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Why Don’t SAP Skills Matter at ASUG/Sapphire?

If you were to go by the keynotes and scheduled events, you would think there are no longer any issues with SAP skills development. Read beyond the headlines. Just like some of the most important news stories show up in the back pages, the same is true at SAP shows. Of all the things I was struck by at ASUG/Sapphire 2009, the one that made the biggest impression on me was the silence around SAP skills trends.

  The contrast between this year’s Sapphire and last year’s was striking. Last year (2008), I was part of a panel on skills that was featured at Sapphire to highlight the release of a new study by EIU that was commissioned by SAP. You remember last year, right - with the breathless proclamations of a “30,000 person SAP skills shortage” that I personally never bought into in the first place. According to SAP, that supposed gap has been largely made up, thanks to many efforts including partner skills ramp ups. In my view, we can blame the economy for much of the difference. We’re now in a dramatically different SAP consulting market. There are pockets of demand in emerging skill areas and in geographical hot spots, but for the most part, rates are down, benches are full, and open job orders for SAP skills are not nearly as hard to fill.

So if the projected “gap” in SAP skills has been met, then why should skills issues be prioritized? Because SAP’s product evolution is generating the need for new SAP skill sets that even many experienced consultants are lacking. SAP continues to move its software in the direction of “process driven ERP.” When we look at the skills demands of the process-driven enterprise, they are often very different than traditional SAP skill sets. If SAP is serious about realizing its process ERP vision, it needs to be equally serious about emphasizing skills development at these events. Even experienced SAP consultants need guidance getting from here to there. For another view on how SAP consultants fall short on skills (including industry-specific know-how), check out this article from SearchSAP.com about Forrester’s latest SAP implementation partner survey.

Here’s an example of a story that got buried in the back pages which has implications for SAP professionals: during the ASUG pre-conference session I attended on “A BPX Guide to Business Suite Value Scenarios,” Ann Rosenberg, BTC Global Practice Ownership for Business Process Management and author of the new book Business Process Management: An SAP Roadmap mentioned that every one of SAP’s “Application Consultants” are going through SAP’s BPX curriculum in the next few years. I expect this group to eventually be referred to as “Process Consultants.” SAP is also talking to its key consulting partners (Accenture, IBM, etc.) about putting their own consultants through the same BPX skills transitions.

In this economy, SAP would not waste time putting its own consultants through non-billable training if it didn’t have a perceived relevance to consultant value. Of course, this is not a surprise to BPX geeks like myself, who have argued for some time now that BPX skills matter in a real-life context, not in some distant future, but right now.

At Sapphire, I Tweeted a comment overheard from a consulting manager: “The silo-functional geek is screwed.” A manager at a large SAP consulting partner also told me: “I got a call from a client who said, ‘I don’t want an SD consultant, I want an order-to-cash consultant.” Of course, that’s easier said than done. It’s not that hard to find a good SD consultant, but finding an outstanding order-to-cash consultant is another matter. During the BS7 event, Ann Rosenberg said to the audience, “The time of the SD/MM or FI/CO consultant is over.” Of course, such changes don’t happen overnight, a point Ann herself emphasized.

As I wrote in an upcoming piece on Value Scenarios: “The dual challenge of assembling the skills needed to ‘compose’ on top of the Business Suite, combined with realizing a process approach to the Business Suite itself, is not something the average organization can accomplish overnight, or even in a year. No matter which ERP software a company is running, it is not easy to move from “transactional ERP” to this more fluid approach to roles and workflows. Organization change management is just the beginning.”

The skills needs being generated by new approaches to service composition, UI development, on-demand applications, business process modeling, and embedded analytics are not going to hit us in a huge wave. But they are coming, and those SAP professionals who are on top of these skills trends have an edge. Of course, it all starts by staying current with NetWeaver 7.x and ERP 6.0. But there will be more. Over time, we’ll get project-tested definitions for emerging roles such as “Enterprise Architects,” “Solution Architects,” and “Process Architects.” Of these three job titles, only “Process Architects” is still futuristic; the other two are job titles you will find now on many large ERP 6.0 projects.

The other reason that skills conversations matter? Companies expect serious value from their on-site consultants (and their own internal employees). Hiring managers need to know which outside experts can truly help them to realize benefits from their ERP projects NOW. SAP professionals need to have the same understanding of what it takes to avoid being outsourced. The goal for the SAP professional is to stay enough on the cutting edge that their skills are not easily “commoditized” and sourced in global markets.

When it comes to the topic of SAP skills, I would take it seriously year in and year out, regardless of whether there is a headline-grabbing “skills shortage” or not. Personally, I would like to see SAP take the same consistent emphasis, rather than let the conversation falter when it seems the skills demands aren’t as intense. Yes, this can be a sensitive topic from a customer perspective.

When I propose skills-related events for shows like ASUG/Sapphire, I often hear concerns about how customers might view this conversation from the vantage point of retaining their key employees rather than losing them to the broader market. That’s really a different topic for another blog post, but I will say this: having a skills-related event is not the same as putting on an SAP job fair.

At some point, I believe all companies have to embrace the challenge of supporting skills development. Be the kind of company that raises people up, as opposed to shielding them from growth in the interests of retention. If you think I’m being dramatic, I get emails from employees who are stagnating on project sites (and in consulting houses) all the time. We can talk all we want about new approaches to talent management, but not all companies are drinking that particular Kool-Aid.

Of course, this SAP skills conversation ties back into the SAP certfication discussion as well - a discussion that was picking up some momentum earlier this year but seems to have become stagnant again. I know several SAP Mentors, myself included, who are determined to push the certification conversation back on the front burner also, so I’ll report back on this.

Needless to say, the SAP skills topic (and how SAP skills requirements are changing) is far too broad for one blog entry, but most of my podcasts and articles hone in on different aspect of this, so stay tuned.

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