Communicating In A Digitized Workplace

Stefan Ries

In the new SAP Future Factor series, SAP executives, thought leaders, and academics discuss the impacts of digitization on organizations. It is a forum to exchange views about the opportunities and challenges of a digitized workplace and business culture.

As a follow-up on their discussion on digitization, work, and HR a couple months ago, I sat down with Kevin Kruse, leadership expert and author of the New York Times bestseller “We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement,” to discuss the ways in which digitization has changed communication in the workplace.

Stefan: What do you see as the emerging trends that will impact communications in the workplace?

Kevin: Technology changes are happening at lightning speed. In my opinion, the biggest trend impacting communications is mobile technology. Practically everything we read, transmit, and consume, we do on a mobile device. You can be connected to colleagues instantaneously. Then there are social media and instant-messaging platforms, alongside many other tools, which impact communication and collaboration.

Stefan:  I agree, and in addition to mobile and social media, there are virtual tools, like video conferencing and the proliferation of telepresence, which are changing collaboration at work. We can instantly conduct meetings with colleagues from around the world, with the feeling that everyone is in the same room.

Beyond that, there is artificial intelligence (AI), encompassing the rise of virtual personal assistants, smart cars, drones, robots, security surveillance, etc. AI is going to transform almost every job. Therefore, re-skilling the workforce will play a vital role in facing those trends successfully. 

Kevin: Speaking of skills and re-skilling, how are you seeing different generations within an organization communicating with each other through the tools/skills they know best?

Stefan: We have five generations working at SAP. Our training, re-skilling, and mentorship programs bring together employees from different generations for knowledge sharing. This includes younger employees mentoring older employees on how to use social media or new digital collaboration tools. Our youngest generation has brought us something transformational in terms of the social media environment, which goes beyond just feeling comfortable with technology. They have the same expectation from management and their colleagues to use technology to communicate, no matter what age.

Kevin: To support an inter-generational workforce, we need a blended approach that acknowledges different learning styles, backgrounds, and preferences, and not just embraces the latest technology. Based on my observations, boomers and Gen Xers spoke on the phone and met face-to-face. Millennials grew up with technology and feel more comfortable communicating through texts and IMs. Using different communications channels is extremely important. Today organizations need to communicate across different channels to reach all of their audience. One email is not enough.

Stefan:  I believe digitization has a big impact also on the overall culture of an organization. How do you see digital communications changing the corporate culture?

Kevin: Indeed. I believe that social media and cloud computing are the driving forces that change corporate culture. People are quick to express themselves on social media, frequently with emotion before thought, which can lead to serious consequences. Companies need to continuously educate their employees that they are “brand ambassadors,” adhering to standards about the company and the brand, being vigilant about where and when to voice conflicting opinions to the CEO and executive team, and monitoring what’s said about the competition. In the age of cloud computing, the function of HR – not only in terms of measuring employee performance and defining new ways to work, but also in terms of monitoring sentiment and educating employees – becomes even more critical.

Stefan: Completely agree; we have entered the age of a performance driven cloud culture. By working in virtual teams, performance is independent of place and time. We also are redefining how we lead our employees around the world and how we grow our talent in a digitized work place. Digital tools open up new ways to simplify our organization. There is a tremendous opportunity for us HR professionals to build the organization of the future with cloud technology.

Kevin: Last, let’s talk about how digital communication is changing the way we perform our jobs and the role that HR plays in that? What is your take on that?

Stefan: My favorite topic. I believe that HR’s role expands further to define a digitized work place that empowers employees without overwhelming them. Digitization is often covered from the extreme point of views. There is the personal freedom that comes with the digital office and then there is also some angst around digitization and automatization and the job changes they might imply. In my point of view, HR’s role is to help embrace digitization and guide employees through the process. Automation enhances the integrated man-made machine learning and collaboration, but it doesn’t come with the human touch. You can improve the unconscious bias by using the latest technology, but what remains is the intuitive judgment.

Overall, I believe HR needs to lead the way in which new technologies and services are employed globally. Hence, guide the workforce on its way to gradually adapt new working models. At the same time, HR shall advocate a responsible use of smart devices since a healthy organization also needs to disconnect. Although, or simply because, new technologies enable employees to stay online 24/7.

Kevin: Yes, organizations need to set boundaries about when and where to communicate. Workers in France, for instance, won the right to ignore business emails that arrive after hours. As always in life, it’s all a question of finding the right balance!

Thanks, Stefan, am looking forward to the next SAP Future Factor.

For more insight on how digitalization is impacting the workplace, see Rewire Your Workplace For The Digital World Of Work.


Stefan Ries

About Stefan Ries

Stefan Ries is Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), Labor Relations Director, and a member of the Executive Board of SAP SE. Stefan was born in Bavaria and raised in Constance, Germany, where he spent most of his youth. After receiving his masters of business in economics from the University of Constance in 1991, he moved to Munich. He started his career as HR Manager at Microsoft, overseeing HR duties in Austria, Switzerland, and East European countries. In July 1994, he went on to lead the HR function for Compaq Computer in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Following the company’s acquisitions of Tandem Computers and Digital Equipment Corporation in 1999 and 2000, Stefan led the entire HR organization for Compaq in Germany. Stefan first joined SAP in 2002 and later became responsible for various HR functions, heading up the HR business partner organization and overseeing all HR functions on an operational level. To support innovation, Stefan attaches great importance to a diverse working culture. He is convinced that appreciating the differences among people, their unique backgrounds and personalities is a key success factor for SAP.