sap indexSAP, Europe’s largest business software company, is looking to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to accompany its expansion in China.

The move, if copied by other foreign businesses, could represents a new third leg in the west’s engagement with China.

From being seen first and foremost as a low-cost manufacturing base, the China strategies of western businesses have evolved to focus more on the the largely untapped potential of China as a new market for western goods and services.

But in their rush to engaged with the PRC, environmental and social issues affecting Chinese supply chains, facilities and workers have often not received the sort of priority they would in the west.  The most well-known example being Apple’s  treatment of contract workers in China

Just as the activities of businesses in the west are now increasingly judged through a more holistic CSR perspective — rather than simply on the basis of economic performance or jobs created — the more astute foreign businesses no doubt judge that it is only a question of time before they are scrutinised in a similar way by Chinese consumers and/or stakeholders.

SAP hopes to get a head’s start in this trend through its social entrepreneur initiative, in which employees are seconded for a sabatical to help entrepreneurs in developing markets.

For its inaugural program in China, seconded SAP employees will work with non-profits that support local entrepreneurs in Shanghai.

The Germany company happily admits its part of it’s efforts to significantly expand its presence in China by investing over US$2bn  through 2015.

A relatively new area for international corporate volunteering, the social sabbatical initiative by SAP was launched in 2012 with 30 employees in three countries: Brazil, India and South Africa.  More here.