees as well. 

We’ve laid out an architecture on connecting the dots between purpose and 

activation of purpose across everything that we do. This standardized architecture based on the UN SDG’s gives us a common language to converse and engage globally with our customers, partners, and ecosystem at scale.  

Fromm: What’s the flywheel between internal culture, the purpose of running the world better, the SDGs you focused on? How does that help you maintain a profit in a healthy way?

Bapat: Purpose is not just a slogan. And it isn’t a brand campaign.  In order for purpose to become part of culture, it has to be connected back to the core values of not just the company, but the personal values of the employees themselves It’s no longer enough to say, “yes, I’m passionate about certain topics.” We believe strongly that purpose has to guide decision-making and cascade to at every level of the company… which is printed on the walls of the hallways of your company. It’s not a brand campaign. Between aspiration and action, there’s a pretty substantial gap I think that you have to really look into and solve for. SAP has been on the purpose journey for several decades and we are quite mature in our thinking in terms of purpose and activating purpose authentically across the board. When we do an employee survey every year, we ask companies how much they believe in SAP’s approach on purpose and sustainability. Year over year, this is one of the highest areas where all employees agree that this is something that they are committed to and passionate about. 

Last year when we did this survey for instance, the number was as high as 93% of employees who said they believe in SAP’s cause on purpose and sustainability. It’s really connected deeply into the personal values of employees within the company. As a company that is represented in 180 different countries where we have about 130 different nationalities, this is the one unifying thing across all of the employees of the company. There’s a deep belief system at the grassroots level of the company, which is supported by the top leadership of the company. 

And as you can imagine, these are typically decisions that are extremely hard 

decisions to make. For instance, what is the position that you take on a particular issue related to let’s say gender equality? What is the position that you take as a company that’s based on social issues or climate action? These are big, tough, heavy problems and questions to be answered, and I believe that this is where having a clearly defined purpose and a set of personal values that is embedded across all employees of the company and leaders enables decision making. Once you have that at scale, that’s when it becomes part of culture and it becomes part of budget. 

Fromm: How do companies and corporate leaders look at purpose from a profitability perspective?

Bapat: The major issue of the moment is whether purpose Is this something that you’re just doing in order to enhance your brand reputation or is this really something that is core to your everyday business – including the products, the services, the customer and the employee engagement. Making it core to the business eliminates the false choices that companies have faced with for decades – that purpose and profit are somehow diametrically opposed. When purpose is core to the business, the opportunity is to full align both profit and purpose into a single direction. At the macro level, this shift is being felt across the board – hence the clear mandate from global business leaders to move from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. 

We’ve also seen a lot of investment funding going into companies who have a very strong position on sustainability. We have an entire new generation who are entering the workforce and care a lot about this. If you’re a company that wants to retain these employees or serve these employees as customers, this is a huge topic. I think the question of why it’s important has been answered.  The question now is, what are companies going to do about it and is it connected to profitability? We did a study actually with Oxford Economics, where we looked at 3000 companies across the world. What we found was that close to two thirds of the companies had a formal statement and they were piloting certain initiatives within this particular arena of purpose and sustainability within their businesses. Of that 66%, only 12% had really fully fleshed out the implementation of those pilots. There’s a big gap that we believe that we can address through SAP with our customer set, where we can help them close those gaps. And out of that set, there was only 6% of companies who were really seen as leaders on fully embracing the potential of purpose as part of their core practices. 

The way that we look at it is we are running close to 88% of the world’s supply chains at the moment. We are in pretty much every industry, whether it’s manufacturing or consumer goods or energy or transportation out there. And we have a huge opportunity to impact the business processes, the supply chain operations, the employee engagement, the customer relationships, the financial reporting, the procurement of these customers to help them actually incorporate purpose into their core business practices. That’s where we see the opportunity.

For questions about this interview please contact Jeff at jfromm@barkleyus.com

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