LEADING EDGE | SAP
by Valdi Pereira
Fit for Purpose
In this issue we talk to the CEO of SAP Africa, Pfungwa Serima to get his views on how the business solutions market is evolving, the potential the continent holds for his firm and how he believes a leader can give his team a head start. As market leader in enterprise application software, SAP helps companies of all sizes and industries run better. From back office to boardroom, warehouse to storefront, desktop to mobile device – SAP empowers people and organisations to work together more efficiently and use business insight more effectively to stay ahead of the competition. SAP applications and services enable more than 253 500 customers to operate profitably, adapt continuously, and grow sustainably.
What do you think will be the biggest challenge for business from an enterprise software and business solutions perspective in 2014?
We are going to see a continuation of the challenges that the public and private sector have been wrestling with in recent years. One of the biggest issues that they are going to confront and one that service providers like ourselves need to provide support for, is dealing with the immediacy of information.This means that businesses and governments will be increasingly challenged by things that are unfolding instantaneously and require immediate action. We are all aware of the ongoing impact social media is having on society and the growth of cloud services is further accelerating the need for companies and the public sector to be nimble in their responses.
For enterprise software companies to be successful it’s crucial that they educate their client base with respect to how cloud services can benefit their organisations. Missing the opportunity cloud affords will be fatal for businesses. They are also going to have to ensure that companies are educated and comfortable about using cloud systems and that they know these are secure and accessible systems. The need for companies in our sector to collaborate effectively is also growing. There is an important place for third party solution providers in our industry and finding the right partners in this regard is going to be critical going forward.
There has been strong growth in collaboration amongst companies on the back of the growth of digital technology. What’s driving this trend?
The serious intention to find effective solutions to business problem sits behind this. As a company we are most conscious of the fact that if we can service the customer and find a solution to their needs through collaboration, then we need to act and build the requisite relationship. The concept of co-innovation lies at the heart of our interaction model with our customers and partners.
Enterprise software is increasingly seen as a strategic asset within organisations. Do you think this is fair assessment of the value it can bring to a company?
I have always believed that enterprise software and the business solutions it offers companies is the key strategic enabler for successful and sustainable businesses. To ensure this, SAP and others invest heavily in research and development by providers to keep abreast of the evolving business demands. One only needs to look at the emergence of big data as an important lever in business, to see how the situation unfolds. Over the last few years, service providers have had to respond increasingly quickly to the need for easy to use and reliable technology tools that will allow companies to mine this data and extract information that will place them in a position to make meaningful decisions in real-time.
It is absolutely critical for the industry to be robust enough to support the complex business requirements in the marketplace and offer focused solutions that meet – and anticipate - these needs. If the industry can fulfil this role then companies are certainly going to realise the strategic value of investment in software. Of course there is also an important onus on providers to ensure that our offerings remain relevant.
As digital technology pushes the frontiers of business to consumer and business to business interaction ever further, there is increasingly a reliance on regulators to establish new thresholds for compliance and regulation in this space. Do you think the balance between technological innovation and compliance is being found?
The very nature of technology revolves around continuous improvement and increasing capabilities. This means there is always work that is going to be needed to find the balance. It becomes even more challenging when you consider that it often appears as if regulators and technology companies appear to be on divergent paths. We see the deepening regulatory rules as an opportunity to help African companies be in a position to not only comply with local laws and meet documentation requirements, but understand complicated tariffs, and coordinate various regulatory parties to be able to conduct business internationally. Regulatory compliance is a major pain point for many companies, and SAP is able to play a strong consulting role to help our clients navigate this minefield.
This puts a responsibility on companies like ourselves to ensure that when we drive innovation, we make sure we are cognisant of the regulatory impact of our developments. At SAP we hold the view that regulation has many positive aspects and also helps keep the relationship between business and its clients on an even keel. It has been my experience that most companies would like to see this balance maintained and they do not have a problem with regulation - even if it is rigorous. The majority of companies want to be responsible in their approach to business and ensure thery are aligned with the expectations of regulators.
What do you think companies are looking for nowadays when investing in business solutions?
I think the role of software has evolved from being a source of competitive advantage in itself, to a critical enabler of the real source of competitive advantage today – your business strategy and your people. What this means is that we’re seeing a far greater awareness of business drivers and a genuine connection with the business within modern software. Measuring the impact of actions companies take in their business is at the forefront of their expectations. In all of the discussions we have with customers, we give them a clearly defined business case, along with measurable key performance indicators. Our focus is very much on the end result; we don’t believe in simply looking to employ software without having specific and tangible benefits in mind right from the beginning of the process.
We partner with a lot of organisations of varying sizes where the technology objective is to bring about transformation. This usually brings about disruption and ultimately a difference in profitability. Companies need to be able to measure this. In the public sector, for example, this change often brings about an impact on citizens’ lives and the measurables in this space are obviously different. No matter what the desired outcomes, whether it be in the public or private sector, the need to be able to measure progress is vitally important to customers and we are 100% focused on providing this.
Africa is currently being viewed as one of the world’s key economic growth areas, what is SAP’s view on this bourgeoning interest on the continent?
We wholeheartedly believe in the continent and in its potential. We also hold the firm view that Africa is not a continent where slick sales presentations are going to hold sway in isolation – truly understanding the nature of Africa, experience on the continent and an ability to make an impact on the ground are key elements for any business wanting to grow here. Last year SAP Africa had a phenomenal year, winning the EMEA business unit award and being recognised as the employer of choice, which is clear testimony of the growth and potential for the continent as well as the tangible success and satisfaction that can be enjoyed by having added true value to our customer’s business.
What do you think companies need to be able to offer to succeed on the continent?
Each market has its own challenges and complexities but if we set that aside for a moment, addressing a customer need, truly collaborating and co-innovating with them, providing best-in-class service while adhering to the strictest of compliance and regulatory frameworks are all important elements. These factors form the cornerstone of the approach adopted by the South African financial services sector, for example, as its thrusts into the broader African market. It seems to have served them well and they certainly appear to be on the path to being game changers.
Do you think African governments are moving to stay abreast of these economic changes?
They are undoubtedly showing an appetite for entrenching democratic systems and are opening up to innovation. The consumerisation of IT plays a role in this as citizens are demanding more transparency and are wanting to have their say. The combination of these factors is giving global companies like SAP the confidence to invest further on the continent. One should also not forget that around the continent there are many public sector organisations that are proactively gearing themselves up for improved service delivery. This obviously makes the business environment friendlier and the spin-off effect is positive for all.
In response to a variety of challenges, governance frameworks across the globe are becoming increasingly complex. How do you weigh up business opportunities and market challenges in this environment?
Complexity is the name of the game and it’s an important balance. We are a global public institution that, in the first instance, has a duty to all its stakeholders to conduct our business within a particular stringent governance framework. Of course there are nuances in each particular market and we adopt a local-centric approach, to find the balance between what is required from a global and local governance perspective. We also make sure that our business partners are aware of what the requirements are and utilise a global set of norms and standards, to ensure that we are as transparent as we can be in our business relationships and conduct.
I also ensure that each person in SAP Africa, whether they are a company veteran or someone that is just starting their journey with us, re-visits our business code of conduct on a yearly basis. The world of business is continually changing and it’s valuable to pause and interpret our conduct against these changing circumstances, on a regular basis, to ensure we are acting in the way we should.
Do you think the technological developments we have seen in the last couple of years can help to bridge some parts of the ‘digital divide’?
We sometimes tend to think about things in an overly complex way and make things more difficult than they need to be. An example from my own life illustrates this very well: My mother is 85 years old and her highest academic qualification is a Grade Five. Yet, her ability to utilise a smartphone in order to simplify some aspects of her life is amazing. Her knowledge of social media and how it can serve her is also something to behold. What is the lesson I learn from this? That it is wrong to assume African communities are limited by a lack of knowledge and understanding. Technology has provided an invaluable springboard for Africa. The missing ingredient is exposure, and our real challenge is around finding ways to facilitate opportunities for people to interact with technology that is ubiquitous in the more mature markets.
Connectivity, data centres, mobility and cloud should not be something which people in certain sectors of our society do not have access to or cannot benefit from. We should be accelerating their exposure, because this technology is the future and has major relevance in their lives as much as anyone else’s life. At SAP we are very conscious of this and don’t believe our solutions are there only for the top echelon of commercial enterprises – they exist to benefit everyone. We stand by and live our vision to make the world run better.
There are many approaches and theories around the best way for companies to approach corporate social investment. What is your view on this?
SAP Africa believes that the private sector plays a vital role in generating strong economies, creating a level playing field, and building an environment that embraces education, technology, and innovation. The definition of effective CSR has shifted from pure philanthropy to something that makes sounds business sense too. Sustainability is also a question that occupies the minds of most business leaders. It’s a given that any business strategy has to meet sustainability requirements. I am of the view that this should apply equally to any corporate social responsibility initiatives. SAP is a strong international brand, which has very important local relevance in terms of the contribution we make with regards to human development. We should be able to look back and know that our efforts at developing individuals have had a long lasting impact on their lives.
Consequently, I am of the view that skills training for employability is absolutely critical. From my perspective there is no sense in training people and leaving them with no way to make a positive impact in their communities and serve as an example to others. SAP Africa continues to invest in support for education, entrepreneurship and SAP skills development on the African continent through various education programmes. In 2012 we launched a skills development programme called the Skills for Africa initiative. It’s the first of its kind in the industry in Africa. It offers selected students across the continent the opportunity to develop world-class IT and business skills. The initiative is aligned with SAP customers and partners who provide internships to the students. Internally, Intelligent CSR means that ultimately there is a benefit for the individual as well as for our brand, because it is sustainable development, which is something I believe very strongly in.
When the time comes and you decide to move on from your current role, what type of legacy would you like to leave behind?
If your successor can hit the ground running and accelerate the progress made during your time, I think you can be confident that you have left the company in a good space. To achieve this one has to build a solid platform that allows the organisation to remain relevant into the future. This is more challenging than it seems, for the simple reason that successful organisations continually change and respond to market conditions. As a leader you therefore need to have a clear vision of where you want the organisation to be, in order to capitalise on future opportunities. And then you need to ensure that that vision is executed beyond the ivory tower.
I was fortunate to join SAP at a time when the company was looking at realising the aspirations it has for growth on the African continent. This has given my team an opportunity to stretch themselves, experience new cultures and enjoy professional growth. I am excited by the way they have tackled this because it shows that my team is grasping our future vision and moving forward with it.