In my dissertation research, I explored the different mechanisms of control at work within the corporate context. I took advantage of my insider access as a corporate employee to describe and analyze varied of business practices and deconstruct them from an anthropological point of view. I looked at everything from employee communications, to budgeting, to HR practices. For a theoretical framework I used the work of Foucault. Towards the end of his career, Foucault described a form of power he called ‘technologies of the self’, in which people self-manage because they have so internalized the forms of power that surround them. In a corporate context like SAP employees often work remotely, and so to ensure their ongoing alignment with the corporate direction, it becomes even more critical that they have internalized the company values.
The title of my dissertation is Consuming Work, Producing Self: Market Discourse in Dispersed Knowledge Work. The denouement at the end of the book addresses the ways in which – by internalizing or consuming the corporate discourse – employees are at the same time consumed by their work, because the boundaries between what is good for the company and what is good for them becomes so blurred. This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Human Resources (HR) practices. I wrote about the ways in which the annual Performance Review is in itself really a performance, an opportunity to demonstrate alignment with corporate and organization direction, in the hopes of receiving recognition in the form of promotions, raises, and variable compensation (bonuses).
When I returned from maternity leave in the Fall of 2007, I learned from my management team that I had been named to SAP’s Top Talent program. The Top Talent (TT) program recognizes 10% of employees for their contributions and also for their potential. Our HR Business Partner presented us an overview of the Top Talent strategy which said (among other things) that the purpose of the program is to “Inspire organizational top talent to advance the future capability of the organization … [and] build capabilities of top talent to maximize their contributions and cultivate their growth.” In other words, the program is designed to be mutually beneficial.
SAP’s Top Talent program is part of a larger Talent Management strategy for the company. There is a focus on what the industry calls ‘talent acquisition and retention’. There are a number of programs in place focused on ensuring retention of SAP’s best employees, including several different profit-sharing programs. There is also now commitment to and tracking of filling open positions with named Top Talent resources. SAP’s Top Talent program reports directly in to the Office of the CEO, further demonstrating its current priority by our most senior executives. In addition to line-of-business programs like the one I attended in Paris (more on that shortly), the company provides a variety of educational and networking programs especially for its Top Talent, including the Fellowship program (six month intra-company transfers) and a Cascading Strategy workshop. Through the workshop, TTs have the opportunity to learn about the corporate strategy and direction from the Corporate Consulting Group. The full day session involves a presentation of SAP’s confidential strategy documents, and working sessions to offer feedback directly to members of the executive team on perceived challenges to achieving the strategy. As a return on investment, TTs are asked to help spread the key messages from the session, and there were follow-on surveys to find out how many people were touched by the cascading of the messages from Top Talents.
As 2008 year comes to a close and I begin work on my performance review, I’ve been thinking a lot about my accomplishments and what I want my career to look like over the next few years. Last year was especially enjoyable because – in part due to my participation in the Top Talent program – I had a chance to participate in a number of strategic projects. But I have been a Director for awhile, and I am definitely ready for new challenges and growth. I am hoping that in the next few weeks, we’ll get the official word that we’re moving from the Sales line of business into the Operations area, where I can pursue the same topics, but on a cross-Board area basis. I think that could keep me busy for another year or two!
I was told that my nomination was in part due to the work I had done to rapidly create and mobilize a multi-function team from the end of 2006 into 2007. It was quite an honor to be recognized, and I was particularly excited for what it might mean in terms of future career growth. I felt it was an even greater honor because of all the other really talented people I work with, and the fact that I had only worked ten months in 2007, having taken two months’ maternity leave in August & September. As part of the program, I was flown to Paris in December 2007 to meet the management team for Business Operations, and to get to know the other Top Talents from our organization. I was still on partial maternity leave at the time (and still nursing), so the trip was not without its challenges for me at a personal level. Through the workshop I had a chance to meet or reconnect with the Vice Presidents in Business Operations, and to meet our line-of-business Chief Operating Officer, Martin R. Over the course of the two days, we were asked to look at some of Operations toughest problems, and to propose pragmatic, actionable solutions. I enjoyed strategizing about tough problems with other interesting and capable people, many of whom I had never met. I had a chance to present the outcomes of our working session to the whole group, and was asked to program management the follow-on activities as well. All these things provided me with a rapid re-immersion into work, and a much-improved understanding of the strategic direction for both SAP and the Operations group of which I was a member. I believe there is a direct correlation between visibility with executives and career opportunities, so perhaps most importantly for me, the program provided me with executive exposure that I felt I had been missing for some time.
In spite of the personal challenges of being in Paris, I was really proud to be recognized. I hoped it would provide me the opportunity to further advance my career. However, having written about the Performance Management processes of SAP in my dissertation (pages 189-198), I couldn’t help but look with an anthropological eye at the Talent Management strategy as well. Human Resources practices in general are a powerful mechanism of control, a way for ensuring employees take responsibility for their own career success through alignment with corporate objectives. In good economic times especially, it is critical for corporations to put such programs in place to minimize voluntary attrition, and the associated costs of hiring and retraining new employees.
The Top Talent website on the corporate intranet includes a welcome letter from the co-CEOs, which states:
You have achieved a major milestone in your career and we are confident that you will play a key role in shaping SAP’s future. … [W]e count on our Top Talents to actively contribute to SAP’s success and to drive the changes our organization has to implement. And to do so, we are committed to helping you access opportunities at SAP that can help you grow and advance your career.
I finished my Top Talent year in December of 2008, and as I prepared my performance review and reflected on the year, I felt a little disappointed with the program and what it afforded. I did get some great visibility in the early part of the year, and I had a chance to shape the Portfolio Planning and Management process for Operations, something which has turned into a critical business process for us over time. It was great to be a part of that. However, I was not renamed to the Top Talent program again for my work in 2008, so I felt that I had perhaps I had failed, or let an opportunity pass me by in some way. The note that I received at the start of program from my management team stated that:
It is important to understand that you are in charge of your further development. You have the responsibility to initiate and implement a professional development plan while your manager will serve as a guide to your professional development.
If I was in charge of my “further development”, where did I go wrong? Does the fact that I wasn’t nominated again this year mean I am no longer going to “play a key role in shaping SAP’s future”? I believe I took advantage of every opportunity presented, including taking on additional work and participating in every workshop and executive meeting that was offered to me. I even applied for and was accepted into the the Fellowship program (which has now been delayed due to cost-cutting measures). Furthermore, due to the fact that my participation in the program was not communicated to my peers, it created discomfort between me and colleagues who were either not recognized, who found out through back channels that I was recognized, or who were just plain jealous. I am not sure those rifts can be easily healed.
It may be too early to tell if I will reap rewards for my Top Talent nomination last year. After all, there are few executives who know me now who didn’t know me before, and those relationships may still bear fruit. In addition, I have not yet had my performance review, and there are also all kinds of organizational changes afoot. But based on where I sit right now, I feel that the Top Talent program has a long way to go before it really achieves its strategy of truly creating growth opportunities for its most talented employees. If you can cycle in and out of the program in a year and nothing changes in your professional status, what does that mean? Have you still “grown and advanced your career”? How is success measured, if not by increased responsibility, promotions, raises, and so on? It is possible that something was achieved that is not clear to me, and if so, what is that?
Program participants were surveyed towards the end of the year regarding our experiences with the TT program, so I look forward to seeing if they share the results with us. I’m very curious to know how others in the program felt about their experiences. I completely internalized the propaganda about the program and what it would do for me. Not only do I find myself disappointed, but I am actually asking myself what responsibility I have in my ‘failure’ to be re-nominated or advance my career in some way. It really is amazing to me how powerful the corporate discourse is (for me, anyways), and how it sweeps up even the most self-aware observers.
SAP, it seems, is in a constant state of re-organization.
I wrote a whole chapter on the topic in my dissertation, which I completed in 2004. For reasons that I’ll get to in a minute, I re-read the chapter today and I feel that much of it still holds true, in spite of the fact that I wrote my dissertation during very dark moments in both the country and the company’s history – the dot-com crash and after 9/11. Changes were also underway in part because of the departure of the Americas’ CEO, and because the U.S. was making the transition to a regionally-focused selling model.
At the time I had the prospect of losing not only my job but access to my doctoral research site, and I wrote the chapter not only because the topic is central to corporate life, but also to intellectualize what was happening and diffuse my stress. In the chapter on organizational change I said:
… re-organization activities are undertaken in conjunction with budgeting, and in such a way as to minimize the impact on sales productivity in the all-important fourth quarter. During the budget process in the fourth quarter, the process of re-organization is set in motion. The process begins as leaves begin to fall, and is actualized in the aftermath of fourth quarter results, in the bleakest months of winter. (page 220)
This passage is not inconsistent with the rest of my dissertation. It was academically thorough and at the same time, the material and the narrative style was very personal because my experiences at work were an integral part of my research data. As an anthropologist who has a deeply vested interest both in my career and in the success of SAP, it’s inevitable that the intellectual and personal elements will continue to be woven together. As a result, I feel that my blog is a great channel for covering the topic as this next wave of change emerges.
We’re in another period of economic crisis again, but it is not confined to a single industry and the entire globe is being affected. At SAP, those external changes are accompanied by organizational upheaval due to the retirement of several Board members, and the resulting need to re-align the organization. My experience of the changes is quite different this time around, but I would like to capture the moment as I did with my dissertation research in 2000-2001. In particular, I would like to explore how the economic context continues to shape the experience of working inside of SAP. I would also like to document some new trends in management discourse (Lean in particular), and what those trends mean for both the emergence of operations expertise and the Operations functions I manage. In addition, during my dissertation research I didn’t actively address the way that employees are emotionally invested in work, why, and the implications of that. I hope that the second time around I’ll be able to talk a little bit more about that aspect of organizational change, as well as the connections between change, organizational productivity, and work/life balance.
In my dissertation I described “two kinds of quiet”. The first kind is the SEC quiet period, which prohibits SAP employees from speaking to press and analysts about financial results until the books are officially closed for the quarter (and in this case for the year). The second kind of quiet is related to organizational change, the ‘veil of secrecy’ or ‘cone of silence’ that prohibits employees ‘in the know’ from providing information about pending changes. Of course I have to continue to respect those legal boundaries. At the same time, I think this period of change will be a challenging and fascinating one for SAP, so I hope to bring my anthropological perspective to bear on what’s taking place here.
Not unlike the last time I picked up this topic, I am struggling personally with the amount of change, the impact it brings, and what it means for me and the people I manage. It has been a prolonged period already, with the first inklings coming as early as last May and June. So there is some pent-up emotion, here! Hopefully after I work through that, we’ll get into the substance of the topic! So stay tuned …
Over the years, it’s been harder and harder to find academic or industry conferences that I really enjoy and learn from. The American Anthropology Association has so much infighting, and SO little support for practicing anthropologists that I haven’t attended in a few years. I’ve even stopped my membership, because they have the gall to charge a sliding membership fee, knowing that practicing anthropologists probably earn more, but doing next to nothing to support us. Furthermore, the conference papers are typically not that strong, and the proceedings are not published (less prestigious). It is also such a large event that it’s not a great way to connect with people. The Society for Applied Anthropology is a much smaller event, usually in a great location (Portland, Santa Fe), and many of the anthropologists I want to connect with attend. The papers are not all in my area of interest / expertise, but there have been some great sessions that I’ve learned a lot from – anthropology research with diabetic Americans, for example.
Several years ago, a couple of anthropologists from Intel and Microsoft came together and established a conference called Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC200#.com). Although I’ve had to miss it once when I was pregnant with Auden, I’ve attended it every year since it’s inception. I’ve really enjoyed it every year, because it’s typically 150-250 people, with fairly large but somehow intimate evening events in interesting venues. It is an opportunity to see many of my favorite anthropologists at once, which I really appreciate. And, although the papers vary somewhat in quality, but they are generally interesting to me. In the past few years, I’ve participated in a double-blind review of EPIC paper proposals, and this year once of the guys working for me submitted a paper topic on our behalf. And we were accepted – very exciting!
This is the first year that the conference was planned abroad, this time in Copenhagen (a city I’ve always wanted to visit!). Johann Sarmiento-Klapper is a Human Factors Engineer on my team, and he proposed a paper that would look at the emergence and evolution of my User Experience team, beginning with the ethnographic study I conducted on SAP salespeople in 2005. It was great to finally tell that story, and to begin to bring some Foucaultian thinking to how the team is evolving today. In brief, the underlying theme for me is the same as it was in my dissertation. That is, there is a market / consumer discourse inside of SAP now, and especially in the U.S. offices since we were listed on the NYSE in the late 1990s. As a result, there has been an increasing focus on shareholder value, and on related issues like operating margin. We work in an Operations function, and our ability to be successful in positioning User Experience has everything to do with our ability to align with that discourse around revenue generation, cost cutting, process efficiency, and so on.
Writing the paper with Johann was A LOT of work, much more so than I had anticipated. But I was SO glad he had submitted the abstract! Collaborating with him was a great way to get to know him better, and it was good to finally tell the story of how my team has come to be. Our paper was positioned as part of the closing panel for the conference this year. Other panel participants included employees from Intel, Microsoft, and Google.
Unfortunately, SAP’s cost-cutting measures (and news of a pending layoff for my partner) all hit around the same time. So my travel was cut, and I didn’t think it prudent to pay for a trip to Copenhagen under the circumstances. That meant that our panel moderator (Simon Pulman-Jones) has to present the paper on our behalf. Simon said that our “session that was very well received, and … seemed, by all accounts, to bring a satisfying conclusion to the four days of EPIC 2008”. Other people told me that the session indicated a very positive trend for the role of ethnographic methods in industry, and that they believed that the themes from our session might shape the focus of next year’s conference. We’ll see!
Needless to say, not being able to attend was a huge disappointment, mitigated only by the fact that our paper will still be published in the final proceedings. If you’re interested in reading the paper, seeing the presentation or reading the talk track, everything is available on my website.