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What Was Your View of the Latest SAP Certification Debate?

I recently took part in a major discussion on the SAP community network pertaining to SAP certification. The discussion was inspired by a post from ZDNet blogger, Enterprise Irregular, and SAP Mentor Dennis Howlett entitled “Should You Be Certified?” In his blog post, Dennis riffed on a major theme that SAP has stated for the year: to emphasize the importance of certified consultants as a means of improving overall consultant quality. Dennis put the certification discussion in the context of project success and failure, asking: if certification can improve the quality of consultants, then perhaps certification can have an impact on the success of SAP projects? My own comments to Dennis’ post were extensive, and I’d like to share them here with my JonERP.com readers. They also received an interesting response from Sue Martin of SAP, who has been a guest of mine on an SAP certification podcast, and who is directly involved in where SAP certification is headed next.

Post update: Anyone interested in this topic should check out the Enterprise Geeks’ latest podcast, which features special guest Dennis Howlett and has an SAP certification theme. You can read my take in the Geeks’ comment section.

  I’m getting ready to participate in a webcast given to SAP Mentors from SAP Education on SAP certification, so I may get more insight into my comments and questions shortly. But for now, let’s start with my comment to Dennis, and then I’ll share Sue Martin’s helpful clarification of my own comments:

“Dennis,

Thanks for your strong views on this. Pushing this discussion is important. When I posted those original Tweets, I thought I might get a reaction, but it was your views that really provoked the good debate. Certification is a hot button topic and like most such topics, I find that views polarize too often. Usually the best route is somewhere down the middle.

I’ve been a long time advocate of field experience over SAP certification in my writing, but that’s mostly because all the aspiring SAP folks reading my stuff tend to get roped into this idea that certification will lead them into the promised land of a highly paid SAP career without much effort on their part. Obviously that’s not the case. Excellence in SAP means total dedication and you can’t "credential" your way into this field.

Dennis, one of the things about your argument is that project failures and the need for certification are getting lumped together. Personally I think it’s a bit better to separate them to a degree. The reason being that SAP projects, when they fail, fail for a variety of reasons that tend to implicate all parties, from overzealous salespeople to a lack of internal investment in training to poor project management by either the internal PM or the external PM. And sometimes companies feel a need to blame external software for internal flaws in the business model or execution. The caliber of consultants has relevance to this discussion, but to me, certification isn’t central to the dissection of problematic projects. Except maybe for BPX certification. More on that shortly.

On the other hand, if you want to take this discussion back in time to project failures in the 90s, I do believe a shortage of qualified SAP talent did contribute to project problems during that time - in a big way. However, certification was not the central issue there either. I placed hundreds of SAP folks in the 90s and I can tell you that certification was almost never a good indication of consulting talent. Believe me, when I placed someone who was certified in SAP but who didn’t live up to expectations in other ways, I heard all about it.

 

I will say, though, that the consultants who had multiple certifications, like 5 to 10, did tend to be impressive, because in that case the amount of certifications reflected a total commitment to SAP and a real passion for excellence.

In my view, the biggest weakness of the traditional SAP consultant is that the technical folks tended to lack "big picture" business skills and awareness, and the functional folks tended to work in "configuration silos" without a broader view of the business process or a deeper technical know-how. The premium consultants were not like this, but there were never enough of those to go around. Others were not pressured to achieve such excellence because they could get great rates doing what they always did. The market pressures are different now as we all know.

Since the 90s, the amount of talent has increased and SAP has greatly improved in many ways, including a better implementation methodology and a user community ready to share lessons learned either here or on ASUG.

Since SAP certification did not ever do a good job of measuring the consulting qualities I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago, and since many certified consultants I knew were not necessarily that effective, I don’t tend to see certification as a cure-all for SAP project woes today, and I know you don’t either.

However, what is interesting is that the description I made of the flaws in the traditional technical or functional consultant is directly addressed in the BPX certification curriculum. Therefore, I see the BPX certification as especially important, as it is a means of formalizing the crucial areas that both technical and functional consultants can work to improve. And it would be a great certification for a younger professional, with a few years of experience perhaps, but looking to build.

I’d rather put such a young person through a BPX certification than an SAP Financials certification anyday. The Financials stuff they might pick up another way, even in a book, but the BPX certification would provide a real roadmap for future learning and expansion into that well-rounded consultant that is so important.

As I mentioned, the best consultants were always on top of many of these BPX skills, but I think the new BPX certification, and the BPX community as a whole, is highly beneficial to this whole discussion of project challenges and improved quality of consultants - SAP’s stated consulting services theme of 2009. I’m certainly not the first one to suggest that BPX certification and awareness can make an impact on IT projects. I know Mario Herger brought this point up on a podcast I did with him on SAP BPX Certification, and Marco ten Vaanholt has mentioned this before during presentations also.

Also, I will be more and more of a fan of the SAP certifications as more field experience is incorporated into them somehow, as you suggest. I’m not saying this will be an easy task. But I think there must be ways of making the certification more real world accountable. The new three tiered certification is a good way forward along these lines. Someone from SAP can correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that SAP’s top tier, the Master level, is going to include a field experience component (the Master level is not yet available for most areas of SAP as far as I know, please correct me if I’m wrong).

The Associate level certification (lowest level of new three tier), which is the equivalent of the classic SAP certification, has never made a huge impression on me simply because in so many years of evaluating consultants, it never really seemed to be the key to who was a difference maker on client projects. However, the second tier, the Professional level, does strike me as more rigorous. I’d love to see the Professional level certification acquire more prestige as it gets more recognition in the SAP world. And as for the Master level, as one poster alluded to (can’t see the names from this comment box), it would be great if SAP eventually achieved a Cisco level of prestige affiliated with that level of certification, or if not on that Cisco level, at least something with super clout!.

I have mixed feelings about SAP emphasizing the importance of certification to customers at this point, only because most folks are still only certified at the Associate level. I worry that hiring becomes overly simplistic when certification is the central point of emphasis. I would just hope that if SAP is going to emphasize the importance of hiring certified consultants, SAP will also emphasize the importance of hiring well rounded consultants with deep industry experience, good soft skills, full life cycle experience, training and change management, business know-how, and some techno-functional skills. Yes, core technical and configuration skills are important too, but technical interviews are a better way to determine that, in my opinion, than an exam.

The reason is that a technical interview hones in on a particular person’s qualifications for that project specifically. Certainly SAP customers who are not sophisticated in an internal competency center deserve and need quality support in such technical screening.

Oh, and one more thing. I think SAP should be emphasizing to its customers also that "community involved" consultants are the best ones to hire! As I Tweeted the other day, as a general rule, the better the network, the better the consultant. Nathan Genez made this case in a podcast I did for SAP BPX, and I totally agreed. If SAP is going to emphasize the importance of certification, why not also suggest looking at the extent of the community involvement of the consultant? I know I’m a much better SAP contributor based on dynamic back-and-forth of this community. Who can argue with this point? I guess a counter-argument would be that this is tough to measure, but I would say that it gives at least as good an indication of quality as a test score, if not more!

In sum, there’s no one simple answer, but I believe in the BPX skill set as it is being defined and evolved. To me, right now, that’s more important than anything. Give me ten of those kinds of consultants anyday! A BPX certified consultant - even cooler! Especially in this era, where most of the strictly technical or functional boilerplate work is going to be outsourced anyway, which presents a different case altogether in terms of best practices in management.”

After I posted my comment, Sue Martin of SAP had a useful response that is worth highlighting here:

“Jon, there are some very interesting points here, especially around the reasons for project failure. I agree fully - certification fails in its objective if we try to isolate it as the answer to all of our problems - just as it fails as a solid benchmark for decision making if it is considered as the ONLY benchmark. Your comments on the biggest weakness of the traditional SAP consultant, i.e. that the technical folks tended to lack "big picture" business skills and awareness etc. we have addressed with the new Professional level certifications. And I would like to confirm your comments about the inclusion of field experience into the Master level - that is correct.

Thanks for the valuable feedback on community involvement - this helps with some of the ideas we are currently investigating for aligning community points and certification status.”

I found Sue Martin’s comments very interesting and encouraging, on several fronts: one, that SAP has built in, to the Professional level, a more well-rounded assessment of consultants. Second, she confirmed the inclusion of a field experience component at the Master level. Finally, it was great to hear that SAP is working on a way to align community involvement with certification. I believe these three factors would be a major step forward in heightening the credibility and power of SAP certification, not only in the eyes of the market, but in my own.

I intend to follow up on some of these points in the SAP certification webcast for SAP Mentors, and I will report back on what I learn.

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