Photo: Enrico Palumbo

Photo: Enrico Palumbo

A podcast interview with Enrico A. Palumbo

In this special podcast episode for Zukunft Personal Europe 2018, we are speaking with Enrico A. Palumbo, HR Director of SAP Switzerland, one of the keynote-speakers ahead of the event. Enrico shares with us among others how “permanent beta” resonates with his experience at work, what is the inHR Award, that he initiated, how traditional HR processes can be transformed and translated with modern technologies, and SAP’s secret formula for being recognised both Top Employer and Great Place to Work in 2018.

Enrico A. Palumbo is HR Director and Member of the Management Board of SAP Switzerland. Over the last 15+ years, he worked in different HR roles and functions including HR business partner, center of expertise, and shared services in leadership roles, as a project manager, and as a business consultant in different industries and geographies. Enrico is particularly excited about how technology can support great work experience and employee engagement. He is a member of the SAP internal Coaching Pool and SAP internal Co-Trainer for Search Inside Yourself.

You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Enrico, edited for length and clarity.

Asking questions

Agnes Uhereczky (The WorkLife Hub):Before we get going and dive deep into your work at SAP, may I ask you Enrico to tell listeners about yourself, about your passion and career, and what is it, that drives you in this field.

Enrico Palumbo: The side that many people even from my own company don’t know about me, is that my first profession in life was being a journalist on the radio. I worked for different radio stations in Germany. My work included running radio programmes, preparing features, presenting news etc. Later, I started to transition slowly from one profession to another. Nowadays, when I hear conversations about shifts and people moving into different careers, it connects rather nicely with my own experience where I changed job after 14 years. And, I am very happy that I did so.

When you ask what makes me get up in the morning than it is really about creating conditions for sustainable happiness and well-being at the workplace. It might sound a bit mystic, but I think at the end of the day well-being is more than the absence of illness. It is a state where individuals can explore their talent and drive their personal and professional development. This might sometimes mean to move from one job to another within your company or across different companies, or even industries. I also think that it is important that when we say conditions for sustainable happiness, the word sustainable means that it should be economically viable for the employer and at the same time purposeful for the individual.

My kids are ten and twelve currently. They belong to a cohort that has a life expectancy on average of more than 100 years. So, during this 100-year life, they would spend much of their life working across probably different roles, ways or formats. So, I think that it is really important that we think about how we can create conditions at the workplace through which people can become and be the very best versions of themselves whatever that means for the individual.

So, I think that it is really important that we think about how we can create conditions at the workplace through which people can become and be the very best versions of themselves whatever that means for the individual. Click To Tweet

Agnes:In addition to your own work, you also have decided to organise with four other organisations a special HR award in Switzerland, the inHR Award. Would you like to tell listeners a little bit about why you decided to launch such an award and how it is organized and what it is about?

Enrico Palumbo: The inHR Award was actually born out of a number of conversations I had with different fellow professionals, like me, you or any of our listeners. Through these talks I discovered that many of us in our professions are facing very similar challenges, are trying to overcome obstacles to be more resilient through shifting economic times etc.

Still, I sometimes feel that when I look at the traditional ways of communication channels such as magazines, reports or newspapers I don’t find us doing much on the facilitation of actual exchanges. I think that there are many smart ideas coming from all sizes and sectors. In fact, SMEs might be more challenged when it comes to attracting talent than big companies. Those companies with their well-known brands can attract the brightest people easier. So, there are many smart ideas through which people can think innovatively on how they can, for example, reactivate parts of the population that are outside of the workforce and bring them back to work. Many of the innovations are often not known to us and we all could learn a lot.

In short, I had an idea, and together with Prof. Dr. Antoinette Weibel, of the University of St. Gallen, and with the most important newspaper in the country, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, also, with a consulting partner, Deloitte, we launched the inHR Award, to encourage actually other companies in Switzerland to share what they do, and at the end choose a winner. Though, I often highlight that for me choosing the winner is only part of the process. It is more important to bring the HR community together and to actively facilitate an exchange on these topics that are challenging for almost every people professional today.

Agnes: You are going to be speaking at the Zukunft Personal Europe in September in Cologne. Each year the event selects a special angle and focuses on a topic. This year’s topic is “permanent beta”. How does this resonate with you and with your experience? What is your take on this new and perhaps challenging mindset?

Enrico Palumbo: For me, permanent beta is coming from the world of software, like SAP. It is a rather common term that I also saw when, in my previous work, I was supporting, as HR business partner, application development. This was 4-5 years ago. I also noticed a shift happening and what it meant for the development of organisations from a traditional approach to a more agile development for our cloud solutions.

So, I understand when we refer to this terminology in the world of work, and the way HR works, that there is no change management, where we transition from a point A to define B. I also note that because of the constantly changing market pool and technological expectations, we rather be in an iterative continuous loop of changing, adjusting and trying out environment. But, probably with some analytics, we can spare some of the trying out as we would have better ways to predict and understand what is, for example, needed by the employees. For an organisation, the permanent beta is a new reality. For the individual, as job requirements are changing, it is about personal brand and awareness towards what work skills are needed from them, that are adapted to today’s reality and environment.

For the individual, as job requirements are changing, permanent beta is about personal brand and awareness towards what work skills are needed from them, that are adapted to today’s reality and environment. Click To Tweet

Agnes: One of the points you mentioned, which we often touch upon at the podcast is about one’s ownership of his or her career. Probably, back in the day, it was the organisation that could set employees on a career path, but this responsibility is also now shifting to the individual. At the same time, not everybody might be totally comfortable with taking rather dramatic choices, or a lot of risks like you have.

Enrico Palumbo: This is true. What we, as organisations can do, in all fairness, is to guide people, help them understand how the environment is changing, and support them reflect on the impact this is having on their personal and professional lives. We can also help them explore what needs they have. Then, have an honest conversation to which extent the organisation can fulfill and support these elements; what employees would like to do at a certain point in their life; would they like to stick to a certain role, which is about to vanish in that organisation. On the other side, we, as employers, need to support people in the building and starting early enough those plans and developments. These are certainly not easy conversations, but it is better to have them in an early point of time because the longer we wait the more difficult it is for the individual and the organisation to confront the situation.

Agnes: SAP Switzerland has been recognized in a number of times for the great working conditions it offers. It was recognized for both Top Employer and Best Companies to Work For in 2018 with a special recognition on employability. What is the secret formula of SAP? How do you approach employment and work at SAP Switzerland?

Enrico Palumbo: What I have tried to do over the last 2 years is to build a holistic approach to well-being in the workplace. This approach provides a context in which people can be the best versions of themselves, where we choose and promote those leaders that really want to lead people. By selecting and promoting the right people into leadership roles you can do good for others. The holistic approach, on top of all the fun staff like triathlons and fitbit competition, also includes prevention work which is a bit particular.

Agnes: There is a lot of hype about AI, robots, smart machines, and also scare-mongering and false information about how they will impact jobs and the labor market. As SAP is at the frontline of some of this technology, what is your view on this, and especially what employers and managers can start doing already now to prepare for a smooth transition?

Enrico Palumbo: These are all important topics. I think, like in everything, that we have to consider two sides when we talk about these developments, and articles about machines taking away our jobs. We will certainly see applications, and AI in many areas, that will impact the way we work. Simply put, some jobs will vanish and will not exist any longer. On the other side, I am confident that AI and other technologies will help to automate routine work and spare individuals time, which can be used on tasks that require human judgment, creativity and thought.

There is a shift happening, but this is not new at all. If we look back to industrialization, 200 years ago when people and society moved from agriculture to manufacturing, we observe similar changes. One of them was urbanization. People moved to where the work actually was. Today, with the development of independent technologies we see different trends. People don’t need to be in the cities anymore, as thanks to new technologies, you don’t need to be in a specific place at a specific time to deliver your work.

Generations that come will not even know what the time clock was. Click To Tweet

Agnes: What is going to be the main topic and focus of your presentation at the Zukunft Personal Europe? What can attendees expect from listening to your presentation at the conference and expo?

Enrico Palumbo: I believe that we need to understand our employees and managers as consumers because they work in an environment that is not isolated from the rest of their lives. So, whatever services we provide, the benchmark is not what HR, or the other company they previously worked for, did, but the benchmark is now the app they have on their smartphones. These technologies are being used in terms of mobile access, intuitiveness, simplicity, and this is how we need to deliver our processes and programmes. This also means that we can not tweak old processes and believe we are digital, but we really need to shift from a transactional to a digital way of working in HR. I will provide attendees with some examples of how this shift can be done, based on my work in Switzerland, starting from ways of using virtual reality in onboarding, to more holistic approaches that support employee engagement and happiness at the workplace.

Enrico regularly posts very interesting and informative articles from the realm of HR, management, and leadership through his Linkedin page, which you can follow here. You can listen to Enrico’s presentation, #doit4purpose – Drive engagement in new work, on the 11th of September, 13.00-13.30, at the HR Tech solution stage of Zukunft Personal Europe 2018.

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