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What Will the SAP Consulting Market Look Like Five Years from Now?

The question of what the SAP market will look like five years from now is a really important one. Even though we are making project choices one at a time, those choices need to be informed by a broader career strategy. A big part of that strategy is having a good handle on where SAP is headed. You don’t want to be working in one direction when SAP is ultimately going in another. Of course, there is a catch - there is always a catch.

  The catch is, of course, is that no one can say with any true accuracy what SAP will be like five years down the road. There are just too many unpredictable factors in play. For one thing, SAP is closely tied to the fate of the overall corporate economy, and economists disagree all the time on where the economy is headed. Their profession seems to be founded on those disagreements. On top of that, we can’t say for sure what kinds of new technologies will impact the SAP landscape. We also don’t know how successful SAP is going to be in the SMB market (small and medium size businesses), and that will also have something to do with the scope of SAP’s customer base.

With those disclaimers aside, I’ll take a stab at my own"five years ahead" predictions for SAP consulting. First off, I expect the current wave of upgrades to last the next few years or so. Therefore, five years from now, almost all SAP customers will be running on an advance flavor of NetWeaver with their core ERP system on top of it, and we’re talking version ERP 6.0 or higher.

Once SAP customers have NetWeaver and the core ERP functionality in place, I expect to see a renewed focus on "opening up" SAP to customers and suppliers. Companies are going to want to take advantage of the open NetWeaver environment to involve their customers and suppliers in all aspects of the ordering, procurement, and manufacturing process. Five years from now, the name of the game will be "extending the enterprise."

The ultimate realization of the promise of ERP is connecting the entire supply chain digitally. In a strange way, the "core upgrade wave" is a little bit like taking a step backwards towards that goal in order to then take two steps forward. That’s because once the new NetWeaver platform is in place and the core ERP upgrade is complete, companies will have a much better platform for application integration inside and outside the enterprise.

It’s good to remember that historically, that kind of integration has always been an expensive headache. Obstacles included security, interface costs, and the problems caused in future upgrades when ERP systems are heavily customized. The good news is that SAP’s Enterprise SOA (eSOA) has the promise to change that equation, and I’ll have more to say on that in future blog entries and articles.

In some ways, the market of five years from now will look like a return to the market of 2000-2002, when the emphasis was less on core ERP and more on CRM, Supply Chain Management, and Business Intelligence. But there will be some major differences. First, Business Intelligence (now SAP BI or NetWeaver BI) is much more advanced and much more deeply integrated into all the enterprise workflows. Second, companies will have many more options as to how they are going to "extend" their enterprise than they did in the years of 2000- 2001.

Take the example of CRM. Using SAP’s new Enterprise SOA (eSOA) technologies, companies will be able to opt for smaller, focused CRM services instead of doing a full-blown CRM install. Or, they could go with a CRM on-demand solution , either from SAP or another vendor, and integrate that with the SAP core. I do think we will see more on-demand software five years from now, and the other major change will be how we access the ERP software itself. Five years from now, the use of ERP on "thin clients" will be commonplace, and all kinds of mobile devices will be the norm.

Of course, another change will be in the consulting market itself. We will continue to see the impact of "offshoring" on the overall rate structure. In addition, as companies get more comfortable with renting software from hosted or on-demand providers, we will see less on site consulting. This will have an impact on the overall rates for SAP consultants. It will also put increasing pressure on SAP consultants to justify their value to client sites. There are a number of things SAP consultants can do to improve their value to their customers, and that’s a theme I will touch on frequently in future SAP Career Blog entries. If you want a fix on that now, you should check out the recent podcast I did with Ori Inbar of SAP NetWeaver.

Of course, part of the challenge here is that everyone’s skill set is a bit different, so in one blog entry I can’t make universal recommendations for how to stay marketable in the SAP consulting market five years forward. But one thing I can say for sure is: deepen your business process know-how, focus on certain industries where you have "best practice" expertise, and don’t underestimate the power of "soft skills" - especially the ability to empower a project’s "casual SAP users" by giving them the kinds of reports and user interfaces that help them to do a better job without having to become SAP experts.

It may sound strange, but if you’re the kind of consultant that project team members actually invite out to them for drinks after work, you have a better chance of remaining marketable in an era where there will be less and less on-site consulting gigs. The "likeability" factor cannot be underestimated, though of course you have to know your expertise inside and out as well. There is more to say on the ideal consultant skill set of the future, but I think those are some good guidelines in terms of the skills needed to anticipate SAP five years from now.

Of course, it goes without saying that eSOA exposure will be essential in the years to come. The SAP consultant of the future will continue to have a focused niche, but increasingly, that niche will include the ability to move out of the functional silo and integrate functions across business processes and even beyond the walls of the enterprise.

So how do you prepare for projects five years ahead? The key to staying marketable in SAP is simply choosing the right projects. It’s good to have a vision of the future, but it’s more important to make good project choices in the present. In a sense, ensuring your SAP future means stringing together a series of good project choices.

That means looking beyond rate to the kinds of skills you’re going to get exposed to. It’s a cliche, of course, but "one project at a time" is never a bad philosophy. That also means seeing project through to important milestones so you can pick up a track record of great client references. The temptation to leave projects in mid-stream to land a better rate is yet another temptation to fight off if you want to be a player in the SAP consulting market of the future.

This question raises more issues than can be addressed in one blog entry, but hopefully that’s a good start. Feel free to comment on the areas you would like me to elaborate on further.

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