How MercadoLibre built a learning culture to keep up with its growth - an SAP SuccessFactors story

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed April 8, 2019
Summary:
Exponential growth might seem appealing, but it can pose a huge challenge to an HR team. Here's what MercadoLibre did to bring culture and tech together - and how they work with SAP SuccessFactors to grow and manage that talent.

 

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Whenever a company earns recognition for being a great workplace, I'm curious to learn why. I had that chance with MercadoLibre, cited as "Latin America's most popular e-commerce site."

Fortune quotes a MercadoLibre employee who says: "You learn and you challenge yourself every day, you work autonomously. We have a thousand benefits." You don't read that every day.

Soon I was on the phone with Sebastián Fernández Silva, Senior Vice President of People at MercadoLibre. Let's start there. How did he get that not-so-typical job title? Silva told me:

At the beginning, my job title was the Statistical Vice President of Human Resources, but we decided to change it. "Vice President of People" is more connected with the sense of what we do. We want to attract and engage the best talent in Latin America.

So what does the Vice President of People do? Silva says his job is "to be the people department for the entire organization." In the last fifteen years, that mission has grown massively in scope.

When Silva joined MercadoLibre in 2004, there were 80 employees. Today, he serves 7,300 employees, with operations in 18 countries across Latin America. MercadoLibre supports 44 million active users, processing nine purchases per second. That's quite a change:

In my case, when I joined, I was the first person in human resources. My journey was to build everything from scratch. So it has been an exciting journey.

Growing pains - "We were losing our entrepreneurial DNA"

But how did they support that growth from an HR perspective? Surely it was difficult to keep pace? Silva says the hardest part was retaining that early entrepreneurial spirit - and building a platform for future growth. So, about eight years ago, Mercado Libre decided to build a technology platform to manage their expanding teams.

We felt that we were losing our entrepreneurial DNA. That's the reason we decided to create a platform - to reconnect our team with our entrepreneurial DNA... We had to liberate our business technology.

As MercadoLibre expanded into new services and new regions, they also needed to standardize. HR felt that pressure; they had to manage hiring growth in the face of increased competition across regions. Silva says that's what led them to SAP SuccessFactors:

This is the reason why in 2012 we decided to implement a new system. In this case, we decided to implement SuccessFactors - to ensure that throughout the regions, we manage all the processes in the same way. We had to manage the scale-out challenge.

And why SuccessFactors? MercadoLibre's pressing issue was recruiting: they needed a platform to manage all their recruiting processes. Otherwise, says Silva, "you start to have multiple databases, and you lose the synergy."

The move to cloud HR - "We needed a platform"

So Silva began a research process to evaluate HR solutions. One key criteria: all the modules had to be integrated. At first, Silva tried to build his own solutions. He ran into big challenges with performance and stability. By contrast, SuccessFactors was appealing: "When you have an all-in-one solution, you are assured that topics like security and performance are [addressed]." Silva welcomed the chance to adjust for future growth:

We also use SuccessFactors to redefine our processes, because you also have the chance to implement the best human capital practices that SuccessFactors provides. So it's not only the technology side. It was also an opportunity to build in the structure that we need to manage not only one set of employees, but also the more-than-10,000 we plan to be in the near future.

Talent management with SAP SuccessFactors

In 2012, MercadoLibre kicked off its SuccessFactors implementation with the recruiting module. Silva decided to move ahead with the rest of the SuccessFactors platform. Next up was Compensation, then Performance Management, then Employee Central and Employee Profile. After that, Workforce Analytics. At the heart of it all was talent management:

What I wanted to have was, finally, an HR analytics dashboard that allows us to take human capital decisions to address the business challenges.

From 2015, Silva's team began to manage all their SuccessFactors functions through mobile. That paid off with a young workforce:

Most of our employees are millennials, so we need a technology that also has a mobile-driven approach.

And has SuccessFactors lived up to Silva's expectations?

For me, it's been a wonderful journey, because we simplified a lot our processes. We could manage the scaling. It's multi-lingual software, and our biggest operation is in Brazil. We have more than 40 percent of our operations located there. So it was a wonderful solution to my staff.

But has it helped managed talent?

I'm very satisfied with all the benefits of the implementation. Nowadays, we are able to manage all the processes consistently in all the regions. We have the chance to deploy a new feature and have a tremendous impact across the region at the same time. So for me, it's a very efficient way to manage human capital in a big organization.

What caught my ear wasn't HR efficiency. It's how Silva is using SuccessFactors for leadership development:

We now have that practice in all of our human capital reviews with different business units - in all of the different departments. All the information that we share with them is based on certain factors on the Workforce Analytics side. We use it a lot. It's our day-to-day platform for working, and for managing our human capital process.

The wrap - learning culture should be driven by HR

We talked about MercadoLibre's consistent rankings on the top places to work globally, and in Latin America. Silva credits that to cultivating leadership, and promoting from within. He wants to make sure that "every leader in every corner of the organization is capable of building and managing a talented team."

I was intrigued by MercadoLibre's use of the term knowledge nomads - it's part of their self-directed career philosophy. Silva says their hiring criteria focuses on two things: learning ability and culture fit. In an industry that changes so rapidly, the ability to learn and adapt is a must: "In 2017, we joined another 100 list replacing Yahoo. When I started, Yahoo was expected to be bigger than Google."

That also means growing sustainably. MercadoLibre partners with 600 non-profits, including some that support underprivileged youth and community development. Another MercadoLibre program supports new mothers and fathers. "We focus on the results, and we provide an environment that is flexible in our industry," says Silva.

I worry that modern analytics can work against culture-building. Trying to turn every human behavior into a metric to be measured doesn't seem empowering to me. But Silva told me the insights his team derives from SuccessFactors apply directly to his mission:

I think that technology, consistency, culture, and a [structure for growth] are what you need. If you want to build a world-class organization, you need to have insight.