Take These Four Necessary Actions To Prevent T&E Fraud

Cara McDonald

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the money lost by businesses to fraudsters amounts to more than $3.5 trillion each year.

That’s a big number. And while many CFOs and business leaders would like to think it won’t happen at their company, the truth is, if there is any kind of employee reimbursement program, there is the chance of fraud. But don’t sit back and wait. Instead be proactive and stop fraud before it happens. How? The best way to fend off fraud starts with getting a handle on your expense management program. (Need a place to start? Check out this expense policy template.)

Reel in all the apps

There is an app for just about anything, from transportation to hotel to banking and everything in between. While apps do make life convenient for the end user, they can also create challenges for finance teams trying to capture employee expenses. The use of all these apps also leads to increased errors and opens the opportunity for dishonest claims.

Take control of app usage by explicitly stating which apps employees can and cannot use. Ensure that any approved apps allow for easy tracking and transparency and update your expense policy with instructions on acceptable use and reimbursement process.

Implement a corporate card program

Many companies shy away from a corporate card program, thinking it will be hard to manage and open the opportunity for careless spending and, well, fraud. But, a corporate card program does the exact opposite. By mandating a corporate card program, you can more easily integrate your T&E data, validate costs and provide tighter controls over approved expenses and claims.

How does a corporate card program help with fraud? When an employee knows their company will be reviewing their credit card statement, it’s that much harder to hide or create fraudulent claims.

Go beyond automation to integration

Automating your expense management system is a great first step toward reducing error and fraud in your company. By going a step further, and integrating your travel and expense data, you will gain the visibility you and your team need to have a better grasp of employee spend.

Not only will your team enjoy the benefits of real-time data at their fingertips, you will be able to set tighter controls over expenses. Any expenses that are imported into your expense management system ensures that employees can’t modify or falsify expenses.

Automation and integration also benefit business travelers. Filing expense reports is much faster, and the process is easier, reducing error and increasing time to reimbursement. Enterprise mobility plays a huge factor in business travel, and an integrated expense management system can incorporate the use of mobile phones for capturing expenses on the road. This lessens the chance of lost receipts.

Take a closer look and audit

A review and audit of your expense management system is in order to ensure that you are properly incorporating updates to technology and process. In addition, advertising that you will be following up on and auditing expense reports keeps your employees honest.

Take this opportunity to get a grasp on expense management and reduce fraud in your company. Start 2018 off on the right foot: Learn more by downloading this report on T&E audit best practices.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)  | LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Cara McDonald

About Cara McDonald

Cara McDonald is a marketing consultant for Concur.

The CFO Role In 2020

Estelle Lagorce

African American businessman looking out office window --- Image by © Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/CorbisThe role of the CFO is undergoing a serious transformation, and CFOs can expect their role to continue to evolve, according to a recent CFO.com article by Deloitte COO and CFO Frank Friedman.

In the futurist article, Friedman says one of the biggest factors that will contribute to the CFO’s significant change over the next five years is technology.

Digital technology is obviously expected to drive change in high-tech companies, but Friedman says it’s industries outside of the tech sectors that are of particular interest, as they struggle to understand how to grasp and harness the digital capabilities available to them.

Working with high tech in low-tech industries

Five years from now, a finance team may be defined by how well it uses technology and innovative business tools, regardless of what industry it’s in. The article outlines some examples of ways that digital technology will increasingly be used by CFOs in “non-tech” sectors:

  • Predictive analytics: CFOs in manufacturing companies can forecast results and produce revenue predictions based on customer-experience profiles and current demand, instead of comparing to previous years as most companies still do today.
  • Social media and crowdsourcing: You may not think CFOs spend a lot of time on social media or crowdsourcing sites, but these methods can actually expedite finance processes, such as month-end responsibilities of the finance organization.
  • Big Data: CFOs already have a lot of data at their fingertips, but in 2020 they will have even more. CFOs in both tech and non-tech sectors who understand how to use that data to make valuable, informed decisions, can strategically guide their company and industry in a more digitally oriented world.

To do this, Friedman says CFOs can lead the way by addressing some critical areas:

  1. Know the issues: Gather the key questions that leaders expect Big Data analytics to answer.
  1. Make data easily accessible: Collect data that is manageable and easy to access.
  1. Broaden skills: The finance team needs people with the skills to understand and strategically interpret the data available to them.

The tech-savvy CFO

The role of today’s CFO has already expanded to include strategic corporate growth advice as well as managing the bottom line. In 2020, Friedman says expectations placed on the CFO are presumed to be even greater, and CFOs will likely need a much more diverse, multidisciplinary skill set to meet those demands.

The article details several traits and skills that CFOs will need in order to keep up with the pace of digital change in their role.

  1. Digital knowledge: CFOs must be tech-savvy in order to capitalize on technical innovations that will benefit their company and their industry as a whole.
  1. Data-driven execution: CFOs will need the ability to execute company strategy and operations decisions based on data-driven insights.
  1. Regulatory compliance: Regulations continue to be more stringent globally, so CFOs will need to be proficient at working closely with regulators and compliance systems.
  1. Risk management: With the growing global economy comes increased cyber and geopolitical risks worldwide. The CFOs of 2020, especially those in large multinational organizations, will need to have the expertise to monitor and manage risk in areas that may be unforeseen today.

The future CFO’s well-rounded resume

By 2020, the CFO role will require much more than just an accounting background. According to Deloitte’s Frank Friedman, “CFOs may need to bring a much more multidisciplinary skill set to the job as well as broader career experiences, from working overseas to holding positions in sales and marketing, and even running a business unit.”

So if you’re a current or aspiring CFO, you have five years to round out your resume with the necessary skills to be ready for the digitally driven role of the CFO in 2020.

The above information is based on the CFO.com article What Will the CFO Role Look Like In 2020?” by Deloitte COO & CFO, Frank Friedman – Copyright © 2015 CFO.com.

Want to learn more about best practices for transforming your finance organization? View the SAP/Deloitte Webinar, “Reshaping the Finance Function”.

For an in-depth look at digital technology’s role in business transformation, download the SAP eBook, The Digital Economy: Reinventing the Business World.

To learn more about the business and technology factors driving digital disruption, download the SAP eBook, Digital Disruption: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our World.

To read more CFO insights from a tech industry perspective, read the Wall Street Journal article with SAP CFO Luka Mucic: Driving Insight with In-memory Technology.

Discover 7 Questions CFOs Should Ask Themselves About Cyber Security.

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Estelle Lagorce

About Estelle Lagorce

Estelle Lagorce is the Director, Global Partner Marketing, at SAP. She leads the global planning, successful implementation and business impact of integrated marketing programs with top global Strategic Partner across priority regions and countries (demand generation, thought leadership).

Get Your Payables House In Order

Chris Rauen

First of 8 blogs in the series

Too many organizations ignore the business potential from streamlining accounts payable operations. In a digital economy, however, this may represent one of the best opportunities to improve financial performance and boost the bottom line.

In its recent report, E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground, the research and advisory firm Ardent Partners made a strong case for accounts payable transformation. “In 2015, more AP groups are accelerating their plans to transform their operations and scale to new heights,” states the report.

The digital makeover

From a payables perspective, how you go about fixing outdated procure-to-pay (P2P) practices is much like the decision to improve an aging home. Do you tear your house down and build a new one, or leverage as much of the existing structure as you can and begin a major home improvement project?

There is, of course, a third option. Take no action and make calls to plumbers, electricians, roofers, and other specialists as needed before the house falls apart altogether. While few organizations would consider a “triage” strategy the best option to address deficiencies in P2P operations, many still do. (Just don’t share that with your CFO.)

This blog post is the first in a series that will examine options for upgrading procure-to-pay processes from outclassed to best-in-class. Continuing to focus time and effort on managing transactions just doesn’t make sense. With today’s business networks, organizations have new ways to collaborate with suppliers and other partners to buy, sell, and manage cash.

Automation handles low-value activities, eliminating data entry, exception management, and payment status phone calls. That leaves more time for benchmarking operations, monitoring supplier performance, expanding early payment discounts, and improving management of working capital – the kinds of things that can dramatically improve business performance.

Where do you start?

To begin, you have to recognize that getting your payables house in order is much more than a process efficiency initiative. While cost savings from e-invoicing can be 60% to 80% lower than paper invoicing, there’s much more to the business case.

Improving contract compliance and expanding early payment discounts are other components of a business case for P2P transformation. According to various procure-to-pay research studies and Ariba customer results, the cost savings from getting your payables house in order are conservatively estimated to be $10 million per billion collars of spend. We’ll break down these ROI components in greater detail in future posts on this topic.

The value of alignment

Another important first step, validated by the Ardent Partners report, is getting procurement and finance-accounts payables in alignment. As this is a holistic process, you’ll need to make sure that both organizations are in sync, and you have support from upper management to make it happen.

Now, back to the question: Do you approach a payables makeover to support P2P transformation as a tear-down or a fixer-upper? If your procurement-accounts payable teams are out of alignment, your P2P processes are predominantly paper, and decentralized buying leaves little control over spend, you’re looking at a tear-down to lay the foundation for best practices payables. We’ll share a blueprint with you in the next post in this series.

Chris Rauen is a solution marketer for Ariba, an SAP company. He regularly contributes to topics including e-invoicing and dynamic discounting as well as the value of collaborating in a digital economy. 

Learn more about how to take your payables to the next level of performance in Ardent Partners’ research report “E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground.

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Chris Rauen

About Chris Rauen

In his role at SAP Ariba, Chris Rauen educates procurement, finance, and shared services professionals on the business value of accounts payable automation, procure-to-pay transformation, and collaboration via business networks. Chris has addressed these topics at finance and shared services conferences, in articles for trade and business publications, and in blogs for online communities. Chris has more than 15 years of experience in e-payables, and holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

More Than Noise: Digital Trends That Are Bigger Than You Think

By Maurizio Cattaneo, David Delaney, Volker Hildebrand, and Neal Ungerleider

In the tech world in 2017, several trends emerged as signals amid the noise, signifying much larger changes to come.

As we noted in last year’s More Than Noise list, things are changing—and the changes are occurring in ways that don’t necessarily fit into the prevailing narrative.

While many of 2017’s signals have a dark tint to them, perhaps reflecting the times we live in, we have sought out some rays of light to illuminate the way forward. The following signals differ considerably, but understanding them can help guide businesses in the right direction for 2018 and beyond.

When a team of psychologists, linguists, and software engineers created Woebot, an AI chatbot that helps people learn cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for managing mental health issues like anxiety and depression, they did something unusual, at least when it comes to chatbots: they submitted it for peer review.

Stanford University researchers recruited a sample group of 70 college-age participants on social media to take part in a randomized control study of Woebot. The researchers found that their creation was useful for improving anxiety and depression symptoms. A study of the user interaction with the bot was submitted for peer review and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health in June 2017.

While Woebot may not revolutionize the field of psychology, it could change the way we view AI development. Well-known figures such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have expressed concerns that artificial intelligence is essentially ungovernable. Peer review, such as with the Stanford study, is one way to approach this challenge and figure out how to properly evaluate and find a place for these software programs.

The healthcare community could be onto something. We’ve already seen instances where AI chatbots have spun out of control, such as when internet trolls trained Microsoft’s Tay to become a hate-spewing misanthrope. Bots are only as good as their design; making sure they stay on message and don’t act in unexpected ways is crucial.

This is especially true in healthcare. When chatbots are offering therapeutic services, they must be properly designed, vetted, and tested to maintain patient safety.

It may be prudent to apply the same level of caution to a business setting. By treating chatbots as if they’re akin to medicine or drugs, we have a model for thorough vetting that, while not perfect, is generally effective and time tested.

It may seem like overkill to think of chatbots that manage pizza orders or help resolve parking tickets as potential health threats. But it’s already clear that AI can have unintended side effects that could extend far beyond Tay’s loathsome behavior.

For example, in July, Facebook shut down an experiment where it challenged two AIs to negotiate with each other over a trade. When the experiment began, the two chatbots quickly went rogue, developing linguistic shortcuts to reduce negotiating time and leaving their creators unable to understand what they were saying.

Do we want AIs interacting in a secret language because designers didn’t fully understand what they were designing?

The implications are chilling. Do we want AIs interacting in a secret language because designers didn’t fully understand what they were designing?

In this context, the healthcare community’s conservative approach doesn’t seem so farfetched. Woebot could ultimately become an example of the kind of oversight that’s needed for all AIs.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that chatbots have great potential in healthcare—not just for treating mental health issues but for helping patients understand symptoms, build treatment regimens, and more. They could also help unclog barriers to healthcare, which is plagued worldwide by high prices, long wait times, and other challenges. While they are not a substitute for actual humans, chatbots can be used by anyone with a computer or smartphone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of financial status.

Finding the right governance for AI development won’t happen overnight. But peer review, extensive internal quality analysis, and other processes will go a long way to ensuring bots function as expected. Otherwise, companies and their customers could pay a big price.

Elon Musk is an expert at dominating the news cycle with his sci-fi premonitions about space travel and high-speed hyperloops. However, he captured media attention in Australia in April 2017 for something much more down to earth: how to deal with blackouts and power outages.

In 2016, a massive blackout hit the state of South Australia following a storm. Although power was restored quickly in Adelaide, the capital, people in the wide stretches of arid desert that surround it spent days waiting for the power to return. That hit South Australia’s wine and livestock industries especially hard.

South Australia’s electrical grid currently gets more than half of its energy from wind and solar, with coal and gas plants acting as backups for when the sun hides or the wind doesn’t blow, according to ABC News Australia. But this network is vulnerable to sudden loss of generation—which is exactly what happened in the storm that caused the 2016 blackout, when tornadoes ripped through some key transmission lines. Getting the system back on stable footing has been an issue ever since.

Displaying his usual talent for showmanship, Musk stepped in and promised to build the world’s largest battery to store backup energy for the network—and he pledged to complete it within 100 days of signing the contract or the battery would be free. Pen met paper with South Australia and French utility Neoen in September. As of press time in November, construction was underway.

For South Australia, the Tesla deal offers an easy and secure way to store renewable energy. Tesla’s 129 MWh battery will be the most powerful battery system in the world by 60% once completed, according to Gizmodo. The battery, which is stationed at a wind farm, will cover temporary drops in wind power and kick in to help conventional gas and coal plants balance generation with demand across the network. South Australian citizens and politicians largely support the project, which Tesla claims will be able to power 30,000 homes.

Until Musk made his bold promise, batteries did not figure much in renewable energy networks, mostly because they just aren’t that good. They have limited charges, are difficult to build, and are difficult to manage. Utilities also worry about relying on the same lithium-ion battery technology as cellphone makers like Samsung, whose Galaxy Note 7 had to be recalled in 2016 after some defective batteries burst into flames, according to CNET.

However, when made right, the batteries are safe. It’s just that they’ve traditionally been too expensive for large-scale uses such as renewable power storage. But battery innovations such as Tesla’s could radically change how we power the economy. According to a study that appeared this year in Nature, the continued drop in the cost of battery storage has made renewable energy price-competitive with traditional fossil fuels.

This is a massive shift. Or, as David Roberts of news site Vox puts it, “Batteries are soon going to disrupt power markets at all scales.” Furthermore, if the cost of batteries continues to drop, supply chains could experience radical energy cost savings. This could disrupt energy utilities, manufacturing, transportation, and construction, to name just a few, and create many opportunities while changing established business models. (For more on how renewable energy will affect business, read the feature “Tick Tock” in this issue.)

Battery research and development has become big business. Thanks to electric cars and powerful smartphones, there has been incredible pressure to make more powerful batteries that last longer between charges.

The proof of this is in the R&D funding pudding. A Brookings Institution report notes that both the Chinese and U.S. governments offer generous subsidies for lithium-ion battery advancement. Automakers such as Daimler and BMW have established divisions marketing residential and commercial energy storage products. Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and General Electric are all experimenting with various electric propulsion systems for aircraft—which means that hybrid airplanes are also a possibility.

Meanwhile, governments around the world are accelerating battery research investment by banning internal combustion vehicles. Britain, France, India, and Norway are seeking to go all electric as early as 2025 and by 2040 at the latest.

In the meantime, expect huge investment and new battery innovation from interested parties across industries that all share a stake in the outcome. This past September, for example, Volkswagen announced a €50 billion research investment in batteries to help bring 300 electric vehicle models to market by 2030.

At first, it sounds like a narrative device from a science fiction novel or a particularly bad urban legend.

Powerful cameras in several Chinese cities capture photographs of jaywalkers as they cross the street and, several minutes later, display their photograph, name, and home address on a large screen posted at the intersection. Several days later, a summons appears in the offender’s mailbox demanding payment of a fine or fulfillment of community service.

As Orwellian as it seems, this technology is very real for residents of Jinan and several other Chinese cities. According to a Xinhua interview with Li Yong of the Jinan traffic police, “Since the new technology has been adopted, the cases of jaywalking have been reduced from 200 to 20 each day at the major intersection of Jingshi and Shungeng roads.”

The sophisticated cameras and facial recognition systems already used in China—and their near–real-time public shaming—are an example of how machine learning, mobile phone surveillance, and internet activity tracking are being used to censor and control populations. Most worryingly, the prospect of real-time surveillance makes running surveillance states such as the former East Germany and current North Korea much more financially efficient.

According to a 2015 discussion paper by the Institute for the Study of Labor, a German research center, by the 1980s almost 0.5% of the East German population was directly employed by the Stasi, the country’s state security service and secret police—1 for every 166 citizens. An additional 1.1% of the population (1 for every 66 citizens) were working as unofficial informers, which represented a massive economic drain. Automated, real-time, algorithm-driven monitoring could potentially drive the cost of controlling the population down substantially in police states—and elsewhere.

We could see a radical new era of censorship that is much more manipulative than anything that has come before. Previously, dissidents were identified when investigators manually combed through photos, read writings, or listened in on phone calls. Real-time algorithmic monitoring means that acts of perceived defiance can be identified and deleted in the moment and their perpetrators marked for swift judgment before they can make an impression on others.

Businesses need to be aware of the wider trend toward real-time, automated censorship and how it might be used in both commercial and governmental settings. These tools can easily be used in countries with unstable political dynamics and could become a real concern for businesses that operate across borders. Businesses must learn to educate and protect employees when technology can censor and punish in real time.

Indeed, the technologies used for this kind of repression could be easily adapted from those that have already been developed for businesses. For instance, both Facebook and Google use near–real-time facial identification algorithms that automatically identify people in images uploaded by users—which helps the companies build out their social graphs and target users with profitable advertisements. Automated algorithms also flag Facebook posts that potentially violate the company’s terms of service.

China is already using these technologies to control its own people in ways that are largely hidden to outsiders.

According to a report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the popular Chinese social network WeChat operates under a policy its authors call “One App, Two Systems.” Users with Chinese phone numbers are subjected to dynamic keyword censorship that changes depending on current events and whether a user is in a private chat or in a group. Depending on the political winds, users are blocked from accessing a range of websites that report critically on China through WeChat’s internal browser. Non-Chinese users, however, are not subject to any of these restrictions.

The censorship is also designed to be invisible. Messages are blocked without any user notification, and China has intermittently blocked WhatsApp and other foreign social networks. As a result, Chinese users are steered toward national social networks, which are more compliant with government pressure.

China’s policies play into a larger global trend: the nationalization of the internet. China, Russia, the European Union, and the United States have all adopted different approaches to censorship, user privacy, and surveillance. Although there are social networks such as WeChat or Russia’s VKontakte that are popular in primarily one country, nationalizing the internet challenges users of multinational services such as Facebook and YouTube. These different approaches, which impact everything from data safe harbor laws to legal consequences for posting inflammatory material, have implications for businesses working in multiple countries, as well.

For instance, Twitter is legally obligated to hide Nazi and neo-fascist imagery and some tweets in Germany and France—but not elsewhere. YouTube was officially banned in Turkey for two years because of videos a Turkish court deemed “insulting to the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,” father of modern Turkey. In Russia, Google must keep Russian users’ personal data on servers located inside Russia to comply with government policy.

While China is a pioneer in the field of instant censorship, tech companies in the United States are matching China’s progress, which could potentially have a chilling effect on democracy. In 2016, Apple applied for a patent on technology that censors audio streams in real time—automating the previously manual process of censoring curse words in streaming audio.

In March, after U.S. President Donald Trump told Fox News, “I think maybe I wouldn’t be [president] if it wasn’t for Twitter,” Twitter founder Evan “Ev” Williams did something highly unusual for the creator of a massive social network.

He apologized.

Speaking with David Streitfeld of The New York Times, Williams said, “It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that. If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

Entrepreneurs tend to be very proud of their innovations. Williams, however, offers a far more ambivalent response to his creation’s success. Much of the 2016 presidential election’s rancor was fueled by Twitter, and the instant gratification of Twitter attracts trolls, bullies, and bigots just as easily as it attracts politicians, celebrities, comedians, and sports fans.

Services such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram are designed through a mix of look and feel, algorithmic wizardry, and psychological techniques to hang on to users for as long as possible—which helps the services sell more advertisements and make more money. Toxic political discourse and online harassment are unintended side effects of the economic-driven urge to keep users engaged no matter what.

Keeping users’ eyeballs on their screens requires endless hours of multivariate testing, user research, and algorithm refinement. For instance, Casey Newton of tech publication The Verge notes that Google Brain, Google’s AI division, plays a key part in generating YouTube’s video recommendations.

According to Jim McFadden, the technical lead for YouTube recommendations, “Before, if I watch this video from a comedian, our recommendations were pretty good at saying, here’s another one just like it,” he told Newton. “But the Google Brain model figures out other comedians who are similar but not exactly the same—even more adjacent relationships. It’s able to see patterns that are less obvious.”

A never-ending flow of content that is interesting without being repetitive is harder to resist. With users glued to online services, addiction and other behavioral problems occur to an unhealthy degree. According to a 2016 poll by nonprofit research company Common Sense Media, 50% of American teenagers believe they are addicted to their smartphones.

This pattern is extending into the workplace. Seventy-five percent of companies told research company Harris Poll in 2016 that two or more hours a day are lost in productivity because employees are distracted. The number one reason? Cellphones and texting, according to 55% of those companies surveyed. Another 41% pointed to the internet.

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, argues that many product designers for online services try to exploit psychological vulnerabilities in a bid to keep users engaged for longer periods. Harris refers to an iPhone as “a slot machine in my pocket” and argues that user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designers need to adopt something akin to a Hippocratic Oath to stop exploiting users’ psychological vulnerabilities.

In fact, there is an entire school of study devoted to “dark UX”—small design tweaks to increase profits. These can be as innocuous as a “Buy Now” button in a visually pleasing color or as controversial as when Facebook tweaked its algorithm in 2012 to show a randomly selected group of almost 700,000 users (who had not given their permission) newsfeeds that skewed more positive to some users and more negative to others to gauge the impact on their respective emotional states, according to an article in Wired.

As computers, smartphones, and televisions come ever closer to convergence, these issues matter increasingly to businesses. Some of the universal side effects of addiction are lost productivity at work and poor health. Businesses should offer training and help for employees who can’t stop checking their smartphones.

Mindfulness-centered mobile apps such as Headspace, Calm, and Forest offer one way to break the habit. Users can also choose to break internet addiction by going for a walk, turning their computers off, or using tools like StayFocusd or Freedom to block addictive websites or apps.

Most importantly, companies in the business of creating tech products need to design software and hardware that discourages addictive behavior. This means avoiding bad designs that emphasize engagement metrics over human health. A world of advertising preroll showing up on smart refrigerator touchscreens at 2 a.m. benefits no one.

According to a 2014 study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, approximately 6% of the world’s population suffers from internet addiction to one degree or another. As more users in emerging economies gain access to cheap data, smartphones, and laptops, that percentage will only increase. For businesses, getting a head start on stopping internet addiction will make employees happier and more productive. D!


About the Authors

Maurizio Cattaneo is Director, Delivery Execution, Energy, and Natural Resources, at SAP.

David Delaney is Global Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, SAP Health.

Volker Hildebrand is Global Vice President for SAP Hybris solutions.

Neal Ungerleider is a Los Angeles-based technology journalist and consultant.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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No Longer Soft Skills: Five Crucial Workplace Skills Everyone Should Learn

Carmen O'Shea

My child’s elementary school focuses on skills they believe support children in becoming changemakers. Through use of an integrated, project-based curriculum, they explicitly teach and assess “learner values” such as iteration, risk, failure, collaboration, and perspective. Their philosophy is that these attributes long considered “soft skills” have become the crucial educational priorities for this generation.

Why do they believe this? Much knowledge is now easily accessed and readily queried, such that the acquisition of specific content or know-how is far less important than how to apply that content in different situations and how to interact with others in the pursuit of goals. This holds true in the workplace as well as the academic environment. When I think about how I operate in my job at a large technology company, it’s not really what I know but what I do with what I know, and whom I engage to get things accomplished.

Watching the school teach these skills just as they do math or language has made me stop and consider what they look like for an employee. I wanted to share my thoughts on five qualities beyond relevant academic skills or professional experience that are just as important (if not more so) in predicting top work performance. These are more qualitative skills that managers should hire for, employees should develop, and organizations should optimize for.

  • Empathythe ability to see and integrate multiple perspectives and to understand the impact of how others think. Empathy can also mean advocating and showing empathy for oneself and for others. Empathy is assuming a good intention even when someone has said or done something we dislike – to stop and pause, attempt to understand, and respond compassionately in a difficult workplace situation. Empathy also extends to intuiting beyond just the professional environment to more of a personal level to truly understand what drives a colleague or employee.
  • Resiliencethe ability to take risks even when you know you may fail and then to bounce back, sometimes repeatedly, from failure. Inherent in resilience is the idea of iteration – that it is often essential to try things multiple times, in multiple ways, from multiple angles, before achieving a desired outcome. Resilience is receiving difficult yet constructive feedback from a manager or peer and resolving to act positively on it instead of wallowing or harboring a grudge. Resilience is maintaining a sense of optimism even in a down quarter at work.
  • Creativitythe ability to think differently or expansively and to approach a problem from multiple angles. Sometimes it’s called “thinking outside the box.” Creativity often includes inquiry, the act of questioning and satisfying one’s curiosity about particular topics. Torrance defined it along several parameters – number of ideas generated, number of categories of ideas, originality of ideas, and how detailed each idea is elaborated. We see it in action during brainstorming phases of projects, but it’s also possible to apply creativity on a continual basis, by pushing colleagues to expand on their thoughts, by not being satisfied with a less than stellar answer, by taking time to understand how multiple approaches to an issue could be combined, or by simply trying something new in a familiar situation.
  • Collaborationthe ability to interact and work productively with others, in all size groups. Effective collaboration requires empathy, especially when collaborators have different backgrounds, styles, or thought processes. Collaboration also requires exemplary communication skills, both oral and written, as well as reflective listening. So much of our tasks on the job require collaboration with others, whether to inform, persuade, learn, or engage, and these interactions form the bedrock for innovation. It’s tough to innovate without collaborating.
  • Flexibilitythe ability to adapt or change course if that is what the situation demands. Flexibility includes letting go of one’s idea in the interest of attaining a goal more quickly. It can also include development a comfort level with uncertainty or ambiguity, especially in times of change. Flexibility is a willingness to absorb feedback objectively and course correct as needed without personalizing the information or demonizing the provider of it. Expounding on another’s idea (not our own) in a brainstorming session demonstrates flexibility, as does remaining calm while an org change takes effect and roles are temporarily unclear.

When employees exhibit these qualities, they are better able to understand their purpose at work and to unleash their passions in the pursuit of that purpose. When teams exhibit these qualities, achievement and employee engagement are higher.  I wager that retention and innovation will improve as well. It’s heartening that as a society we’re beginning to consider how to best prepare our children educationally for the kind of work environments they will encounter after they finish their academic journey.

Do you also see these qualities as valuable in assessing employee fit? How can managers and organizations better identify, train and reward employees for living these qualities?

For more on this topic, see Your Business Needs People With Skills, Not Just Qualifications.

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Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O’Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.