Human material is the game-changer

Updated: Oct 15 2012, 09:16am hrs
The 38-year old VR Ferose is in the list of IT head honchos in India whom Infosys co-founder and executive co-chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan sees as going places, because of his talent management acumen. Football, snooker and reading books on movers and shakers are the vibrant passions of this senior vice-president and managing director, SAP Labs India, the R&D arm of global German technology firm, SAP. Setting aside a new paperback on the life and times of Olympics blade-runner Oscar Pistorius, Ferose reflects on SAP Labs, its employees, clientele, business and business philosophy to M Sarita Varma, in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Although SAP Labs long-serving ERP solutions suite is the breadwinner, we hear that the new in-memory platform Hana Edge is the prima donna in the market. Does that define the future, given that your customer base includes big players like Vodafone, MTS, ONGC, Power Grid, HDFC, Essar, Tata Motors and ITC

The excitement over the new solutions product is justifiable, since Hana fetched us 85 million euro in Q2 of 2012. Out of mobility alone, we had notched 54 million euro in Q2. We are plying Hana now in the cloud space too. Hana is a compressed data storage system that enables faster processing. For instance, in Hana, 1 TB of data can be compressed up to 100 GB, enabling it to be processed up to 100 times faster. It is a winning combination of processors getting faster and memory becoming cheaper. This has set firms making a beeline for Hana. It gives value applications for small players too.

In which sectors do SAP Labs ERP suite help small players

The biggest slice of our customers are in SME sector. In India, we have 3,880 SME customers and globally 98,500 customers. We intend to double the addressable market by 2015. Besides the 24 mainstream industries that we cater to, we have charted out 22 readymade micro-vertical templates. This is for assorted sectors like plantations, real estate, city gas distribution, sugar, gems and jewellery, poultry, dairy etc. We have been able to reach out to very far flung places like Haridwar (in Uttarakhand), Keonjhar (in Orissa) and Raipur (in Chhattisgarh).

Besides Hana, we have a wide portfolio of solutions like SAP Business One, SAP Business ByDesign and SAP Business All-in-One.

One wouldnt usually associate software firms to tinker with medical research. In SAP Labs, even this is happening. What is the new engagement with human genomics

This starts with the analogy of human brain and the computer. It was my colleague Ganapathi Subrahmanian (vice president, design and new applications), who thought of this foray, after the father of an SAP employee passed away from untreated cancer. Diagnosis process had taken over two months and by that time tumour had progressed beyond cure. This brought home the critical importance of data-processing speed in human brain; if the brain can be thought of as a computer of about 300 GB in size and about 30,000 sequences of DNA. Ganapathi Subrahmanian and his 30-member team are working out a system to speed up the diagnosis of cancer cells. SAP has entered into a cooperation pact with Bangalore-based Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) to fuel the genomics research.

It is unusual to find the head of a big technology firm introducing all his senior managers, with finer family details like where the spouse works, how many children, boy or girl etc. Is it easy to remember all these Besides, Isnt the work life more important

I believe that play life is equally important to make the work life interesting. Worthwhile people stay on in company purely on emotional connect. I am aware that each of my senior managers are worth more than the monetary package they get. Frankly, I wouldnt be surprised if any of them get a job offer with at least 15% pay hike. But, they stay on, mainly because their talent is valued and personality cherished.

Even when we are training new recruits, I am not for sticking to conventional methods like classroom lectures. We use games in training and real-time theatre practice helps in unfolding the creative personality. We have a programme called Leadership Talk series, where leaders in various sectors like painting, literature, management, etc come to address the employees. Some may wonder what Anil Kumble has got to do with in-memory platforms, but this former Indian test cricket captain is currently associated with us, so that employees can absorb the best work lessons from cricket.

All our programmes are employee-driven. Out of the 52 labs, SAP Labs in India has the highest employee engagementat 85%, as against the global average of 67%. In the final reckoning, human material is the only game-changer. For creativity to blossom, the emotional connect with employees is crucial. Any R&D innovation happens in a happy accident and it gets triggered only in a comfort zone. I believe if, to create a eureka moment, an apple has to fall bang on the head, it is our job to make it happen.

We have created a 90-day innovation-cycle. Creating a risk appetite is important. Ours must be the only company that gives a prize for the best failure. Of course, there are some definite criteria for this, like the failed project should have considered something out-of-box, should have optimised the available human resources etc.

Since you are so much focused on talent acquisition, are you happy with the quality of thousands of engineering graduates that Indian colleges turn out To push for R&D innovations, would you prefer more experienced employees to youngsters

The Indian R&D division of SAP Labs has about 4,800 employees at present. Not all are engineers. In fact, at present, our thrust is on heterogeneity. We are now game to utilise architects, anthropologists, music experts, etc to our R&D teams to foster lateral thinking. About 32% of the workforce is women and we would love to have more. We like to improve the youth element too, since the young people have better market-connect. Our youth talent pool is not bad, at an average employee age of 30 years. Consider this, with the average employee age of 40-42 in the labs in America. Initially, SAP Labs India used to hire only people with some experience. But that has changed. We take about 200 to 250 people every year through campus recruitment. This year, we have recruited 265 people from campus.

We are also trying to systematically haul up the percentage of women in leadership roles. Currently, it is 17%. My five-year target is to make it 25% by 2017. It is because of this diversity that we are able to bring out socially useful products like ChariTra (SAPs on-demand network for a charitable cause). During the month of service in October, we use this to run around 50 CSR (corporate social responsibility) products in the country.

It is expensive for IT enterprises in prime locations to practice green thinking. But besides the imputed cost of greenery in the SAP campus in Bangalore, you run an electric car allowance for employees. How is this possible

We probably have the largest number of electric cars in the corporate world. Thats because employees opting for electric car, over a fossil fuel, gets a green allowance of R6,000 per month, apart from other benefits like free parking and free charging points. We have also ensured use of porcelain cups in office, natural lighting in building design and energy-efficient data centres. There is a zero-waste policy, by which about 400 kg of food waste and garden waste is processed to organic manure in our in-house unit.

It is now well-known that in a prime location in Bangalore, we have reserved over 60% of our 23-acres campus for plants and trees. As the office emerged a green oasis in Bangalore, migratory birds have started calling in. This had inspired two bird-watcher employees to do a bird census and even come out with a book on about 50-odd species of birds that visit our campus.

What better brand ambassador for our green-consciousness than the Eurasian Golden Oriole, that visits us from a faraway continent! Surely, enlightened clients give as much brownie points to corporates who practice green thinking as to those who ease their business processes. So any imputed costs on green energy are easily recouped through good will.