When It Comes To Global Innovation, Take Nothing For Granted
Be humble, ambitous and prepared. Take nothing for granted. Augusta Spinelli, Head of the Intelligent Delivery Group at a global level for SAP Services, has a stellar track record liaising with customers in three different continents. Now that tech innovation is blossoming all over the world, she has a word of advice for all of us
by Natascha Zeljko | 18 Feb, 2021
On our platform, we used to have a format called ‘My Career in 99 Words’ with short descriptions of different roles. So, what is your job description?
My career at SAP started 20 years ago in Italy as a production planning consultant. I went through all the available roles in SAP Services from delivery, to sales, working in management positions. I ran the SAP Services business for entire countries, larger market units and then the EMEA region for six years. And just recently, I took over as Head of the Intelligent Delivery Group at a global level for SAP Services.
You recently wrote articles about e-commerce, as well as cybersecurity, which is quite a current topic. Especially during the pandemic, because more people are working remotely, which can cause more risks. What did we learn about e-commerce and cybersecurity?
I think that the pandemic exposed different perspectives for us, both in our private life and on a business level. COVID created a greater sense of urgency to shift to digital. We learned that technology is not just something that can improve our personal lives, or the lever to open and inspire new ways of doing business. In this situation, we have understood that technology is important to secure continuity, whether in business or in our personal lives. Today, we cannot secure social and business continuity without technology. Today, it’s a necessary tool for us to thrive. This was not the case ten years ago.
We have understood that technology is important to secure continuity, whether in business or in our personal lives.
What would we do today without video conferencing systems?
Exactly. And it's crucial on several levels: beyond simply staying connected, it’s also extremely relevant for companies. For example, to manage the supply chain from vendor to consumer, with the added complexity of ten different entities in the middle. So technology is not just something that improves our lives, but also a critical component to enable the efficient business processes that take place in each company and in every industry. You mention cybersecurity – this issue is nothing new. The risk has been there for years. But what the pandemic has changed is the sense of urgency we feel around these topics. We realize now, on the one hand, how much we need technology and how thankful we should be for it, and on the other hand, how badly we need to create new rules and speed up the governance model around it, in order to have a fair environment. The pandemic has brought those issues all the way up to the top of our priority list.
Don’t take anything for granted. We can have a very mature and innovative customer in what we sometimes call difficult geographies, or it can be the other way around.
You have an international perspective – you are based in Dubai, you used to be responsible for the regions of Europe, Middle East and Africa. These are thrilling marketplaces. What are the main issues outside of Europe? What is different from our Western perspective?
Yes, in the past six years I have worked in southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and have enjoyed learning about different cultures and seeing many companies thrive with the power of digital transformation. From my own learning and experience, I would say that some themes are globally relevant. In my role as a regional leader, I would often connect with my colleagues in other regions to gather their perspectives and exchanged experiences. We found that the customers' needs are very often the same. Starting from this common ground, the important thing is to acknowledge the diversity of different countries, cultures and customers. There are different challenges and priorities that come to the forefront. In some cases, we discover a diverse level of maturity within a customer situation, or in a specific industry or even country.
My recommendation is: “Don’t take anything for granted.” We can have a very mature and innovative customer in what we sometimes call difficult geographies, or it can be the other way around, we might have not as innovative customers in a mature environment. So, what is important for me is not the benchmark between countries: it’s to be humble enough to go, to look, to see, to learn without a pre-defined opinion and to understand what is needed. The main drivers, in my personal experience, are the exact same regardless of location. The current need to digitalize, to adopt cloud technology, the need for technology to secure business continuity is the same everywhere. Perhaps the way in which an application solves a business challenge is different, but on the other hand, the commonalities are numerous. Today, the entire planet is run digitally and remotely from north to south, from east to west. We can look at any country, dive into any industry, or any company size and we find the same situation, simply because it's the only available option.
It's interesting to see markets that are hungry for innovation. The startup scene in Africa is thriving! To be innovative, you have to have a strong motivation.
Motivation is crucial in our mindset and you can find creative, capable and smart people everywhere. In some countries, the environment makes things easier for startups, because there is more financial support or because information is more easily accessible. But today’s technology brings the same level of information almost everywhere. Now, even more than in the past, it is possible to share and to find help when it comes to money, for example through crowdsourcing or investment, and to use that creativity and transform an idea into reality.
It’s crucial to recognize the advantages of diversity in business. If we invest in and support diversity only because it is the socially acceptable norm, it will not last long.
Cultural change is also linked to the principle of diversity, with which Germany is very much behind in comparison to other markets, especially with gender issues. What is your take on this?
It's important to talk about diversity and even more crucial to talk about inclusion. If we advocate for an inclusive approach, we accept and treat everyone fairly, regardless of gender, religion, age, background, financial or social position. Are we where we should be? I don't think so. But I am pleased that in the past few years we’ve started talking more openly about this issue. Also, many companies, including SAP, recognize the business value of diversity. If there is a place where new or different ideas pop up, it’s because diversity is a key differentiator. It’s crucial to recognize the advantages of diversity in business. If we invest in and support diversity only because it is the socially acceptable norm, it will not last long. But if we recognize that there is proven value in this approach, then we understand that it's the best practice. This is how we can steadily improve and bring something new to the table. It’s a process. I feel that there is much more attention, much more awareness, much more passion towards diversity and inclusion compared to a few years back. There are already changes everywhere, people are really accelerating this process. Because of information and communication, different opinions are more accessible than they were in the past. And today we are much more positive towards companies that show passion towards diversity and inclusion, in comparison to companies with a monolithic environment.
This is becoming more and more of a distinguishing factor, especially for young talents. You have a technical background, but we still don't have that many women in tech nowadays. What was your experience at the Milan Politecnico during your studies?
My educational background is quite diverse because my school was a so-called classical high school, which means I studied philosophy, ancient Greek and Latin. At university, I studied engineering and industrial technology, but I ended up in IT. My time at university, the Milan Politecnico, was and probably is one of the most formative experiences of my life, because of how it shaped my way of learning, my way of working and my behavior. It was extremely demanding. When I was there 30 years ago, it was not very diverse, there were very few women. Today, it is completely different. But the benefits are still clear to me: these studies really shape your mindset in learning, combining big picture understanding with detail, as well as an analytic approach when needed, the importance of studying and the importance of collecting data. I owe this university much more than the knowledge that I obtained while I was there. I owe them the way in which they helped me shape my mindset.
If you are confident about an idea, do not accept a 'no'. Come prepared, but stay persistent if you really think that your idea is worth pursuing.
Interesting. And these are the principles that are still true till today. It will never be out of fashion to have a holistic view. It’s now more important than even to stick to data and science.
There is no moment in which you should think: I know everything. It would be a big mistake to think that you know everything. There is something new to learn every day!
Everybody tells us that lifelong learning is the way to go. And if you learn this at a young age, it's a good thing to take with you in your life and career journey. What is your advice to young talents and newcomers to tech industries? What should they consider?
Be humble and ambitious at the same time. Be prepared. You need to know what you’re talking about as you begin to excel as an expert. If you are confident about an idea, do not accept a 'no' if somebody does not buy into it at first. Come prepared, but stay persistent if you really think that your idea is good and worth pursuing. Remember to stay humble; I don't like people who overestimate themselves. But at the same time, remain ambitious and fight for what you think is important.
Looking into the future: Everything is changing very quickly, especially in tech. What do you think are the next big topics, where do you see the most important developments?
It's difficult to say what will happen in 10 years, because things are moving incredibly fast. We all see, for example, the accelerated shift towards the cloud. The potential and opportunities that this technology brings us are many and impactful, probably much more so than we thought possible a few years ago. Also, because of the pandemic, we will see a significant acceleration of digitalization for companies, business enterprises and in our private life too. In these past few months, how many elderly people have learned to connect and communicate with each other through technology? Using these tools may not have been critical one year ago, yet this is now a reality for many of our seniors today. The notion that only younger people thrive in the digital world is wrong, because the human brain is fascinating, and the bigger the challenge, the better the response that many of us can deliver. When I had a first call with my father on Zoom, he was managing the platform very confidently, and he is 84 years old! Back to your question: digitalization will accelerate this trend. Everybody will learn more about the themes that we are looking at today: how technology can secure connectivity between people and between companies. Cybersecurity is also critical for the future because now we all understand the risks that we need to mitigate in the current environment. In my view, we will see technology spread everywhere. And it will make our system better and our way of living more resilient.
You mentioned what is possible in a crisis when you put minds together – We had an interview with Priti Prabhoo from SAP headquarters. She's responsible for Climate 21 program. She stated that nobody would have thought that we would be able to have a vaccine in less than one year. It shows that if we are under pressure and we really do have to change things, we can do so with our minds.
We can achieve a lot when we change the way we do things. A very basic example: I work in SAP Services, my job is to deliver projects and to deliver SAP value for SAP customers. In the past, we always debated about the right balance between onsite and remote delivery of our work, because it's not the same to talk face to face with a customer or do so remotely. We already provided part of our activities remotely before the pandemic. But out of pure necessity, in just a few weeks, we transitioned our work to 100 percent remote. Everything we deliver to our customers was done remotely, without any real disruptions, without stopping any projects. Every team across SAP and all our SAP consultants alongside our customers dramatically changed their way of working. We all made it happen, we made it work. What one year ago was honestly considered unrealistic became possible in just a few weeks. Our ability to create and innovate during challenging times can be truly transformative.
I absolutely agree. A lot of things that we didn't expect to work actually do.
This situation is, of course, incredibly challenging because so many people have lost their lives, many others are ill or in financial trouble. But this pandemic is once again showing us that people are strong, resourceful and better than expected. And when the challenge is great, our resolve is even greater and we are able to achieve what once seemed impossible simply by acting and reacting in unexpected ways.