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Why the SAP Training Results from Michael Management’s Survey Bother Me

The results of Michael Management’s 2013 SAP Training Survey got under my skin. Though there was a silver lining or two, I was hoping that individuals (and companies) were further along. Too many ERP projects are still struggling or failing, and there is good data to support the importance of training investment to project outcome.  Yet the “training gap” remains. In this year’s survey, a whopping 46% of SAP professionals surveyed indicated they did not have enough training to do their jobs. Though the survey sample size of 1,172 is not enough to reach definitive conclusions, it is enough to raise serious eyebrows.

Before I dig in further, here’s a few links you’ll want to have handy.

You can obtain a copy of the 2013 survey here (free with sign up).

After the survey, Thomas Michael of Michael Management facilitated a webinar to discuss these provocative results. I was on the webinar, along with Cushing Anderson of IDC (both of us wrote forewords to the 2013 survey). You can view or download the webinar in two formats:

wmv webinar replay (Windows) or .mov webinar replay (Mac).

I think you’ll enjoy the replay, which includes lively debate on the relevance of SAP certification to hiring.

In my foreword to the survey, I wrote:

Michael Management’s 2nd Annual SAP Training Survey doesn’t disappoint. The results are often surprising - in some cases, even shocking. Surveys like this one matter because we need better information on SAP training. We need to know the impact of trends like e-learning and what their limitations are. Why? Because not all SAP project are thriving. Too many stories of ERP project lawsuits still hit the newswires. Regardless of who is to blame, news like that can only mean one thing: troubled projects. So how do you avoid them? For SAP customers, competent and well-trained SAP users are a big piece of that particular puzzle.

It’s really not debatable that ERP project failures (and lawsuits) are still happening way too often. What is subject to debate is why they are still happening. If you want to get a flavor for some of the grim stories of projects you would never want to set foot on, check out my Delicious tag for “ERP Project Failure” There are plenty of project meltdown stories just from the last three months, and this is just one of my tags, you can see related failure tags on the left hand side of the page. (Note: these "tagged" stories are all posted on my Twitter jonerpnewsfeed as they come out). 

I am in the camp that we still don’t know enough about why projects fail, but I largely agree with Eric Kimberling that most ERP project failures are not about the stability or performance of the software. That doesn’t mean SAP, Oracle, Lawson, and other “ERP lawsuit frequent flyers” are off the hook. Often there is a perfect storm behind a bad or failed project that includes overzealous salespeople who don’t scope out the project for fit or exaggerate the functionality, a systems “integrator” that does more billing than integrating, and yes, deadly project politics and poor internal management.

Pinpointing the cause of project failure doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this survey. But training plays into several key factors that I believe helps to avoid worse case scenarios. As Cushing Anderson noted in his introduction to the 2012 version of the Michael Management SAP Training Survey, IDC has found that as little as nine hours of training increases an enterprise system project’s success from 50 percent to more than 80 percent. Eric Kimberling’s research at Panorama Consulting reinforces these findings. Ergo, his analysis of a Dorset County project failure in 2010

In every failure and ERP lawsuit that we’ve been hired to clean up, poor training is probably the single most recurring theme. Dorset County is no different, with 58% of employees expressing negative feelings about training, usability, and support. Even several months after go-live, 55% still express negative feelings about the system in general. Clearly, something went wrong in the training and user support provided by the organization. 

Well-educated internal teams are also a great preventative to bad consulting. All too often, when we dig into these troubled projects, we find out about inferior consultants that let down an inexperienced internal team. For several years, “sapmesideways” chronicled a troubled project that often led back to unprofessional consulting behavior. More fodder: the Marin County lawsuit against Deloitte and SAP was finally settled on January 11, 2013.While most of the claims against SAP and Deloitte were thrown out or financially settled, the fact remains it was a troubled project. From a training standpoint, this sentence jumps out: “Marin County also alleged that Deloitte used the project as a training ground for inexperienced workers.”

While this claim against Deloitte was never legally proven, the practice of “bait and switch,” where a junior consultant is used to replace a senior consultant highlighted during sales process, is a well-known tactic that some firms have used (the "tactic" link goes to a replay of a session I was on inspired by Jarret Pazahanick’s consulting fraud blog post). The best way for a customer to combat such practices is to become more internally sophisticated. The (cough) best practice is this area is developing an internal Center of Excellence, work which SAP has pursued in recent years, to their credit – though I’d argue through the wrong lens, Application Lifecyle Management (translation: lots of Solution Manager), versus the “process excellence” approach to Centers of Excellence that Michael Doane and his colleagues have pioneered.

While IDC’s figures support the value of conventional training, I’d take it further with the importance of what I call “networked learning.” I have no data to support this, but my own experience interviewing ASUG and non-ASUG members is that companies who are active in user groups and encourage their employees to engage in building “personal learning networks” via LinkedIn, Twitter, SCN, and so on, are far better off than companies that are isolated. Modern ERP user groups are rich with lessons learned and peer-to-peer sharing. Once you hear a few of of these peer-to-peer discussions first hand, you can see why I believe the worst ERP projects almost always suffer from their own isolation. If I were ASUG or SUGEN or any other SAP user group body, I’d be collecting this kind of data aggressively.

I’m not letting individuals off the hook either. Frankly I thought it was disgraceful that 24% of individuals reported they did not have the time for SAP training, making it the top reason cited for lack of training, even ahead of that failed corporate excuse, “budget limitations.” Perhaps it was partially because of how the question was framed, but if you are an ERP professional and you don’t have time to invest in your own skills improvement, you might as well start getting ready for your next career. With the impact of HANA, analytics, cloud, and mobile this is absolutely the wrong time to hunker down and offer up the weak excuse that since your company isn’t providing formal training, you don’t need to take that initiative yourself.

If I had all day, I couldn’t possibly list the astounding amount of resources, many of them free, that an SAP professional can use to enhance their skills. It’s not a matter of money anymore, and I think you could argue that’s very good news. It may be a matter of time, but the obvious rebuttal is you’ll have plenty of time to train when you no longer have a job. Learn now. Foster new relationships now. Share meangingful content now. If your employer stands in the way of that process, and won’t train you further, find a company that will support you. Or train on weekends – no one can stop you except maybe March Madness on your flat screen..

Of course, on the webinar, we also debated the survey results about SAP certification. What we learned from the Michael Management survey is not surprising: most hiring managers do not take SAP certification into account when making SAP hiring decisions.

Here’s what I said about this in the survey: 

Though I have been a frequent critic of SAP certification, typically my beef is how certification is hyped and how SAP professionals overestimate certification, which is very different than saying SAP certification has no value. SAP certification is such a hot topic that we tend to miss the nuance.We see some signs of that in this survey, with 32 percent of respondents believing that certification could help them land their next job, and 61 percent saying certification is important to their careers. Managers tell a different story, with 40 percent citing SAP certification as important to them. That resonates with what I see in the field. SAP certification is one valid choice, but both SAP professionals and their employers need to consider an array of options for acquiring and evaluating SAP skills.

I’m not going to belabor those points here as it’s pretty well known where I stand on SAP certification. But you may want to check the webinar replay to hear the debate/discussion Cushing and I got into on this topic. The nuance that gets lost is that SAP Education has made significant progress with revamping its Associate Level certification around "job task profiles" (translation: much greater relevance to on-the-job issues), but overall I continue to be bitterly disappointed with what I consider a failure of imagination on the part of SAP Education and an inability to see how investing in true Master Level certification would elevate that status of SAP professionals into a bona fide professional trade. Building what I call a “culture of excellence” around your products should be a huge priority for every software vendor that cares about avoiding project failure This includes both structured programs and other means of recognizing and inspiring the field-tested experts who are instrumental in ensuring good projects – and preventing bad ones.

That discussion is beyond the scope of this survey. For my part I have tried to put my time where my beliefs are not only by participating in dialogue with SAP around certification via the Certification and Training Influence Council, something which the “Certification Five” pushed for in our initial report. But in my view, it’s the new programs that are leading to real change. I’m inspired by what SAP is doing fostering startup innovation around HANA in particular (see our (ongoing) video series on SAP and HANA startups), not to mention the HANA Academy – a growing video library for aspiring HANA professionals. 

That’s why I ended up volunteering my time as a founding member of the HANA Distinguished Engineering Council. I think we’ve done some cool things to further that “HANA culture of excellence” and we’ve managed to highlight some of the accomplished HANA engineers SAP will need many more of to realize HANA’s potential in the field. But to be bluntly honest I’m disappointed that SAP hasn’t put more investment in this initiative. I think HANA skills demand will soon outpace the amount of seasoned professionals in the field, and it’s naive to think certification will come close to filling that gap. A cutlure of peer-to-peer learning supported by "master class" professionals the community looks up to - now we’re talking!  Creating culture through learning networks is something all vendors should be investing in. Maybe someday I won’t feel like I’m howling into the wind on this one…for now I have to admit that I have also failed. But I’ll keep trying, crazy or wise.

Which brings us back to the survey and its sobering (if not shocking) results. It’s not all bad news. I’m encouraged by survey data that indicates the traction online training is getting. This is promising for companies that just don’t have the budget for classroom training anymore. And we’re also seeing signs that self-education is no longer viewed as a quaint hobby but as a legitimate complement to formal training. In future editions of the survey, I hope these trends gain steam - I expect they will. I suspect we will start to see data on mobile learning and just-in-time training on mobile devices before too long. We’ll find out next year.

Disclosures: The Certification and Training Influence Council and HANA Distinguished Engineers Council are volunteer roles. I was not compensated for writing the survey introduction or the webinar, though Michael Management is the Training Partner. The JD-OD SAP Startup Stories video series is a commisioned project with SAP, we are working on the third series of videos now.

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