Learning at the Speed of Business: SAP Leads in the Cloud

The award-winning learning professionals at SAP are using the cloud to advance the company’s talent development initiatives.

When a company undergoes profound change, it’s critical that the workforce is ready, willing, and enabled to execute on that change. SAP leadership knew this, and last year hired me as the company’s first chief learning officer.

I am someone who’s motivated by a meaningful mission, so having this role and helping the company, a provider of enterprise application software, complete its transition to number one in the cloud is gratifying. It’s a privilege to partner with our clients in the business in proving that learning and development (L&D) is essential to so fundamental a business change.

New approaches to established philosophies

To be clear, SAP always has valued talent development and learning. Two of our mantras bear this out. The first, “Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner,” recognizes that we all have a responsibility to help each other grow regardless of rank or role, and that learning is a continuous way of life, not a one-time event.

And “Everyone is a talent” means that each individual employee has value to contribute and deserves the chance to be fully enabled to grow a meaningful career at SAP. As described below, developing amazing talent is one of three core SAP leadership expectations.

What needed changing was how these philosophies were brought to life. For a company that has doubled in the past 4.5 years to a 67,000-person workforce with 263,000 customers in 190 countries, L&D was not exactly serving employees as a single, well-oiled machine. Now, with the full trust and support of the SAP managing board, my team of innovative, dedicated, award-winning learning professionals is leading the way.

The change is happening in different arenas, key among which is structural—such as centralizing funding for strategic cross-corporate programs, aligning on a new governance structure, and implementing our cloud-based SuccessFactors LMS. We’re currently going through a massive exercise to move multiple separate learning groups to one branded name, logo, learning technology experience, content taxonomy, instructional design philosophy, and employee messaging, even though these teams report to their respective business units.

There is so much tremendous will (and goodwill) to make learning at SAP run simple—as our new corporate tagline reads—that these changes have been passionately embraced and fairly easy to implement. That’s how committed our learning professionals are to excellence and how seriously we take CEO Bill McDermott’s simplicity call to arms.

Living by our leadership principles

Any learning leader will go nowhere fast if she’s not building programs that drive business results. At SAP, this starts by being true to our three leadership principles.

Leadership principle 1: Drive simplicity. To help the world run simple in radically dynamic times, we must truly embrace simplicity.

The learning function is modeling this for the rest of SAP by streamlining our efforts, drawing clear connections between strategic business priorities and learning initiatives, and leveraging simple, intuitive, and user-centric approaches to our interactions with internal stakeholders and all learners.

One of our simplest and yet most powerful guiding principle is: If learning doesn’t have a measurable business impact, we shouldn’t be doing it. Period. This frees up resources while positioning us to deliver far more value. For example, we reduced 90 percent of existing courses prior to switching from an on-premise to our cloud-based LMS.

Leadership principle 2: Develop amazing talent. SAP executives get it. They get learning. They get what the role of L&D should be. And they give us the autonomy and support to do our job, which is to enable the workforce’s execution of corporate strategy.

We do this by creating learning that is highly engaging, social, and collaborative. We leverage learning that is virtual, with digital performance support on-the-job and mobile learning apps to drive scale, reach, and speed. And when the audience and topic are right, we develop learning that is gamified and fun.

More than that, though, we aim to develop learning that’s about eliciting passion, helping people to love their work, tackling the world’s greatest challenges, making the world a better place, and experiencing the pure joy of learning and growing and exceeding our own expectations. Far too often, it’s easy for us as learning professionals to get caught up in everything that’s less important than these outcomes. At SAP we’re trying to always keep these goals within our sights.

Leadership principle 3: Ensure customer success. By driving simplicity and developing our talent, we will achieve success for our customers. We’ll architect smarter technologies, devise more effective solutions, and connect our customers with integrated offerings that solve increasingly complex challenges.

Learning has a direct role in ensuring customer success as well, through SAP Education’s award-winning cloud-based enterprise Learning Hub, and openSAP, SAP’s free learning platform, which leads enterprise massive open online courses in innovation.

Leading learning in the cloud

Few companies are as well-positioned to take full advantage of learning in the cloud as SAP. Because I joined SAP from SuccessFactors, I know how powerful these cloud-based learning tools are. It’s never been easier to learn from anyone at any time, collaborate with fellow learners, share critical information in any format, learn by doing, and mentor and be mentored.

Here are a few more ways SAP is leading learning in the cloud. We are:

  • attracting Millennial talent with social learning and collaboration that mirrors the best consumer apps and with engaging mobile and gaming initiatives
  • increasing financial resources for learning by moving expensive, nonscalable training from the classroom to the cloud, where we can reach many more employees for much less
  • using inherent tracking capabilities to hold employees and managers accountable for learning
  • leveraging cloud-generated data and analytics to measure learning activity, impact, and business results (in other words, holding us learning professionals accountable).

And of course, data and analytics are just as important to learning as every other part of the business. When you do the right training for the right people based on the right defined objectives, especially when you do it in the cloud, measuring impact should be easy. It’s like any other “must” in training at SAP, and should be for every L&D team, everywhere.

Lastly, the cloud symbolizes the spreading-like-wildfire democratization of L&D. Let’s face it: Gone are the days when the training department controlled what employees learn. At SAP, democratized L&D has long been in our DNA; we’re just advancing it with the cloud.

Case in point, I was blown away when I took this role to learn that more than 300 SAP employees around the world across all functional areas have gained external coaching certification from the International Coach Federation just so they can volunteer (on top of their regular job) to help peers work through career choices and goals through the SAP global coaching practice. This is truly a culture that has learning and supporting one another at its core.

The learning functions of the future, like ours at SAP today, will be about governance and measurable business impact, not command and control.

Advice so far

In addition to a great learning culture, supportive board and executives, business alignment, SAP learning professionals who strive for excellence, and wonderful goodwill, other factors that have led to our success include:

  • Focusing on a key early win—leadership development—which was a terrific opportunity for enhancement and also the most visible. Creating a huge win and delivering something truly transformational for a constituency that wields power generates tremendous momentum.
  • Delivering quality solutions and getting and publishing measurable business impact results quickly, which builds credibility.
  • Unleashing everything you’ve got. Leave fear at the door.

Do all of that well and you’ll get the platform to have a bigger voice and achieve what you came for.

Winning through learning

Companies such as SAP that make big investments in learning culture have employees who spend their time thinking about and preparing for what’s next. Companies that don’t do so have employees wondering what just happened, and spend excessively on acquiring external talent because their own people aren’t ready to come off the bench and get into the game.

Our goal is for SAP to be known in the business world as learning thought leaders and the place to work to have the best and most impactful opportunities to learn and be developed. Just like anyone who spent years at GE or Unilever is understood to have undergone rigorous training, SAP employees will be the best trained, the most innovative and effective, and as a result the most fulfilled and rewarded. In addition, we will have increased their value as contributors not just to SAP, but to the world.

Originally posted on td.org