As we enter a new year, it is prudent to pause and consider the many challenges and opportunities we are likely to face in the year ahead. Matters of innovation, digital transformation, technological advancement and business success often take center stage, but for me there is one aspect of our business which I believe will be instrumental to our success on the African continent: that of diversity.
A vibrant and dynamic continent
According to UNESCO estimates, Africa is home to as many as 3 000 ethnic groups speaking more than 2 000 different languages across 54 countries. The African population is the second-largest of all continents, as well as the youngest. In some African countries, up to half the citizens are under the age of 25. Any company wishing to do business successfully in Africa must prioritise diversity, or run the risk of alienating the very people with whom they want to do business.
Whilst Africa may sometimes be perceived to be making slow progress with modernization; it is in many respects a world leader. Recent statistics regarding gender diversity in particular have been encouraging: the 2016 McKinsey Women Matter Africa report found that in Africa, 29% of senior managers are women, and 5% of African companies are headed up by female CEOs. While this is still low, it beats the global average (in Europe, female representation at CEO level is only 3%) and points to a concerted and honest effort to bring equal opportunity to women in the workplace.
The business case for diversity
I am of the firm belief that a company that champions diversity will be more innovative, able to respond quicker to changing customer needs and in a better position to adapt to the challenges presented by a rapidly evolving global economy, than its more homogeneous peers. Data supports this: research has found that African companies with at least a quarter share of women on their boards, had on average 20% higher earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) than the industry average.
More tellingly, the global war for talent, which is set to be one of the core issues businesses will face in the next few decades, makes workplace discrimination a recipe for failure. Any business that ignores the contribution, skill, and talent of a potential employee purely based on their gender or culture or background, is effectively undermining its own ability to adapt and survive in a rapidly shifting and evolving global market.
Decades of science backs this: socially diverse groups (those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups, as they are better at solving complex, non-routine problems, anticipating alternative viewpoints, and making important decisions.
Understanding our customers
For companies wishing to do business here, having a culturally and gender-diverse workforce in place is essential to success. At SAP, we have a vision of making the world run simpler. Achieving this vision requires us to focus not just on the technology, but on the customer journey. We can’t understand what journey our customers want to go on, if we don’t understand our customers, of which SAP has an immense and diverse base that spans the globe. We must employ, empower, and inspire a diverse workforce if we are to realise our “Run Simple” vision.
As a business, we have made great progress on the road to diversity and inclusion. Globally, SAP set a goal in 2011 of ensuring that 25% of people in leadership positions are women by 2017. At SAP Africa, 33% of leadership positions are now occupied by women. We are also introducing new initiatives to support and inspire women in technology. Our Women in Data Science initiative, a collaboration between SAP’s Next-Gen Lab and Stanford University in the US, is designed to inspire women to pursue careers in tech, create awareness about data science, and showcase and celebrate the achievements of women in tech.
Playing an active role in fostering a culture of diversity
At SAP, it is critical to focus on how we can embrace diversity and instil a culture which enables success in a globalised workforce. By creating a diverse team with a range of experiences and perspectives, you can unlock new approaches to problems that seemed insurmountable at first. This, of course, depends on there being a culture which encourages all team members to look for the strengths that each unique individual brings to the team and incorporate their views into the customer solution.
Driving a successful diversity strategy begins with the senior leaders; but in order for it to be fully sustainable, it needs to be lived by each and every one of us.
That is my call to action to all staff, partners, vendors and even our customers: make diversity a core focus for your business this year. Enable the people who work with you to bring diverse viewpoints and experiences to the boardroom table. Inspire your teams to have the courage to bring new perspectives to existing problems and challenges. Instill a culture of openness and trust that makes it easier for people to contribute to the success of the organisation. Never doubt that your contribution has value to the team, the business and society at large.
Our success as a business, and as individuals, will be inextricably linked to our ability to foster diversity in the workplace. Can any of us truly afford to ignore the challenge?
By Brett Parker, MD of SAP Africa