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Should you be an SAP Generalist or an SAP Specialist?

This is one of the most important questions for SAP professionals to ponder. We can take it further: the decision over generalization-versus-specialization affects virtually all professions. Often, we hear blanket statements such as: “generalize during tough economies; specialize during growth periods.” I find such broad recommendations limiting. In this blog entry, I’m going to answer this question in terms of hands-on SAP professionals, and limit that focus further by focusing on independent SAP consultants – though I’m sure much of this would apply to the full-time employee working in SAP as well.

  I want to give a nod to Michael Koch of Pixelbase before going further. I had been thinking about this issue for a while, and recently he posted a blog entry on this topic as pertains to SAP developers that is worth a read. I had been stewing on this; Michael’s post brought it into focus. The reason I have been obsessing rather than writing is that I became aware that for top shelf SAP consultants, there are actually two kinds of generalizations to consider. Combined with a good specialization, this means there are actually three “skills themes” the hands-on SAP person must integrate. Two of these themes are SAP-specific; one of them is mostly not. As you read, keep in mind that the recommendations in this blog entry apply to both functional and technical SAP consultants.

First: on the theme of SAP generalization and specialization. I actually see this as a false dichotomy. The philosophy studies of my youth taught me that underneath two apparent dualities is often a “paradoxical unity,” and such is the case for the apparent duality of “specialization versus generalization” for SAP consultants. In fact, it’s important to cultivate a general foundation of SAP skills, and combine it with a specialization that stems logically from that core area. In some cases, expert SAP folks can have several related specializations stemming from the same core – for example, several different flavors of GUI development - but beyond that, a consultant becomes less marketable as their SAP skills become too broad. Focus and repetition leads to mastery, and mastery of the right area leads to market demand for your skills.

In his blog, Michael raised a very important point: if you err on the side of a poorly chosen specialization, you can find yourself struggling to find projects. Examples of a questionable specialization in SAP include technologies that are becoming outdated (perhaps ALE or SAPscript or R/2 functional skills). Remember that you can also err on the side of being too far ahead of the curve, specializing in emerging areas where the project work has not yet developed a sufficient skills demand to spill over into a consulting need. Examples of this might include SAP RFID, NetWeaver BPM, or SAP Duet Consulting (as of today, I see no SAP Duet jobs in 63,000 Dice.com IT listings).

Admittedly, it’s better to have a too-far-forward specialization than one rooted in an older technology, but neither is ideal. The best SAP skills combinations mix a core of foundational skills that are still in demand, topped off with a well-chosen specialization that is still gaining traction, where you can be ahead of the curve.

Any way you look at it, specialization is always risky, and that was one of Michael Koch’s most important points. However, I don’t think you can let the risk deter you. Independent consultants need an expert focus that is narrow enough to make them stand out from the pack and serve as the “missing skills piece” on larger project teams with more generalized know-how.

Although you can’t eliminate the risk of SAP skills specialization, there are two ways of reducing it. One is to do your best, as we’ve noted, to choose a specialization that is ahead of the pack without being too far ahead. The other is to make sure that specialization extends logically from your core skills. This way, if the specialization starts to run dry, you can fall back on a reliable core of skills that can always land you a gig, though often at lower rates.

To give you a better sense of how this works, here are some excerpts from the comment I posted on Michael Koch’s blog:

“In many cases, I think there can be both a core and an emerging skill. An example might be an ABAP-BW programmer who decides to add MDM programming to their core. MDM is a good logical extension of BW skills, but since the MDM product still has a smaller level of market acceptance, it doesn’t make sense to put all eggs in the MDM basket unless you are a true expert. So, combining the core ABAP-BW with MDM could make sense. Another direction for the ABAP-BW person could be towards Business Objects functionality, which would mean learning more Java-related tools - though this can be a good thing as well!

Here’s another example of a technical profile that can be very effective: someone who started as an ABAP ALE-EDI-IDOC specialist (remember that stuff?), then moved into best-of-breed EAI technologies like Tibco and WebMethods, and then into XI programming. This is a profile I’ve seen a few times that works very well. It’s just one example, but what I like about it is: the person in question has some cutting edge skills, but over time, they have been true to their skills foundation and so they have a deep base of core expertise to draw on.”

Since my examples for Michael’s blog were more on the technical side, let me offer a couple of functional examples: one might be the SAP HR consultant who has extended a base of payroll/benefits skills into more cutting edge SAP HCM areas, such as E-recruitment or ESS (Employee Self-Service) or Talent and Performance Management. From a base of skills in SAP Financials, you can move into all kinds of specializations, from SAP Financial Supply Chain Management (FSCM) to Treasury and Funds Management to the New General Ledger to Product Costing. It goes without saying that experience in the most recent version of SAP that pertains to your core skills is more important than any other factor, so that must be in place as well.

After I wrote this piece, I realized it has one flaw to this point: it reads like obvious, common sense. What’s important to understand is that many SAP professionals do not operate this way. I frequently get emails from folks who are always in pursuit of what is hot in SAP without regard to how it connects to their existing skills inside and outside of SAP. The most common example is the ABAP programmer who is looking to bail out, perhaps into CRM or whatever "the next big thing" might be. The problem here is that if you are always chasing skills your resume tends to fragment. If a Basis person moves into SAP Supply Chain Management, and then SCM projects come slowly, it’s hard to fall back on the Basis work because it’s now become dated. If, on the other hand, the Basis person moves into NetWeaver XI/PI, then if there aren’t enough opportunities in PI yet, the work they are doing still relates directly to their technical core competency, so it’s easy to fall back on the Basis foundation if needed.

People forget that there are hot areas spread throughout SAP. It’s better to extend your skills into something that is more closely connected to your current skills and worry less about whether it’s the hottest aspect of SAP or not. It’s not as sexy, perhaps, to think about just mastering what you know, but I’m always amazed at all the areas of SAP that folks can find success in when they are passionately focused on it. Another example: sometimes I hear from R/3 functional folks who are more worried about getting into SOA work or into Business Suite applications when they should be concerned about updating their existing skills into ERP 6.0 first. Once your skills are "upgraded" to the latest releases, you are in a better position to assess how much demand there will be for them, and whether you need to extend them further.

So we now have a better sense of the art of combining general and specialized SAP skills. But what about this third skill area I was referring to? In addition to core and niche SAP skills, SAP consultants must also be cultivating general consulting skills. What is interesting is that many of these general skills, sometimes unfairly diminished by the so-called “soft skills” label, are now found under the SAP “Business Process Expert” (BPX) skills umbrella. Some JonERP.com readers I have known since the mid-90s have made a point of letting me know that the best SAP consultants have always had these well-rounded BPX skills. I’ve written elsewhere on this site about BPX skills transitions and will return to this topic in more detail later. If you’re interested, my SAP BPX skills webcast is a good place to start. This article on BPX job roles could be of interest also.

When we think about BPX skills, we can certainly put some of them in the “classic” consulting skills umbrella, which might include change management, implementation methodology know-how, project management skills, end-user training and team-building skills, and full life cycle implementation experience (as opposed to coming in just for the configuration piece and moving on).

However, in the modern BPX context, we can add more skills to this “general” mix, including industry expertise as well as modeling experience that allows you to take a process-driven perspective to your SAP work. The BPX era is about the convergence of functional and technical skills, so more than anything, adding the BPX component is about making a concerted effort to understand how to connect your skills to the “other side” of the implementation (whether that means functional or technical), in the interest of offering greater business value to the implementation.

Of course, this raises interesting questions as to what the right skills mix for an SAP consultant is. I still find that the “80/20” mix of functional and technical, with one side as your expertise and the other side as your additional know-how, to be the ideal mix, but in some ways, we are looking at moving towards more of a 50/50 techno-functional skills blend as BPX skills come into clearer focus in the years to come. Right now, we’re not there yet, we may never get there. Why? There is simply too much in SAP to master for most of us to get away with straddling a 50/50 fence. For now, I would set the goal to cultivate an 80/20 mix - just make sure that other 20 percent is super solid.

I hope that this entry has given some idea of the SAP skills strategy you should employ to take that core SAP skills foundation, extend it into a couple of sensible specializations, and wrap it all in a well-rounded BPX consulting skill set that is more about being an outstanding consultant than anything else (though as tools like NetWeaver BPM hit the marketplace and mature, there will be more tools needed in this area as well). If you want to get a better sense of which SAP skills in your area are hot now, check out the hot SAP skills section of JonERP.com.

The SAP generalist-versus-specialist discussion is a very healthy debate that cannot be resolved in one blog entry. There are exceptions to any broad statements about skills, but I hope that this piece helped to provoke your thinking. I look forward to seeing reader comments on this important topic.

Oh, and I should close by saying that what I recommend here applies to any economy, though the one thing about a sluggish economy is that there is less margin for error with any of these decisions, and factors about which types of SAP projects are moving ahead should be taken into account as well.

8 Responses to “Should you be an SAP Generalist or an SAP Specialist?”

  • somnath responded:
    December 23rd, 2008 at 6:04 am...

    As a consultant working with SAP Service Providers, I may share my view. What you mentioned is quite true for independents but for those who work for IT majors there is a twist :) I think it stems from the fact that clients expect more from IT majors not just in terms of SAP Implementation, Support etc. but “sustained value enhancement”. This in a way trickles down to the consultants especially the senior ones (if they remain hands-on technical). This is where core service line / business process skill-set comes in picture and then you build your IT skill-set around it. Moreover being in package solution service provider space one needs to build skill-set around software life-cycle management, release and change management and in today’s “flat” world on-site/off-shore delivery models, follow-the-sun support models etc. If I have to draw out my skill-set, I can call myself a specialist in SAP SCM (APO and bit of R/3 PP, BW) but also a generalist in Supply Chain business process (having worked in three industries) and software delivery (on-site implementation, onsite/offshore support, global rollout from offshore). Hopefully these are decent marketable skills in this current market scenario so that my company can keep me engaged in projects - otherwise its tough luck for me :(

  • Jon Reed responded:
    December 25th, 2008 at 11:11 am...

    Somnath, thanks for taking the time to share your view. As a senior consultant who has achieved a lot in SAP, your view is very valuable to our readers. I think that your description of your skills, and how they interrelate, is a great example of why just chasing hot skills is a problematic approach. Instead of chasing what is hot, you have taken a different approach, and built a niche of sorts (APO) around a foundation that is broader and solid.

    To me, you are right in line with this blog entry, where the specialization (APO) and the SAP skills generalization (SCM) is integrated with a broader set of consulting skills that in your case includes knowledge of software delivery models, lifecycle and change management. This is very similar to the three areas I have recommended in my piece, although some of your specifics are a bit different.

    Of course, as you point out, in this type of economy even a well-thought approach like yours does not guarantee success. But I would say that when you compare your background with say, someone who has more narrowly focused only in APO, you have a much more marketable skill set because you have combined that specialization with a logical set of core competencies that give your skills more breadth and, in turn, you more options in terms of career and project choices.

    Thanks for sharing your views and I look forward to hearing more. I have been getting some interesting feedback on this piece via Twitter and I’ll try to do a roundup on some of that feedback down the line.

    - Jon Reed -

  • Ravs responded:
    January 26th, 2009 at 8:48 pm...

    Hi Jon,

    Taking up on the Generalist Vs Specialist approach, i look forward hear your suggestions for the mid-career BW/BI Consultants to progress their career in order to build their skill rappoitoire. This is especially in light of the increased competition that has increased due to lots of SAP consultants taking into the BI module since it continues to be one of the hotter skills. Plus add to that, the fact that BOBJ and BPC(OutlookSoft) are skills which will eventually all fall under the SAP BI umbrella. Of course, extending into BOBJ and BPC tools would be one direction. But what apart from that, can we BW (lately BI) consultants do in order to stay ahead of the competition?

    Thanks!

  • Jon Reed responded:
    January 27th, 2009 at 9:22 am...

    Ravs, yes, I think Business Objects is one major direction and one major answer to your question. If I were a BI person now, I’d work on figuring out how my skills intersect with Business Objects and pursue that angle BEFORE I thought about anything else. Remember also that OutlookSoft is going to be, or is, part of the combined SAP/BO EPM suite and I see that also as an area to take very seriously.

    The rest of the answer to your question would depend a lot on whether you are a technical or functional person, and if you are technical, if you are more of a DBA/data warehouse, system admin, or developer. Each of these has some relevant answers and this would become a longer article rather than a blog comment.

    But, I want to mention two more things: one is embedded analytics. A big feature of the new Business Suite 7.0 ramp up this spring is embedded analytics throughout the application. So this is important.

    Another aspect: I think we’re doing to see more industry-specific BI work soon as well. We see some of it, but I expect to see more. So, more focus on particular industries, or particular types of data (such as Financials or even Logistics BI) is another part of what a BI person could do to stay ahead of the curve. But, still, my ultimate answer is still Business Objects. It’s not that simple to figure out which part of the combined BI/BO platform you fit into, so I believe that’s really the first step. I’ve written on this before and I will return to it. Make sure you check out the article on BO skills in my “hot skills” section, which you can find by clicking on the “news” button on the left hand menu.

    Thanks for the great question.

    - Jon Reed -

  • Ravs responded:
    January 28th, 2009 at 5:10 am...

    Thanks, Jon. Appreciate the prompt response!

    Absolutely, BOBJ reporting toolset is going to be an integral piece of the SAP BI portofolio. Although am not so sure about the BOXI Universe technology wrt SAP integration but i understand that DI would be preferred way of pulling in data from third-party apps into SAP BI. And yes, am fortunate enough to have landed some work along these lines - helping a client that is looking to potentially expand their BI footprint across the global org using the BOBJ reporting tools sitting on top of SAP BW.

    OutlookSoft aka BPC is also on the radar but am eagerly waiting for the BPC 7.0 NW to come out. I have done some work on the BPC 5.0 version and having worked earlier with BPS and BI-IP, i can say that development time is certainly reduced but then again, there are plenty of variable factors in play and most importantly, early days. With the stronger integration with SAP BI in the future releases, i believe it would serve the market well.

    My background - sales -> Technologist working in DW and Risk IT environments -> some ABAP -> BW/BPS/BI/BI-IP/BPC/BOBJ - almost everything that starts with letter ‘B’ :) )

    I ‘ll certainly explore the embedded analytics and industry specific BI pieces. But i did not understand what you meant by ‘new Business Suite 7.0′ in your response.

    My $million$ question to you - Having worked around these technologies for sometime now, my long-term goal is to pursue the path towards a management role, say Practise building or Program Mgt. What route can you suggest i follow in order to get there, considering my background? As an exmaple, if Project Mgt is the right track to follow to complement my skills to get to that level?

    Look forward to your valuable thoughts!

  • Ravs responded:
    February 6th, 2009 at 9:36 am...

    Bump !!

  • Gopi responded:
    February 26th, 2009 at 12:13 am...

    Hi John,

    After I jumped into SAP BW and doing that for a while in the areas of SD, PP, PUR, PM and QM, I transitioned myself into APO-DP as I found that as the natural progression and then into Portal Design to deliver Portal solutions combining ECC, BI and non SAP integrated solutions. Before even mastering the EP jumped into BOBJ integrations. I have integrated BOBJ with SAP BW and walked thru the path of delivering the BOBJ solution against SAP Data.
    I see BOBJ is an enabler for Ad-hoc reporting thru their WebI and Transactional type reporting thru Crystal. The dash board visualization thru Xcelsius can be from any data and nothing in particular to say it is SAP dependent. Of course we can use SAP data to create dashboard using Xcelsius.
    I can see Crystal as an Enterprise reporting solution and strategically take the crystal direction to have one reporting technology against ECC and BW instead of SQVI, ABAP and BEx.
    Though WebI has lots of advantages it is based out of the universe semantic layer, I am not sure how well the universe is going to play a role and what it directions would be strategically important. The SAP universe is just another translated layer from the SAP metadata either from a cube or a BEx query. It is not decreasing the SAP BW work load and do have other issue to tackle auth-objects, variable etc. I am sure well thought universe creation can enable extra power user functionalities but as a consultant, the BOBJ skill looks like something that might lose value over time being a SAP BW consultant.
    I am not sure how the future of SAP BI with BOBJ is going to matureā€¦ Please advice

  • Jon Reed responded:
    March 12th, 2009 at 2:59 am...

    Gopi, excellent question and sorry for the delay responding.

    I have been very busy actually researching SAP BO market opportunities right now. The answers to your questions are going to take time because the market is still sorting out which “BobJ” products will be most relevant to SAP customers. One thing we do know is that BW as a back end data warehouse is not going anywhere, there is no replacement for that. Eventually BEx will give way to a combined product offering, currently code-named Pioneer, but that’s not happening anytime too soon.

    I guess I would suggest taking a gradual approach and work to get to know the BO products that are either most in demand or that relate most directly to your current skills. Also, don’t forget that to take advantage of some of the niftiest BW tools, you do need to be running BI 7.0. So, there is a lot of upgrade work still to do from 3.5 to 7.0 as well.

    My feeling in this economy is that companies will start with reports that are most relevant to achieving bottom line results. If their back end data and semantic layer is not up to snuff to deliver reports that not only look good but deliver good data, they will be compelled to move into data cleaning/master data management, etc.

    I’ll return to these topics many times, stay tuned.

    - Jon Reed -

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