It’s going to be a busy month for Mamtha Sharma, country head for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), IBM India. As we write this, a contingent of nine IBM-ers from nine different countries is descending on Barmer, Rajasthan, for an agri-development project that aims to increase the yields of pomegranate and other fruits that grow in this arid, oil-rich district.
The team is a part of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) initiative, which sends middle management executives to the far corners of the world to lend their skills to social development programs.
The nine in Barmer — from the USA, UK, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Hungary, Brazil, Argentina, Israel — have been preparing for months, but a little administrative hand-holdingl helps in the initial stages. One of Sharma’s jobs is to set the ball rolling by introducing her team to the people from Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation and TechnoServe, the two NGOs they will be working with.
In the course of the next four weeks, she hopes everyone would have gained something from the project. “Our people benefit as much as the NGO, by working in a multi-cultural team in a place they have never been before. IBM gains in terms of leadership development and the NGO benefits from the knowledge and experience IBM brings,” she says.
Started in 2008, the CSC program sends some of IBM’s most promising executives to work pro bono on social sector projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In India, IBM-ers from around the world have worked with organisations like SEWA in Ahmedabad, Kalamandir in Jamshedpur and the Chennai Municipal Corporation, offering skills in technology, strategy formulation, project management and marketing.
Executives from IBM India, for their part, have been sent to Latin America and Africa to gain experience in a different milieu. Such is the prestige of the program that IBM receives ten times the number of applications it needs. “Last year we received 5,000 applications globally for 500 positions.
The CSC gains in reputation every year as returnees narrate their experiences and recommend it to others,” says Sharma.
The IBM CSC is now being emulated by corporates the world over, such as SAP in Germany, which launched its own version, called the Social Sabbatical Program (SSP) in 2012. In the first year, SAP received 80 applications for 30 postings in three countries.
Last year, it received 320 applications for 70 postings in five countries. “The experiential learning that the SSP provides is critical to building next-gen business leaders, who need to know how to operate across regions and cultures,” says SAP’s global CSR head Alexandra van der Ploeg.
“Besides, it addresses the millenium generation’s desire to use their skills for a greater good. It provides a sense of purpose.”
SAP offers NGOs expertise in technology, business processes and strategy formulation. Last year, when it sent a team to Bangalore to work with the Parikrma Humanity Foundation in the area of education for underprivileged children, it chose participants who were specialised in strategy.
“Like most NGOs, Parikrma has been driven by the founder, but it now needs a second rung management team. Our people looked at its internal processes and developed a strategy to help the organisation scale up,” says van der Ploeg.
SAP is now playing evangelist and recently organised a workshop on social sabbaticals in Berlin for the benefit of other companies in Europe. One of the aspects it stresses is how the program helps business. Besides providing young leaders an opportunity to immerse themselves in the markets of the future, it also helps local subsidiaries make a connection with the society they operate in.
“The people in SAP India offices in Bangalore now have a permanent relationship with Parikrma. The program provides local SAP offices a proof point that we recognise our social responsibilities,” says van der Ploeg.
The biggest challenge for a global corporate seeking to engage in CSR in developing economies is finding the right NGOs to partner with. Stepping in to bridge the gap is Pyxera Global, an American non-profit organisation that has been in the business of pairing corporates with NGOs, government agencies and universities for over two decades.
In India, Pyxera Global is headed by Kabi Sherman, a former IBM systems analyst who went on to work with Dhirubhai Ambani in the Reliance Industries’ CSR arm for five years, setting up computer labs in 51 municipal schools in Mumbai.
Sherman was responsible for bringing IBM’s CSC initiative to India and says, “The idea of pro bono work has always been there in law and accountancy, where professionals provide free services for those who can’t afford to pay. The revolutionary idea that IBM introduced was pro bono teams. Then it became something of mutual benefit. Corporates now benefit from it as much as the NGOs.”
Besides IBM and SAP, Pyxera Global also works with PepsiCo, Novartis, John Deere, Symantec, FedEx and Pfizer. FedEx has worked with the Morarka Foundation in Jaipur to develop a supply chain for organic farming produce. PepsiCo has worked with the Bhoruka Charitable Trust on refurbishing old rooftop rainwater harvesting systems in Rajasthan.
John Deere has worked with Anna University to look at optimal crop choices for farmers near Chennai, who sell ground water to tankers on a large scale, leaving little for farming. “Pepsi wants to work on water, Novartis wants to work in health — each of these projects is aligned to the priorities of the corporates that take them up,” says Sherman.
Though these projects are not formally linked to their appraisals, corporate executives certainly are under some pressure to put in their best, given that they are required to make presentations on their experiences to their peers and to the company leadership once they get back home.
At IBM India, communications manager Meghala Nair recalls making at least 15 presentations after returning from her CSC stint in Chile, where she worked on a project on managing inventory for a handicrafts collective. “You come back wanting to do so much more,” she says. “Since the Chile trip, I’ve learnt to invest my time better. I’m even learning Spanish, which I didn’t know when I was there.”
Surveys by IBM and SAP show that participants do come back with their creativity and innovation skills enhanced. Having worked with small organisations with limited budgets (as opposed to the large corporate set up and big budgets they are used to) they also return with an entrepreneurial drive. “Over 70% have said they have come up with business process improvement or a service/product idea as a result of their experience. It provides them with inspiration,” says SAP’s van der Ploeg.
IBM believes the biggest learning comes from working in culturally diverse teams. The team it has sent to Barmer, where nine different countries are represented, is typical. Next, the company plans to bring in another dose of cultural diversity by partnering with JP Morgan Chase. “Half the members of the team will be from IBM and half will be from JP Morgan Chase,” says Pyxera Global’s Sherman. “In the future, I wish they would partner with Indian companies as well.”
(Sourced from: Economic Times)