Interview with Mark Yolton (SAP)
SAP provides business management software and services for improving processes.
I interviewed Mark Yolton, SAP Senior Vice President of SAP Communities & Social Media to find out more. This is the hundred and eighty fifth in a series of interviews.
Firstly, please could you briefly tell us what SAP is?
The traditional way to answer this would be to say that SAP is one of the world’s largest providers of business software and technology. We have 65,000 employees in 180 countries and over 230,000 customers, many of which are very well-known brands in 25 industries.
A better way to look at SAP is this: we help businesses run better and improve people’s lives… and we do it with innovative software solutions and technology products… through companies and government agencies.
To give just a few examples, we help our customers produce over 70% of the world’s chocolate, and our customers brew 72% of the world’s beer. We work with 54% of the United Nation’s governments. More than 60% of the world’s transaction revenue – just think about 60% of “global GDP” – run through an SAP system.
SAP is a 40-year-old company that is mature in some areas like Enterprise Resource Planning or ERP, and very innovative and defining the cutting-edge in others such as big data, mobile, cloud computing, and business analytics. That is how to think of SAP.
What brought you to found the SAP Community Network in 2005?
Our community launched back in 2003 as the SAP Developer Network – or SDN – and we will celebrate our 10th anniversary this year! Back then, social media as we now know it didn’t yet exist – we called it “Web 2.0” or “social networking,” and we used then-new technologies like discussion forums and blogs to initiate direct connections, engage actively and personally, and sustain conversations and knowledge sharing between our customers, partners, consultants, developers and our employees.
That predecessor to the SAP Community Network (or “SCN,” for short) was born with the initial goal to connect customers with each other, and with partners, and with us – to provide post-sale sharing of solutions to technical challenges and to enable customer-to-customer collaboration on best practices for implementing, operating, optimizing, or upgrading SAP products and solutions. It quickly grew and expanded far beyond technologists at the core to business process experts, project managers, business analysts, and line-of-business managers in HR, Finance, Marketing, Sales Support, and many other areas.
And the purpose grew to encompass training, pre-sale recommendations, collaborative innovation, tightening relationships, skill-building, career-expanding, the identification of experts in our ecosystem, solution-sharing by partners, online commerce, the empowerment of influencers, and much more.
Tell us about the SAP Community Network (SCN).
We host nearly 2 million unique visitors monthly who discuss topics about which they have a real passion. As a member, anyone can find and connect with that person halfway around the world who shares a business dilemma – and help solve that problem or challenge, or answer that burning question, or share their experiences, opinions, approach, and insights.
The community is exactly that – a community. A place where anyone can show off what they know, ask or answer questions, or collaborate with people they have never met on issues vexing them or their company. It is a business community with a technology twist, but it is a very human, very interactive and engaged community.
The members of SCN are passionate, engaged, and actively participate in sharing ideas, complaints, problems, solutions, best practices, their experiences, their company challenges and approaches to solve them, insights into what’s emerging or coming next. Those members set the tone of interactions, even the cultural expectations and behavioral norms of how to engage and participate.
Members of the community – our customers and partners – are the lifeblood of the community, and it’s our job to host them, provide guidelines and guard rails, to encourage and enable them, and to listen and respond when they express strong opinions and desires.
How has SAP has been transformed by social media and community engagement?
Because our community experiences actually pre-dated “social media,” including Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook in the “Web 2.0” era, we feel like we were ready for public social media when social appeared on the scene. It is truly amazing to watch a large enterprise like SAP talk about “audience engagement,” or “social ideation,” or “pull marketing” and “crowd-sourced innovation” as part of our shared DNA.
More than anything, engagement with our community helps us become more customer-focused, to empathize with customers’ business and technology challenges in 25 industries and 180 countries, to know those customers on a deep, personal level, and the community itself becomes a real-time platform and channel for us to interact and help them.
Broadly, the community focused us on our customers and what we can do to help them run their projects, departments, or companies better; even to improve their personal professional skills, to engage in a professional network of peers, and to expand their perspectives and their career opportunities.
For SAP, own hosted customer community gave us practice, a proving ground, a place to experiment and learn what works and what doesn’t, to establish a social voice and tone.
The pace of change within large corporations can be frustratingly slow. How easy was it to ‘pull’ SAPs corporate culture towards social media?
In any large organization, to change everyone – simultaneously, to the same level of competency – is a slow process and probably an unrealistic goal. In fact, I’m sure there is someone out there who is still resisting email or smart phones, or who is railing against the internet as a waste of electrons.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” He’s saying that there will be spikes and pockets of innovation, advancement, and adoption that will eventually be smoothed over time as they become the norm.
So, the good news is that we don’t need everyone at SAP or in any large company or society to be equally enthusiastic and engaged in social, in order to make massive progress; we need enough of the right people. And we need to keep moving this forward, broadening from the early adopters to the majority, and getting social media ingrained into the culture and normalized business practices.
What we have seen is that pioneers and early adopters have stuck with social media and social networking for a decade because they see tremendous personal value and business benefit from it. Our leadership gets it, and prioritizes social engagement, because we realize business benefits from this new style of engagement. We hire new smart social people and we re-train our existing smart people on how to think social. In the end, it is all about “being social” first … instilling the right attitude and changing people’s thinking, and the corresponding authentic behaviors follow.
With previous jobs managing well known brands around the globe in a variety of leadership roles (Oracle, Peoplesoft, Sun Microsystems, Unisys), when did you first become a social media enthusiast?
I got the bug when I joined SAP in 2005 to lead the fledgling developer network to its next phase. Previously I was an early adopter of the web and the Internet in the mid-90’s. (Boy, that makes me feel old, but it is probably worth reminding ourselves that not very long ago there was a time when the internet and the web did not exist, and then a time after that when the value of these new technologies and capabilities was not widely understood, was criticized and questioned, and was a new skill and process to learn, adopt, and adapt).
At my previous company I managed an online technology network, but it wasn’t nearly as engaged as SAP’s, even in the early days of the SAP network… there was just something more personal about SAP’s community, a greater commitment from the early adopters and proponents.
To prepare myself for this new challenge and new mode of working, I read “Net Gain” – one of the first books about virtual communities, by John Hagel – to get a sense of the task ahead. It became my “how to” manual.
Most importantly, I got personally engaged in the SAP community on a daily basis, saw the power of networked engagement to solve challenges and create strong bonds, and recognized the potential business benefits and customer value of social networking first-hand.
Once you participate in a social network, the value is exceedingly clear and blindingly obvious.
SAP is a huge company offering thousands of products and services in more than 25 global industries with 65,000 employees. With such a broad organization, how easy is it to ensure that successful social media strategies are replicated across a global company?
It’s unrealistic to expect that everyone across a large and complex organization to be executing in harmony, using standard approaches regardless of country or market nuances, and operating at the same skill level or phase of maturity.
I’m happy when a good percentage of our now-65,000 colleagues are doing something – anything – social, even if it’s just observing and listening. Then, once they get the itch to do more, I’m happy for our extended team of champions and early adopters and experts to help them make smart choices about how and when they approach social in a more thoughtful way, with the benefit of experience and its requisite successes and failures.
I then see the social media and “Pull Marketing” advocates connecting with each other, sharing insights and helping others to make progress. And we capture these insights into training modules, playbooks, case studies, and guidelines.
Our journey has been a very distributed approach, one marked more by directional leadership than by formal management, more by grassroots empowerment of the crowd, and less by top-down governance through rules or processes and procedures.
Since we have the usual constraints of time, energy, focus, people, and money, adoption is sometimes spotty and uneven. But I’m happy to see that in the aggregate, the company is moving forward fast, adopting good practices, learning and adapting through experience. The results are so compelling, and the untapped opportunities are so vast, that I’m happy with the rapid forward motion even if it is uneven at the moment – normalizing around common best practices can come later.
When you hear the term “social business” what does that mean to you?
To me, “social business” refers to a company that is “social first” or “social embedded” not just in a narrow area of Marketing like broadening awareness or generating demand, or even in a single department or business process, but social in everything and everywhere across the company regardless of department or line-of-business.
Think of potential use cases for any company: “social marketing” to increase reach and to influence the prospect’s buying journey by engaging them with employees, opinion influencers, and existing customers; “social selling” where the sales reps know their account’s hot topics and proactively work to solve them; “social product development” which involves the customer and the broader market in designing future solutions; “social HR” including recruitment through social channels; “social procurement” where buyers and sellers are connected in a networked web of relationships… the possibilities are endless.
Social business is realized when a company and its ecosystem of suppliers, partners, and customers have social networks and transactional networks embedded in their day-to-day practices.
And at some point we’ll drop the modifier “social” and just call it “business” because any company that isn’t operating as a “social business” will be at a massive competitive disadvantage and will be soon out-of-business.
These days, people not only check their email inbox, but also countless other accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by Social Media?
Just those? Add to your list Slideshare, YouTube, Vine, GooglePlus, RSS feeds from favorite blogs and bloggers, Pinterest, Foursquare, Instagram, and the latest app of the moment, and it’s even worse.
Absolutely, there are times when I feel overwhelmed, but social media is not the culprit. But what’s the alternative? To be out-of-touch, out-of-step, clueless about what’s going on, less connected, less aware, less productive, less relevant, and less valuable?
I think our collective feeling of being overwhelmed reflects the busy-ness of our lives in the twenty-first century, the competition for our attention, the always-on nature of work, the ultra-connectedness we gain from technology, the increased pace of work and life, the higher expectations our devices and our behaviors establish for responsiveness, and the finite aspect of time.
My best advice is to take it one app at a time, and supplant underperforming channels – those that don’t yield much value – with new ones where activity and benefits are higher. Maybe email will eventually succumb and be crushed under its own weight. Or other apps and channels will. In the meantime, don’t feel like you have to do it all, to be the top contributor or node connector in all of them. Choose what works for your role and your company and your own personal style, and focus on those while minimizing the rest.
What do you think has been the key to SAP’s success with the SCN to date?
They key to SCN is – and hopefully always will be – the people, and the human connections we enable.
When I say “people,” I’m not talking just about the team that skillfully runs the technology and infrastructure with monthly upgrades and improvements, or the team that helps manage our community content or encourages our members to contribute, or the team that helps new SAP product or industry or audience groups to engage – but the people who make-up the community.
Our SCN community members – customers, partners, independent consultants, thought leaders, pundits – do as much “managing” of the community as we do as the core SAP team. We host the community for its members, while they largely define what’s important, they set our priorities, establish the culture and tone of conversation, define the boundaries of desired behavior, govern content quality, and set the scope of relevant topics.
Our SCN members tell us that they are better skilled in their roles, more valuable in their jobs, and more successful in their careers because they consume, communicate, contribute, and collaborate in the SAP community. Those community members are the heart and soul of SCN. Our “secret sauce” in orchestrating that community has simply been to find ways to enable, empower, encourage, and trust those community members to seed, nurture, grow, and tend their community.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
I wish I would have known when we’d reach the tipping point, and then how rapid the pace would become once the rest of the company and the ecosystem caught on to the value of social. I feel like we spent years and years pushing, prodding, promoting, and advocating for what we saw early as a potential game-changer: the use of social media and social networking, through both public and hosted channels, to serve customers, broaden our reach, influence the market, and to participate in deeper relationships with customers, prospects, partners, and influencers. It was a long, uphill slog. Then, all of a sudden it seems, a wave of interest and demand has crested and we’re now paddling as fast as we can just to keep up with the interest, desire, and demand to do more, better, faster.
Aside from the onrush of recent interest in social, I also wish we knew that the lines between “B2B” and “B2C” would blur so quickly and so decisively. Customers are now in control of the buying process, whether they are purchasing a pair of running shoes or million-dollar software.
In social conversations there are no big glass buildings buying software, the brand of multi-national corporations is not the logo or what it says but is the aggregate of its employee and market conversation, the gobbledygook of old-school marketing speak is finally on the wane, and the distinctions between marketing for B2B versus B2C are fading. It’s not B2B or B2C, it’s B2P and P2P: business- and people-to-people. Many aspects of the “Cluetrain Manifesto” are finally coming to fruition, and it’s wonderful to witness, to be a part of, and to be supporting, enabling, and accelerating that transformation.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is in the process of setting up a customer community?
It’s not as easy as it looks: vibrant communities appear to be natural, fluid, frictionless, but they require a tremendous amount of hard work by good people in the background. And it’s a long-term commitment: a relationship rather than a date.
Creating a new community can be challenging, no doubt. But, if you understand what value you are trying to create for your customers – what they need in the market – and then diligently provide that for them, you are well on your way.
Along the way, don’t ever forget that the community members – your customers – are people just like you looking for answers to their questions. Solve even one small challenge for them – access to technical information, fluid connections to other customers, an easier product evaluation tool are just a few examples – and you have a starting point.
In the end, the benefits your company gains, and that your ecosystem of customers and partners gain, and that you gain by being a part of it, will be far more than you expect or can even measure.
Has SCN got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
SCN has exceeded my wildest expectations on every level. We grew from under 200,000 members when I started at SAP to well over 2 million today. The community has expanded from developers and technologists to all sort of other functional roles including core business people.
The community has influenced SAP’s product roadmap, solution features and functionality, our support processes, our policies, and our company’s strategic direction. It has changed the way we engage with customers, and set the foundation for our social media presence.
SAP Community Network members come to our defense when we’re under fire, they prod us to go faster or in different directions, they point out gaps in our offerings that we can then fill. They help each other with an altruistic “pay it forward” attitude, they improve customer success and therefore enhance customer loyalty.
Our most-senior executives listen to the voice of the community in guiding our strategies, and people deep in the SAP org chart or in back-office roles who rarely interacted with actual customers before now have rich relationships with customers all over the world. The SAP community has changed our company from the outside in.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
My greatest life achievement is my family: an amazing, talented, beautiful wife who is the glue for our crew, my three kids who are all grown, employed, making their way successfully navigating and contributing to the big world out there, and my two grandsons. All of us are closely connected and intertwined, we enjoy each other’s company and appreciate one another’s gifts and quirks, and we take joy in each other’s successes and small victories.
My greatest business achievement is my overall journey at SAP. I’ve played a small role leading the team that managed and shepherded SCN to where it is today – and I’m proud to say that it is a model for business social networks. In addition, I’m enjoying SAP’s leadership in social media, our top rankings and solid results through digital marketing and the SAP.com websites. These are solid foundations, the work we’ve done will last long into the future, and digital / social / communities are just at the starting point – there is a lot of runway and tremendous potential for growth and expansion from here forward.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
My biggest hurdle right now is, and will continue to be, evolving this 40-year-old company of 65,000 employees to become a world-class social business, at the forefront of this market transformation especially as others have awoken to the potential, helping to chart the path for our customers and others. We’ve made huge progress already, but there is so far yet to go.
There is no company of our size that has achieved this so holistically, and we want to keep accelerating and always be at the lead. We need to shift more of our resources to achieve this, and that’s always a challenge. We need to evolve skills, change business practices, put systems in place, and re-orient our focus. But culture will always the hardest thing to change and sustain, and perhaps the most important, to get social business practices ingrained into our institutional muscle memory.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
There is no better time to be a Marketer than right now. All the major business trends we talk about today – social, mobile, big data, analytics, cloud – they all provide tremendous opportunities to apply the art and the science of marketing to connect with customers in entirely new ways.
The economic climate is also recovering. I believe we’re coming back strong from the global recession that began back in 2008. I think 2013 will be a year of continued and significant economic growth, and that’s great news for anyone in business.
And for me, SAP’s journey to becoming a social business provides an opportunity to renew our profession, and to humanize and modernize our approach. I get a charge from building something extraordinary, and I see growth and expansion ahead. These are exciting times, transformational, that we’ll look back on from the future and realize what a leap we all made together.
Can you convince the reader to join SCN in under 50 words?
Sure. Ok, here goes:
The SAP Community Network is where you‘ll find thousands of business and technology professionals, passionate advocates, knowledgeable experts, insightful information, interesting exchanges, rich resources, and friendly people to help your company run better and who want to help you succeed. You’re welcome to join us at SCN.
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