Q & A: Alex Rumble, SAP VP EMEA, Integrated Communications

Joining a new company can prove daunting, let alone when it’s the size and scope of SAP. This was the initial challenge that confronted Alex Rumble, who came into the SAP fold as the vice president of Integrated Communications for the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) region. The first few months into her new role, however, shows that the right decision has been made, as Rumble enthuses about the opportunity to help SAP’s clients change the way they do business.

With this in mind, we chatted to Rumble about the transition to her new role, the challenges in helping companies become more adaptable, and unpacking what agility in a business context entails.

You’ve been in your position at SAP for a few short months now. What has been the most significant challenge, in terms of adjusting to the way they do business and engage with their customers?

Actually it has been incredibly and unexpectedly refreshing. The outside-in perception of SAP’s culture and way of doing business still holds remnants of who SAP were 10 years ago. Today, first and foremost, they want their employees to be successful and this is pervasive across all functions and despite its large size. SAP has a very people enabling culture.

But there is no getting away from it, SAP is a very large organisation and as such for customers or suppliers to engage can be complex. SAP is very aware of this, and I have seen significant steps being taken to become a partner with whom doing business is simpler.

As for customers, I am particularly interested in the small and medium enterprises. I have met with some of them to discuss how their approach to technology has changed compared to say five years ago. Essentially they are all acutely aware of the dependency that exists today between being equipped with the right systems and capabilities not only to plan for growth but also to achieve and sustain it.

Technology is evolving at an amazing rate and SMEs know they are better off, letting an expert do the investing and development so they can focus maximising the value.

You mention that SAP is at the forefront of showcasing how agile businesses can become. Was this a significant factor in you wanting to join SAP?

Yes, absolutely. I have always been passionate about technology, particularly the simplicity it enables, the automation, speed and innovation it brings so that a business can evolve and adapt. At heart I am a business woman, ex Unilever, and still look at technology through that lens. When I researched SAP, that vision and a level of innovation fitted well with my passion.

Where SAP stood out? Everyone here is talking about innovation and this is because it is being created jointly with customers and involves many functions in the process. It’s infectious, Machine Learning, IoT and Artificial Intelligence for example have long ago moved from buzzwords to real co-innovative projects.

This is where my business background takes over: I can see the potential of what organisations can achieve and how agile they can become in a much shorter time frame than even five years ago.

Agility plays an integral role in ensuring a business is competitive. Can you give us your take on why it’s such a vital trait for any business to embrace?

Agility can mean many things, let’s say it is about adapting internally and externally to both opportunities and/or threats, at speed. Lacking the insights to foresee change means being in a reactive mode. In a global world this is a high risk and expensive situation.

Agility in my view, is therefore the ability to see, interpret, take decisions and implement those decisions rapidly, and at a global level. This can mean transforming from one business model to another. The world is already full of examples, be it in e-commerce, healthcare, apparel and life sciences where companies are simply doing business in new ways, jointly innovating with consumers, and consequently also engaging with the suppliers differently.

The crisis of 2009 has changed how we as people, value customer services. Businesses now have to consider this and strategise and plan around Customer Experience (CX) in order to acquire agility to adopt new business models and growth. Understanding this process and gaining access to the insights needed is a huge factor in achieving agility.

In your experience, what challenges routinely arise when trying to get organisations to evolve their business models, and how can they be overcome?

This may sound like a cliché but strong leadership is fundamental, with an ability to ask the simple questions, stay curious and ask why and what-if.

Proactively evolving a business model starts with the observation that something in the market is changing, that the perception of value is migrating and equipping oneself to respond. Incremental change is required though, driven by an integrated innovation team because a business model cannot morph overnight. Having to change reactively, is a far less enviable position than doing so proactively.

The common factor for these scenarios is while core business processes might not be affected, new ones will be created, fresh data will be collected and technologies will be require different skills.

How do South African businesses fare in terms of agility and adopting new business models. Is there space to grow?

Africa and South Africa have enormous potential for growth. Over the last decades GDP has nearly doubled in real terms, lifting millions of people out of poverty and expanding access to services. Africa and South Africa also have areas of urgencies that are intrinsically linked to businesses: agriculture, infrastructure, health, education for example.

In all of those areas there is the opportunity to ask: Why?

Technology is the foundation of getting this right, with data also key. There are many people involved and without the right technology, insights will be hard to come by. So many technology advances have been made by companies such as SAP, any investment made today versus 10 years ago will yield greater benefits and for longer. This is key both to answering the urgency of today and planning for the longer term.

Agility is part and parcel of this and as organisations look to growth they are already taking this into account.  But first, the country will need to embrace some fundamental changes to become more globally competitive; and this will require for businesses and governments to partner with a shared vision, collaboration and trust.

Looking forward, have you set aside any specific goals for 2017 in your role as SAP VP for EMEA?

Yes, and based on the above we have a great story to tell. EMEA is a very diverse region, there are many flavours to the value that SAP delivers and it is important to highlight these locally and stay close to the business.

Additionally, I also would like the shake off those remnants of perception so that the market gets to know SAP for who they are, not just the solutions, but the culture too. This includes our values and all the Corporate Social Responsibility work that is done, including Africa Code week, Refugee Code week across Europe and various Young Talent Development initiatives in the Middle East.