Why SAP's employees are volunteering on Mumbai's construction sites

by Nicola Middlemiss30 Oct 2015
Employees are increasingly seeking worthwhile volunteer opportunities to supplement their careers and studies have shown that companies that support such initiatives have higher retention and engagement rates.

Here, SAP describes the impact of its pro-bono IT initiative, both on the NGO it was supporting and the employees who were sent out there.
 
SAP regularly sends volunteers to work in developing and emerging economies. Their mission is to support NGOs by donating the skills that they are used to applying in their regular jobs back home to a deserving cause. This was exactly the task facing three experts from Walldorf, Dubai, and Shanghai when they arrived in the Indian city of Mumbai to help 26 crèches make the success of their endeavors more transparent. And the beneficiaries were on both sides: the NGO that received support and the SAP employees who provided it. As well as developing their leadership skills, the volunteers also enhanced their intercultural competencies.

40 degrees Celsius in the shade, 80% humidity, dust, dust, and yet more dust, rats with a ravenous appetite for high-tech cables, and power outages galore. For Eliana Testolin, Shane O’Donnell, and Jay Zhao, the working conditions in Mumbai could not have been more different to what they're used to at home. But this was actually one of the reasons why the three SAP employees had swapped their offices for an environment in which they would have the chance to prove themselves anew­. Would they succeed in designing an IT solution for an aid organization that helps the children of migrant construction laborers in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai? Would they manage to ­understand the work of an NGO that is highly successful in fulfilling its mission but is very short on IT expertise? Would they be able to tackle a project without having their customary contact partners to turn to? And could they do all of that in a country where many of the cultural, social, and economic conditions were completely alien to them?
 
Familiar task in an unfamiliar context

"In the projects we're used to working on, we aim for a maximum of standardization: We have sophisticated business plans, proven procedures, and tailored IT tools to help us get things done," explains Eliana, who is a senior audit director at SAP. That it's possible to achieve practicable solutions with significantly fewer resources was an object lesson that Eliana and her two colleagues learned from their contractor, Mumbai Mobile Crèches (MMC), an NGO that operates mobile crèches at major construction sites to give the children of migrant workers who live on the sites access to food, education, and health services. If that doesn't require creativity and improvisation, then what does?

At least, that's how it looks to western eyes – and to the Indian construction site operators, who find it equally hard to imagine how you can possibly run a professional crèche when you’re surrounded on all sides by conveyor belts and construction machinery. Undaunted by the adverse conditions, MMC has been proving for over 40 years that it’s possible to reconcile apparent contrasts: Currently, the NGO cares for 4,500 children in 26 day-care facilities.
 
MMC
NGO Mumbai Mobile Crèches (MMC) supports the children of migrant laborers who live with their parents on construction sites in the Mumbai area by providing them with education, nutrition, and a safe environment. The mobile crèches are open to children up to the age of 14, no matter what their caste or religion. To extend the reach of the help it provides, MMC also trains parents living on the construction sites and in the surrounding slums to become childcarers.
For more information, go to:www.mumbaimobilecreches.org

 
Mumbai Mobile Crèches wants to serve even more families in the future. Managing director Vrishali Pispati estimates that there are some 30,000 children living on Mumbai's construction sites. But if it is to grow further, the organization needs more IT support. At the moment, MMC's childcarers and teaching staff enter information about the services each crèche provides, the support that each child receives, and what progress each child has made in handwritten ledgers. The only data that is recorded electronically at MMC's headquarters is a handful of monthly figures in Excel sheets.

That's simply not enough if the organization is to develop and manage additional crèches efficiently. What's more, MMC wants to be able to record much more detailed information about each individual child. Among other things, it would like to provide all parents who move to another construction site with their children with a booklet giving details of the medical and educational services that each child has received. MMC is therefore looking to create a management information system that can analyze the organization's current activities as a basis for planning its future as efficiently as possible.

When Eliana heard about the planned project in Mumbai at the beginning of 2015, the experienced auditor felt an immediate buzz of excitement. SAP's global CSR department (see the Social Sabbatical info box below) had invited her, along with ­some 5,000 other top talents, to apply for a place on the project. "Although I had lots to do, I sat down that same evening and wrote my application." Argentinean-born Eliana had long been on the look-out for a task that would put her professional skills to good use for a worthy cause. When she saw that her employer was offering just such an opportunity, she wasn't going to wait to be asked twice.
 
Social Sabbatical Program at SAP SE
Every year, 120 volunteers from SAP spend a month working in developing and emerging countries. In interdisciplinary teams of three, the volunteers help NGOs solve pressing business challenges by utilizing the specialist and leadership skills and knowledge that they apply in their regular jobs back home. The difference is that they are working in a cultural and economic environment that is largely alien to them. These pro bono assignments benefit not only the organizations that receive support, but also the employees who provide it – because the volunteers enhance their innovative powers, their team and leadership qualities, and their intercultural skills to boot. The Social Sabbatical Program is the responsibility of Corporate Social Responsibility, which liaises closely with the HR department in a number of areas; for example, when it comes to proposing employees for a pro bono assignment.

 
New understanding of roles

Eliana first met up with her project colleagues, Shane and Jay, in early March 2015. "Theirs was a prototypical team," says Alexandra van der Ploeg, who is in charge of SAP's pro bono program. "Ultimately, our aim is to bring together diverse employees who want to utilize their professional and social skills to move projects forward and advance their own development." Eliana contributed her understanding of efficient processes; Shane his experience of mediating between customers and product development; and Jay his knowledge of software development.
It was only a matter of days before Eliana, Jay, and Shane realized that they would need to significantly extend the original project scope. Initially, the plan had been to concentrate on establishing the framework for deploying MMC’s management information system.­ Which was in itself a vital piece of groundwork, without which a project like this could have no hope of long-term success. However, even the best framework concept is worthless if there is no one around with the expertise to implement it. "So as not to leave the NGO in the lurch after our four-week assignment was up, we decided to create a complete toolkit too. This would equip MMC with the basics it needed to roll the management information system out at 26 locations," explains Eliana, adding, "With this new project objective in mind, we kept on reminding each other to make the solution and the processes as simple as possible."
 
Information System for 26 Crèches
To ensure acceptance among future users of the system, the three SAP colleagues created an extremely lean, cost-effective IT solution. As a result, the childcarers working on the construction sites will now be able to use basic tablet computers to enter data about the children in their care. The software entry forms are modeled on the formats that the teachers and childcarers are familiar with from their handwritten ledgers. (Incidentally, the programming language used was ­Google Apps Script, which is available for download free of charge.) Data is exchanged between MMC's headquarters and the individual locations via mobile Internet. The data entered in the forms is uploaded to a free Google server and prepared for simple and flexible analysis.­ The project team tested and documented all the solution components, and also provided detailed tips on what abilities any future IT specialist appointed by MMC should possess.
 
Learning curve

The four-week pro bono assignment at Mumbai Mobile Crèches was over in a flash. Inspired by the highly motivated MMC personnel, who devoted their weekends to the migrant workers' children too, Eliana, Jay, and Shane made the most of almost every day to keep the project moving. And it became increasingly clear to all three as the project progressed that their perspectives on their own skills were changing. Software engineer Jay Zhao arguably went through the most visible development. Despite his wealth of experience as a developer at SAP China Labs in Shanghai, it was the first time that he had come into direct contact with the everyday working lives of those who would later use the systems he was designing.

That was one of the areas in which Jay was able to learn from Shane­, who is used to taking the user perspective into account and to communicating user needs to his colleagues in product development. For his part, Shane was particularly impressed by the care that Eliana takes to ensure that organizations design their processes as efficiently and simply as possible. Having witnessed the enormous value of Eliana's work, Shane is now determined to become more familiar with the tasks of process consulting in the future.

This pro bono assignment brought a fresh perspective for Eliana, too. While her regular work as an auditor involves monitoring the processes that lead to creative solutions, in Mumbai she was actually part of that development process for the very first time. "A lot of it is about recognizing and leveraging the strengths and skills of your colleagues as much as you possibly can," says Eliana, who feels that she has also learned more about sharing responsibility and about delegating it to others, rather than trying to keep tabs on every single step herself. "This approach actually makes you feel more motivated and gives you a much more relaxed ­attitude to work and to life in general."
 
Pro bono volunteering: three-way benefits

Employees…

…extend their leadership and problem-solving capabilities

…learn to think simpler and develop a greater sense of feasibility

…learn to assess their own skills more accurately

…improve their ability to work in a team

…recognize the value of mixed project teams

…enhance their intercultural knowledge and communication skills

…extend their network within their own company

Enterprises

…increase employee satisfaction and loyalty

…satisfy the growing need ― among millennials in particular ― to incorporate socially meaningful activities into their jobs

…increase employees' willingness to take on responsibility

…foster innovative thinking and leadership skills among employees

…acquire the knowledge and skills to open up new markets

…achieve their CSR goals by leveraging the skills they also need in their core business

Non-profit organizations

…solve urgent business problems

…improve their processes so that they can fulfil their social and ecological tasks more sustainably

…gain access to knowledge and problem-solving skills that would otherwise be beyond their reach

…extend their networks at both national and international level

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