How SAP’s Purposeful Customer Network Solves Business & World Challenges

SAP is one of the largest technology companies in the world. Its Chief Marketing Officer, Alicia Tillman, sat down with We First’s Simon Mainwaring to discuss how SAP, acutely aware of its innovative global reach in practically every industry and line of business, activates its purpose to not only drive business solutions and growth but, more importantly, solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

A sign bearing the company logo stands outside the headquarters of SAP AG in Walldorf, Germany, on Monday, March 8, 2010. SAP AG and Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Systems entered a global services partnership, which includes the joint development of applications on mobile devices. Photographer: Wolfgang von Brauchitsch/BloombergBLOOMBERG NEWS

SIMON MAINWARING: SAP has been a longtime proponent of business working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Obviously, it’s absolutely critical to improve people’s lives around the world, especially in light of the recent IPCC report, which is quite grave in terms of the effects of climate change. What’s the business value of doing this purpose work to business broadly, and, specifically, to SAP?

ALICIA TILLMAN: Let me start with a pretty short sentence: purpose drives business growth. Period. It’s a sentence that I repeat often because it deserves to be repeated. Consumer buying behavior together with employee preferences in terms of companies they want to work for prove that growth occurs when a company really focuses on purpose-driven initiatives. There was a study by EY and HBR recently that talked about how 83 percent of companies that over-perform on revenue growth link everything they do to brand purpose, as opposed to only 31 percent of under-performers. What that tells us is that companies who deliver and innovate against a strong set of values and use their platform to work towards a higher good are more profitable than companies who are not.

When consumers have a choice between companies who are invested in giving back versus a company that doesn’t, today’s consumers are absolutely going to go towards the company that is using their platform for good. This is both a result of our younger generations that are coming into the workforce, but also because of more mature demographics who care just as much as younger millennials.

That said, when I took on this role, it wasn’t because this research suggested we all of a sudden need to become a company that’s focused on driving good. When SAP was created 46 years ago, we were founded with a vision to help the world run better and improve people’s lives and we were going to do that through technology. Now it’s about helping companies run their businesses as effectively as they possibly can, but also using that same technology to help power agendas of purpose. How do you really use the technology of a company like SAP and allow a company’s customers to see the value in terms of how they drive towards their purpose agendas?


SIMON: You’ve got something unique at SAP and that’s your incredible global customer network. How is SAP’s customer network helping you achieve impact at scale?

ALICIA: At SAP, we run the largest buying and selling network on the planet called our SAP Ariba Network, which is comprised of two million companies’ buyers and suppliers that are sharing goods and services between one another. One of the things both are challenged with is the responsibility to have a very clean supply chain. Sadly, in today’s environment, we still see modern slavery in the form of a tremendous amount of forced labor in supply chains. With SAP Ariba running the largest business-to-business network on the planet, we have an opportunity to bring greater transparency into the supply chain, so that buyers and suppliers can take the appropriate action to eradicate forced labor.

This is a challenge that’s been plaguing industries for years, but what’s been lacking is the appropriate levels of transparency to really understand where the challenges exist. So we formed a partnership with a company called Made In a Free World by a great person, Justin Dillon, and he created a heat map that showed where forced labor conditions exist. With the ability to pair that heat map with transactional data that runs through the SAP Ariba network, we can find forced labor conditions in their supply chain and appeal to one of the greatest needs of our buyers and suppliers. This is an example of companies coming together and recognizing the power that SAP has in having all of this transactional data run across SAP’s systems.

So, while prospects are asking for us to help them buy goods and connect them to suppliers, what we heard even more was, “Help us solve this unbelievable societal challenge that we have given the power of your network.” This was an opportunity for voices to be heard and for SAP to take action. Now we have an ability to offer customers the transparency to solve one of modern day’s most horrific challenges in supply chains.

SIMON: Given the complexity of your global footprint and your business, how does SAP measure and track its impact?

ALICIA: The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals are absolutely the framework for how we drive and track our progress as a company. Not only are there the technology initiatives that we help support, one of which I just mentioned with SAP Ariba, which would be paired with Goal Number 10 (Reduced Inequalities) or Number 8 (Decent Work). But there’s also a tremendous amount of additional programs that we have created within SAP that map directly to a UN goal. It helps to create this notion of driving impact at scale based on collaboration.

Having a framework like the 17 SDGs by the UN and getting other companies on board to build their purpose-driven programs means you have more companies and more individuals going after the same goals. The more we can come together as a collective force, the greater our chances are in actually impacting what the goals are. We have an organization within SAP called SAP Next-Gen and their primary focus is our relationship with the UN, building programs and architecting the support not only within SAP, but with our partners as well. Whether it’s the Global Compact Program or the UN for Women, there now are many different communities within SAP that were created in support of the 17 goals and we have an entire team focused on delivering results against them every single day.

SIMON: Have you noticed any surprising collaborations or synergies emerged when you so deeply commit to driving change?

ALICIA: I would call out the partnership that we have with The Female Quotient. This is a group that was founded by Shelley Zalis and she’s really working to help solve gender inequality in the workplace. She created a movement around gender equality, looking at how we can fix the problem, especially for women in more diverse communities. It’s every company and every sector coming together because she’s created just such an exciting, engaging platform. Once again, it’s all focused on how do we reduce inequalities, which is number 10 of the 17 UN SDG goals. That’s just one example of the amazing communities that are being set up to bring companies and individuals that share the same beliefs and values to take action and move the conversation forward.

SIMON: Is there any cautionary tale you might share with a brand considering being purposeful. And any piece of advice that you would give any brand that’s sitting on the fence?

ALICIA: I think I can answer both questions with the same answer. Be authentic. Every company, no matter how big or small, how long you’ve been around, how many different leaders you’ve had through the history of the company was founded with a purpose. Whether that was to create a company that could change something in the world, create something that doesn’t exist, or to improve something that does exist. So, if you don’t know what that story is, go back and find it because that’s the authentic you.

When I took this role 13 months ago, that’s exactly how I spent my first two months. I went back into the archives. I tried to understand what the reasoning was behind five leaders from IBM setting off to create something they believed could change the world. I wanted to understand how that served as the foundation for the company we are today. You may have lost it for whatever reason: acquisition, merger, leadership changes, a value prop has evolved… but never forget where you came from. It’s a statement that we always try to hold to ourselves individually, but it’s also something we should not forget as companies. Because the reality is, people buy authenticity today. They buy truth and they want to be in relationships with real people. So it’s part of the obligation we have as business leaders to be those stewards of the purpose of our brands.