Spinning the Flywheel

By Carolyn Chen



In my first department meeting with the Ethics and Compliance group at SAS, the Vice President and General Counsel of the department, Brian, explained how enacting greater social change at SAS can be like moving a flywheel, a heavy wheel used to generate momentum in a machine. In his management book, Good to Great, author Jim C. Collins presents the metaphor creating a “great” and sustainable enterprise as similar to the task of generating enough momentum to rotate a 5,000 pound flywheel for as long and fast as possible. This metaphor describes SAS’s approach to achieving change: social change initiatives can be challenging to start, but through the efforts of particularly socially conscious groups and individuals within the company, momentum builds and change is achieved.

One example of how change at SAS begins on a bottom-up level is the interaction between the Governmental Sales group and the Ethics and Compliance group. The Governmental Sales group oversees building relationships with SAS’ governmental customers and government is the second largest customer industry for SAS globally. In the beginning, the group was primarily focused on helping promote the use of SAS software in government and generating more sales. However, as governmental regulations increased and there was a shift towards a more socially responsible mindset, the Governmental Sales group worked with the Ethics and Compliance group to emphasize the social and community impact that SAS technology could create on the local, state, and federal level. This led to the creation of a SAS platform that integrates foster care related data to calculate and predict risk of child abuse within the foster system, and notify case workers accordingly. SAS Analytics also recently helped the state of Virginia tackle opioid addiction, which the State Health Commissioner had declared a public health emergency. Using SAS Visual Analytics, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) could better match patients with the best providers and better guide people who were struggling with addiction into more community-based addiction recovery programs.

Through integrating social impact into their work, the Governmental Sales and Sales Support groups themselves have expressed increased job satisfaction and in turn inspire others throughout the company to “do well by doing good”, maintaining the flywheel momentum of corporate social responsibility. As SAS Principal Industry Consultant and author of A Practical Guide to Analytics for Governments: Using Big Data for Good Marie Lowman put it, “I think employees will be incredibly motivated to see firsthand how the work they do is making a difference in the lives of so many others.”

SAS’ decentralized approach to achieving social change comes from the decentralized nature of corporations themselves, but this can also prove to be a major challenge in generating the momentum to implement new social change initiatives when they may involve many divisions. Communication between divisions can sometimes be a time-consuming process. Since each division is specialized, there may not be a great deal of awareness about the functioning and initiatives of other divisions, which can be difficult when different areas of the company must work together to create change.

I personally experienced this difficulty when working on the Supplier Code of Conduct, a Code detailing labor, environmental and managerial guidelines that SAS suppliers must agree to follow. I met with the Director of the Strategic Sourcing and Procurement (SSP) team, Steve, to discuss the implications of the Code. When I asked him about the different types of materials that SAS procures, and whether the Supplier Code would apply to all of SAS’ suppliers, Steve explained that the term “procurement” is broad and that SSP is more of an umbrella that oversees the procurement efforts of multiple divisions, but not all. In addition to the work of the SSP team, different SAS departments also do separate procurement that does not go through SSP. After reviewing an overview of groups at SAS and what purchasing functions they perform, I began to understand the enormity of how many divisions could be affected by this document and the importance of specifying which suppliers would be covered, since there are many categories of suppliers, but not all of them present the same risks from a human rights standpoint. In trying to shape supply chain conduct, I realized that it may be unrealistic to ask for the compliance of all SAS suppliers, as the potential auditing and due diligence process could be very burdensome. I had to reconsider what audience the Supplier Code was meant for, and go back to make edits on the draft accordingly, since some clauses might only apply to certain suppliers.

One unique aspect of my experience this summer has been the opportunity to interact with employees within SAS who are addressing how SAS fits in the landscape of human rights and social change, both within and outside of the department I work in. It has been interesting to see how their work fits into the effort to make SAS a socially conscientious corporation. Through meetings with other employees in different divisions, I have begun to come to the realization that addressing social change may not be a centralized, concerted effort as much as it is pockets of individuals within a company actively finding ways to make a difference through their different roles. Most people at SAS may not work directly in the human rights and business space, but human rights and its implications does touch the work of many people at SAS in some way. And through their smaller individual efforts towards greater social impact, the flywheel spins.