Scott Russell, the President for Asia Pacific and Japan at SAP, has spent the last decade moving up through the business: from SVP to COO to MD for Southeast Asia, and now to heading up all aspects of SAP's business across the region.
People Matters asked Scott how he and his team are leading the business during this period, given the large number of essential services that SAP supports and the increased demand on resources now. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
As a part of the support system keeping essential services going, how have you been balancing priorities during this period?
When the crisis unfolded, we were effectively the first region to be impacted, and we tried to be proactive—working with the local regulatory authorities, understanding the role that we play as an essential service in most countries around the world, but doing so in a way that was not going to put our employees at risk at any stage. We took immediate action to put safeguards in place. And in doing so, we actually protected our customers, because overnight, we were able to move from a workforce that was quite mobile but still had a large number of functions operating from offices, to having 95 percent of our workforce in the Asia Pacific able to work from home.
What that meant was that our employees were able to provide a continuity of service to our customers, be they government agencies or businesses, so that they in turn could keep providing necessary services to citizens. Whether in agriculture, healthcare, retail, utilities, or other sectors, we were able to continue supporting that.
How did you keep your employees reassured in the early days of the crisis?
A lot of our employees were clearly concerned about their benefits, especially insurance coverage, and so we proactively moved to provide that information in every country and every location.
One learning point from this situation is that continual two-way communication is really needed in times of crisis.
To be able to answer questions and address concerns is more important than ever when there is no physical proximity. Employees really need to know that they have an organization that understands their circumstances, that has empathy, and that has policies and processes that help them navigate this situation.
Another point is the need to be consistent but still adjust to the local situation. We set up a pandemic task force for the region that met on a daily basis in the early days—now it meets weekly—and from there, we created our own consistent framework. But different countries were experiencing different speeds of regulatory change and lockdown, and so we had to tailor our framework to each country. For instance, in Korea they had constraints in place early, whereas India started quite a bit later, but when they brought in the lockdown, it was quite significant.
I think our employees, and actually society as a whole, have really shown the ability to adapt to the situation and find ways of being productive.
And your customers, how are their needs changing and how are you supporting that?
Our technology supports a significant amount of business across the supply chains and financial platforms around the world, and we see our role as being about helping customers leverage that platform to be able to quickly respond and adapt. It's not so much about additional revenue, as about leveraging the technology that our customers have to help them service their clients and provide national service.
For example, most of the customers we spoke to prioritized the well-being of their employees. So one of the first things we did was to create a Qualtrics tool for assessing employee sentiment and provide it, free of charge, to our customers around the world.
The second thing we did was around the supply chain. We were able to draw on the Ariba platform to find alternative sources of supply. For example, we worked with the government of Malaysia to support them in finding an alternative source of supply for ventilators and personal protective equipment.
Looking forward, what our customers do will depend on their personal situation. Some businesses are looking to use this as an opportunity to transform, to leverage their business capabilities and become an intelligent enterprise; whereas others are much more about managing cash flows.
How about SAP itself? What changes are you seeing?
The silver lining, at least to me personally, of the way we run our business is to be able to stay connected, on a more timely basis, to all parts of the region. We're running 30-plus offices in 20-plus countries and they have diverse expectations and needs.
Historically, I may have had a customer interaction once a quarter when I travel to their country. Now, I'm able to stay connected through Zoom, through Microsoft Teams, various forms of virtual technology: address any questions they have, resolve any issues that require organizational support.
And I think that companies like ours will really embrace that going forward, because we've proved that we can understand the needs of our customers in a timely manner and accelerate some activities, whereas before we may have been artificially constrained by the need for face to face connections.
For me personally, I look at my travel profile historically and think about how many days I've been on the road visiting clients. And I think it might change my travel mix for the better.
Do you think these changes will be permanent, or will everyone go back to normal—the previous normal—once the crisis ends?
My personal view is that there will be some enduring aspects. Even little things around personal hygiene will become part of the muscle memory of society. But when it comes to business, certain things will continue. I've mentioned enabling accessibility to different countries around the world and leveraging technology. We've definitely done that internally, when we went to conference calls and virtual connections. And when it comes to our clients, we're looking at changing service provisions: our cloud services and consulting services being able to do more remote delivery, being able to access experts from everywhere in the world and bring them to bear at the time our clients need them. That's definitely something to look into maintaining.
And going forward, we're looking at the ability to provide different forms of information to our customers on that timely basis. What we see is a lot more use of digital technology to be able to provide information to clients, partners, and employees.
I think these are some of the permanent changes, but having said that, I think all of us are missing that face-to-face social interaction. Some of us are probably looking forward to getting back into an office environment, sharing stories, and having that social connection.