Engaging Top Community Influencers

by Mark Finnern, Founder Playful Enterprise

Let me tell you a story. As if a magician, I create communities from thin air. Communities around work, ideas, and local playfulness. Recently I founded Playful Enterprise a boutique consultancy where I bring my “magic” social technology for community to organizations ready to engage their enterprise tribes.

As SAP Chief Community Evangelist I developed and ran the SAP Mentor Initiative. The SAP Mentors are the top ~ 150 community influencers of the SAP Ecosystem of ~3 million members. At the 10 year anniversary, the community voted me as the “real founder” of SAP Community Network for my Don Finleone performance. (also voted most likely to join the circus….)

Since 2003, I started hosting the Future Salon I founded, a get together of a group of eclectic change makers curious about a world that works for all. At TEDx I shared my 5 ideas on how to bring our schools into the 21st century.

Years ago I also initiated Sandwich and Play, a weekly informal play time of families in the San Mateo Highlands. I also founded and led the San Mateo Highlands Renegade Marching Band to two consecutive best of 4th of July parade wins.

While it may seem like a romp at the circus, my magic creates the conditions and culture for communities to thrive.


Mentor Magic

At SAP, the third largest independent software company in the world, we developed and nurtured a thriving online community, but there still remained a big gap of communication between our executives and the SAP community.

I created a program that bridges that gap. It connects SAP decision makers with the leading community participants. The challenge in creating and running such a program is the fine line that you need to ride between community advocacy and organizational direction/decisions, so that both sides can connect and benefit from the interaction. It is crucial that everyone involved shows up with the right attitude to make change possible.

SAP Mentors

SAP Mentors in 2015 meeting with an executive.

I have years of experience implementing SAP software all over the world. I invented and developed tools to improve these implementations, and we were able to bring down average implementation times from 2 years to 6 months and sometimes 6 weeks. With a handful of people I started the SAP Developer Network (SDN) and now SAP Community Network (SCN) focusing on nurturing the community. Within a couple of years we were able to grow the community from zero to millions of unique visitors per month, thousands of forum posts as well as many many blog posts every day.

Early on I realized that passion is the key for a thriving community. My focus shifted from counting forum posts to thinking about how to nurture the community for maximum passion.

I asked, “How do you bring out the passion of your community?” What I learned is that you make it theirs, give them a voice, listen and act on their suggestions, nudge them into helping you making the community better. Over time the real community advocates develop. Make them shine.

We are tribal people. Being physically together creates deep connection and trust. For your community to get into overdrive, bring them together face to face at least once a year. For SAP developers it is an amazing treat to visit SAP development centers, so we created unconference style events at these locations, and we called them SDN meets Labs.

People loved these get togethers, and we continued them by adding an SDN Community Day before the well-established technical educational events SAP TechEd.

Again, some community members were more active than others, presented solutions and shared their expertise. To give them a token of appreciation I handed them a shirt that was an exact replica of the SDN team shirts, just instead of SDN Crew, it read SDN Mentor. That was a real magical moment to hand them their shirt when they walked off stage after their presentation. It was the first step in creating a tribe of SAP’s top community influencers.

They are driven by their commitment to share their expertise and help out the community. We would hang out in the evening too and there was so much common ground of SAP experience and eagerness to share with the community as well as wanting to help SAP to be the best they/we can be.

It totally made sense to bring these folks together to nurture and focus their energy. This is why I created the SAP Mentor initiative. We started out with 70 mentors that have now grown to ~150. These are super successful active SAP community members, the last thing they need is another KPI stating how many blog posts they have to create and community points they have to generate per year.

At the beginning when newly created SAP Mentors were wondering what to do now that they are mentors, I told them: You have been nominated by the community for what you are doing. Continue, by being an SAP Mentor we give you a bigger megaphone and the opportunity to influence SAP products and solutions especially when having sessions with senior SAP executives.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry states: “If you want people to build a boat, don’t tell them what to do, make them long for the sea.”

Instead of KPIs, together with the SAP Mentors, we developed the SAP Mentor Magic Foundation document. A public page that is listing the currently 8 characteristics, that make the SAP Mentor Magic happen.

Every one of these points has been passionately discussed among us SAP Mentors:

  • Lead by Example
  • Passion
  • Constructive in Our Criticisms
  • Be Humble
  • Inclusion
  • Deep Curiosity
  • Full of Gratitude
  • Playful


Lead by Example

  • Be humble. Be helpful. Show respect and empathy with everyone.
  • As an SAP Mentor we are expected to be a peer mentor.
  • We are not better or worse than anyone else. Help people overcome problems by sharing positive examples.
  • We represent the SAP Mentors and conduct ourselves accordingly.
  • Own the right to be the voice of the community by being more active than most.
  • Surprise us and everyone.

It is important that the community leadership position that being an SAP Mentor brings with it is fulfilled from a position of service: The community grants me this position I am fulfilling that grant by being extra engaged.


  • It is the spark that ignites the people around us.
  • Share the love.

Passion is what drives and unites the SAP Mentors, and that feeling of being part of a larger community that together we make a difference for the greater good is what drives, unites, and creates the magic.

Constructive in Our Criticisms

  • Criticism should be fact-based and objective – not subjective.
  • Voice criticisms directly to SAP first.
  • We use the private SAP Mentor space to socialize our views. We gain insights and can strengthen our case.
  • SAP gets a chance to react.
  • We owe it to the community to voice publicly afterwards.
  • With your criticism share suggestions for practical solutions.

This is a tough one and was discussed the most among the mentors. No one likes to be criticized, but if that criticism is constructive, voiced in an environment of trust, real improvements happen.

This document is creating the environment for the trust between SAP and the mentors.

One reason for the trust is, that the SAP Mentors, different than press or analysts, are willing to roll up their sleeves and help to tackle things that need improvement. After nudging SAP to open source their UI technology, it is the mentors that are active on GitHub and StackExchange answering questions and by doing so help to make it a success.

The SAP Mentors are recognized as trusted advisors to our customers and partners. In Australia for example most large SAP events end with an SAP Mentor Panel, where the SAP Mentors answer questions. By that time the customers have been inundated by a lot of innovation information from SAP. The SAP Mentors during that panel are able to translate all of the information into something that you can do come Monday when you are back in the office. These sessions are packed and get the highest ratings of the event.

Be Humble

  • No culture of entitlement
    • As an SAP Mentor we are entitled to nothing from SAP – not even a shirt.
    • As an SAP Mentor we are entitled to nothing from anyone who is not SAP.
  • Be aware that Mark Finnern begs, borrows and steals each year just to get complimentary entry to SAPPHIRE, SAP TechEd, d-code, etc.
  • These tickets are not a right, they are a gift. And just because we got the gift last year does not mean we will get it next year.
  • Be aware that SAP executives meet with us because they see value and want to – not because they have to.
  • Show respect by being there and giving our full attention.
  • We are the voice of the community. Be active to know what it is.

One big problem when you create a group of community leaders and give them recognition is, that there will be resentments by some in the community that have not been selected. Fight that resentment by being humble with everything you as group are doing.


  • Get out and talk to people!
  • Share experiences.
  • Respect opinions of others.
  • Make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
  • All public SAP Mentor events gain from the inclusion of non SAP Mentors.

Beyond being humble, inclusion is another way to fight the elitism criticism. Wherever possible what the SAP Mentors do is open to every other community member. We call it the “run with the SAP Mentor Wolfpack.” The SAP Mentors for example are the driving force behind the SAP Inside Tracks. Grassroots organized local get togethers of SAP enthusiasts. There is a document that describes step by step how to create your own SAP Inside Track, and many that are not SAP Mentors use it to create their own.

Deep Curiosity

  • We go beyond our area of expertise.
  • Explore the larger world of SAP, business and technology and make new connections.
  • The interesting stuff is happening at the intersection of different disciplines.
  • Let’s play there and cross pollinate.
  • Hang out with folks beyond our comfort zone of expertise, intellect, culture.

As an SAP Mentor you get exposed to a lot of interesting information often beyond your area of expertise, by being curious about what is going on in the larger SAP world, it creates a better understanding and an opportunity for cross pollination of solutions from one area to the next.

Full of Gratitude

The SAP Mentors do that on a daily basis in small forms of affirmation, and sometimes they even organize a flash mob including the printing of T-shirts to celebrate an exceptional community member.

Mentors showing off their shirts

SAP Mentors showing off their shirts


  • Don’t take ourselves too seriously.
  • The level of trust that the SAP Mentors have with each other enables us to jam/experiment, or even fail with SAP.
  • SAP Mentors are jamming the SAP culture.
  • Playfulness is not a requirement to become an SAP Mentor, but you have to be OK with other SAP Mentors being playful. As an SAP Mentor you don’t need to be playful but support other Mentor’s playfulness.
  • Great example of mostly SAP Mentor driven playfulness were the legendary SCNotties 30 seconds of recognition videos including awards ceremony.

We added this point only later to the SAP Mentor Magic Foundation document, because it took us awhile to realize how important playfulness is. A level of trust is needed for people to be playful with each other and with the SAP executives. One of them,, Bjoern Goerke, after an intensive SAP Mentor Webinar with lots of questions asked and him answering them, said at the total end: “You guys always seem to know how to have fun.”

He is an avid runner, and we organized a “Run with the Wolfpack” event during our big TechEd conference in Las Vegas. 15 people showed up the first year and we had a blast. Some SAP Mentors convinced the organizers to make it an official event. Now it sells out with 300+ runners that join us every year.

Run with the Wolfpack

Run with the Wolfpack

Closing the Airgap

I bring these SAP Mentors together with SAP executives and they love the high signal conversations they are having and the unvarnished feedback that they are getting from the SAP Mentors.

SAP in numerous conversations with the SAP Mentors shared their desire to reach out to more developers. The SAP Mentors told them that SAP needs to go where these developers are, to their conferences, for example, to the Open Source Conference OSCON happening in Portland. But, the warning from the SAP Mentors was, that you can’t go there if you don’t have something to offer to open source developers. SAP was coming out with a new UI technology UI5 based on HTML5 which the SAP Mentors wanted to share with other developers, but there was no framework in place to easily do that.

So the SAP Mentors campaigned for SAP to open source that technology which culminated in a blog post by Jan Penninkhof: 13 Reasons why SAP should Open Source SAPUI5. It started out with 12 reasons, but the comments from other SAP Mentors added the top reason: SAP will sell more software.

To the great cheer of the SAP Mentors, OpenIU5 was announced at SAP TechEd in Bangalore, the last big event of the the year for 2013. As noted above, SAP Mentors are now actively supporting OpenUI5 by answering questions on Stackoverflow and making sure that we are positioned correctly on GitHub. The OpenUI5 was the key for a positive attendance of SAP at this year’s OSCON, where we got overwhelming positive press.

By engaging with the mentors, SAP is able to tap into an early warning system, that is pointing out possible improvement areas much earlier, SAP Mentors often tell me, that they want SAP to succeed. Because if SAP is successful, they are successful too.

SAP wins by having very engaged and engaging community advocates, that co-innovate with us and let us know early and often how to improve. The SAP Mentors win by having influence to improve SAP and our products and solutions.

That influence and appreciation goes up to the highest ranks of SAP. In a press conference during Sapphire in Madrid, then Co-CEO Jim Snabe officially thanked the SAP Mentors for their idea to offer free HANA licenses to developers in the cloud.

This kind of engagement with the top community influencers is so powerful, that I am convinced within the next couple years all enterprises will have such a program.