SAP Labs India follows unorthodox ways to break the monotony of a techie’s job and has managed to raise retention levels. Other units of the German company are now looking to replicate the initiatives

India-born British writer Amit Chaudhary was in Kolkata early this year when he got a call from a Bangalore-based software engineer who invited him to a book-reading session at SAP Labs India. He immediately said yes, because he was impressed by the caller’s knowledge of his oeuvre and the prospect of interacting with an “unusual” audience.

“I found the crowd perceptive…their response to literature and the arts was brilliant,” says Chaudhury, who discussed both his music and writing with the young crowd at the Bangalore office of SAP Labs India, a subsidiary of the Walldorf, Germany-headquartered SAP AG. “It is nice to see that they are breaking the monotony of a techie’s job, by talking to writers,” adds Chaudhury.

Sumit Shetty, a book worm, is the coordinator for Literati, SAP’s book-reading club, which has so far invited writers with varied tastes and outlook either in Bangalore or at its Gurgaon office — the names include Mark Tully, Vikas Swarup, Anita Nair, Shashi Deshpande, Shobhaa De, Alice Albinia, Abhijit Bhaduri, Advaita Kala, Mukul Kesavan, Rana Dasgupta, Sarnath Banerjee and CP Surendran. Shetty says behind this initiative is the thought that “a creative mind, which needs to write a code, should be exposed to a lot of ideas, especially from the non-technical stream”. Such interactions stimulate and expand your mind, says he, adding that after the chat with Albinia, whose work Leela’s Book draws on The Mahabharata, one of his colleagues came up with the idea of creating a “family tree software application”. “You return cleansed,” he says. Such sessions are held during work hours for one full hour.

Interesting Diversions

Less than three years old, SAP’s author-interaction club has started working with publishers such as Harper Collins and Random House who alert Literati when authors are “in town”, says Shetty. Lipika Bhushan of Harper Collins says Literati is “sort of unique” and highly organised. “Authors are excited about it…they often give very positive feedback.” What she finds commendable is “its regularity in organising events”. Random House’s Rachel Tanzer says Literati sessions “are an interesting diversion to the standard hotel or bookstore events”. Bangalore-based writer Anita Nair, too, says the sessions at SAP Labs are well-organised. The first book-reading session at SAP was held in February 2008 with Abhijit Bhaduri, the author of Mediocre But Arrogant. The company doesn’t pay the authors, but does buy some 50 of their books.

Literati is just one of the 27-odd “interest groups” SAP’s 36-year-old managing director VR Ferose — who founded the book-reading group at the company — is banking on to improve what he calls overall productivity at work. Attrition, he says, is not a cause for concern, but activities that these groups promote have ensured that members of such groups stay a tad longer in the company. Nearly 50% of SAP Labs India’s 4,000 employees are members of one interest group or the other. At SAP Labs, on an average, in the past 10 years, employees who were members of such groups put in six years compared with nonmembers who worked for four years.

Beyond the Disinterest

Ferose, who joined SAP Labs 13 years ago, is a soccer player and a marathon runner and he was instrumental in setting up many of these groups. At SAP, they have interest groups for badminton, chess, quiz, cycling, running, soccer, etc. The list goes on. After he was named the managing director of its Gurgaon centre three years ago, Ferose started more such groups, which were later extended to the Bangalore centre last year when he got the additional charge as MD of SAP Labs, Bangalore.

It was Ferose who started the Leadership Talk Series (LTS) at SAP Labs in January 2008 at its Gurgaon unit. XQUIZIT (pronounced ‘exquisite’) was founded on September 29, 2000, by the quiz enthusiasts at the company. Since its inception, the group has been involved in several quizzing tournaments. SAP Roadies is a group of runners and cyclists. SAP FC is the official football team of SAP Labs India, Bangalore. Formed in 1999, it is one SAP’s oldest interest groups.

Says Ferose: “Our objective is to create an environment which is unique and appreciated by employees.” Sure, he is used to the initial disinterest among employees to anything new. Though SAP has had many interest groups, when the book-reading sessions were launched, there were skeptics. “However, since this is now a sustained initiative, there are several converts. The response has been phenomenal. For instance, a book-reading session by (former Infosys director) Sudha Murthy saw over 500 attendees compared with the first session which had 35 people…our LTS, too, has on an average of over 500 people attending it,” says Ferose.

SAP uses multiple locations with varying capacities to host the events, depending on the session and interest it generates. Prominent names at its leadership talk sessions include APJ Abdul Kalam, Kiran Bedi, Arwind Kejriwal, Harsha Bhogle, Nasser Hussain, NR Narayana Murthy, Subroto Bagchi, Rahul Bose, Shekhar Kapur, Santosh Hegde, Ramachandra Guha and so on.

Going Global

According to Ferose, many of his employees are increasingly finding these sessions “a perfect situation” because they are free to choose people to invite — and that has helped the company offer an eclectic mix of speakers to employees. Speakers so far included social entrepreneurs such as Harish Hande, Anshu Gupta, Brij Kothari and Thorkil Sonne. Recently, SAP started a Business Women Network, a platform to share experiences, support and advise SAP on the benefit of women in business. In fact, the board of SAP has committed to increasing the number of women in management positions from the current level of 18% to 25% by 2017.

Interestingly, some of Ferose’s initiatives, including book-reading sessions, have been recognised as best practices and 13 other SAP Labs around the world are looking at replicating them in ways that suit them. Recently, SAP Labs India started a leadership exchange programme as part of which the managing director of SAP Labs Ireland was in India to learn some of India-driven initiatives. “It is a give-and-take”, notes Ferose, “so I will be visiting Ireland later this month to understand and learn some of the best practices they have adopted.”

Asked if the “interest-groups-infested” model could help the company lower attrition levels, Ferose, who grew up in Kolkata and played soccer for Sangasree club where Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni was destined to play later, says, “We started these initiatives to create a culture of innovation in the company and not with the intention to bring down attrition as that was not of specific concern to us.”

Well, call it serendipity then.

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