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JonERP.com Hot SAP Skills Updates

Jon Reed is putting together his lists of the hottest SAP skills of today and tomorrow. The skills that SAP professionals need to succeed is a common theme in all of our JonERP.com podasts as well, but these articles and ranked lists below will take you closer into the skills you want to have to succeed on project sites, and to stay marketable in the "outsourcing era."
The Pros and Cons of SAP Configuration Skills: An Updated Classic Print E-mail
The Pros and Cons of SAP Configuration Skills:
Revisiting a Classic Article on SAP Skills Trends

Jon Reed's New Introduction, April 2008: One of my most-discussed articles about SAP in the ‘90s was a piece called "The Pros and Cons of SAP Configuration Skills." A good portion of this article eventually found its way into the SAP Consultant Handbook. As I was compiling material for the JonERP.com web site, I took a fresh look at this piece, which is no longer available online. I decided to republish it because it has quite a bit of relevance to the current discussion we are having about the SAP Business Process expert and how the SAP functional skill set is evolving.

In fact, those skeptics who have said "what the big deal?" about the latest discussions on how the functional SAP role is changing can point to this article as more proof that the best SAP consultants have always perceived themselves as "business process experts" first and "configuration specialists" second. This is not the place to resolve that debate, you can see some healthy discussion on this issue in my own SAP career blog and also in my BPX blog entry on how the SAP functional skill set is changing.

Of course, there have been some changes in the context of this article since it was written. When I first wrote this piece, my argument was that "full life cycle" implementation experience rounded out the configuration skills in a functional skill set. My contention, which I still think is true, is that the well-rounded functional consultant is superior to the "modular configuration specialist."

But in the meantime, we have seen the importance of a well rounded functional skill set from another direction. SAP is now structuring its software around business processes, with more industry focus than ever, so the well-rounded skill set is more relevant than ever. However, it's now more than just ERP lifecycle experience - it's overall business process and industry experience that is coming into play.

Also, when I wrote this article originally, the future of SAP was somewhat clouded by the rise of the dotcom economy and the impact of best-of-breed industry darlings like Siebel (hard to believe how much the market has changed, huh?). At the time, I recommended moving beyond just SAP configuration skills because I felt that configuration skills would be less relevant outside of SAP than full life cycle experience.

I believe that is still true, but at this point, we have the luxury of knowing that SAP has largely cemented its foothold in the ERP application space. We no longer have to worry about what we would do if the SAP market was obliterated in a very short timeframe, which was actually a legitimate concern a the time this article was written. But I continue to believe that configuration skills are something to be careful about. Yes, you want to master configuration, as it is still the heart of the SAP skill set. But as SAP evolves, we have to evolve as well, and that means moving beyond a narrow focus on modular configuration. The Business Process Expert (BPX) community is a great place to start this transition.

So, without further introduction, here is the article as it was originally written, with some minor rewrites to make it more current to today's market.

In the numerous articles on marketable SAP skills I have written in the last three years, all of them have emphasized the importance of configuration skills for those of you pursuing functional SAP careers. And it is true that all functional consultants, at least up to the project manager level, need to have configuration skills as a key component to their SAP implementation skills.

But it is also true that the need for configuration skills can be overemphasized, and it can be dangerous to focus too heavily on configuration work at the expense of other key skills in the implementation cycle. I think the reason that configuration skills are seen as so important is that it is almost impossible to succeed on the functional side of SAP without these skills- too many people who have some SAP skills but no configuration have found themselves "locked out" of the job market, and are doing everything they can to get this configuration work. A typical scenario that we've seen a lot lately are those end-users who have found themselves getting SAP experience as part of the in-house implementation team, and yet it's the external consultants on their project who get all the configuration experience.

This unfortunate circumstance creates some rather unusual SAP skills sets- those who have strong, hands-on functional experience in all phases of the implementation except the crucial configuration phase. It can be difficult to head out into the job market without having participated in this phase (perhaps this is why some companies arrange things this way- or is that too paranoid?). As a result of this type of difficulty, many folks are chasing down SAP configuration work, and losing perspective on the need for a broader base of skills. Because as the market tightens, the "configuration specialists" may find themselves going from the "most marketable" to the "least marketable" in a surprisingly short time.

Let's stop now and make things clear: this article pertains only to functional consultants. At this time, we are of the mindset that most SAP professionals need to make a clear choice between a technical and functional career path. Usually, this choice should be based on your professional strengths and background. However, for those who are making an intentional and permanent career shift, perhaps from a technical to functional path, then SAP might be the perfect vehicle for that shift. However, it is important to try to pursue SAP in a way that plays to your strengths and gives your career a continuity.

The classic example that still holds: the CPA with an accounting background and financial applications experience who focuses on configuring the FI/CO module.
Especially as the U.S. market shifts towards medium-size companies, there may well be room for some consultants with 50/50 technical and functional expertise, but as a general rule there is too much to master on one side of the fence- you have to pick your focus and master it. What we see is that an 80/20 emphasis on either side of the fence is about perfect: functional folks should have some basic ABAP knowledge (hands-on is a plus but not necessary), and technical folks should have some knowledge of the configuration process (again, hands-on being a plus but not necessary).

So let's take a look at the functional implementation cycle and how configuration skills fit into the bigger picture. Many readers are no doubt familiar with this cycle, but for review, in general chronological order:

• product evaluation
• implementation team member training
• re-engineering (ongoing, not emphasized on every implementation site)
• design, as-is/to-be and gap analysis
• configuration and testing
• "go live"
• debugging and post-implementation support
• end-user training
• upgrades and/or maintenance

Some companies are aggressive about adding new, challenging projects such as eSOA-based enhancements or other NetWeaver-driven initiatives, but often "maintenance mode" is a time of career reflection for those on the project.

It is interesting to think about the above implementation phases in terms of their viability as specialties. You can certainly specialize in end-user training, either as a salaried consultant or possibly as a contractor, but this is really a separate, "softer" market with lower salaries and rates, and always the danger that you could have trouble finding work as companies try to cut costs in this area, or turn to their own employees for a lower-cost solution. And you can also specialize in implementation team member training, but while these are generally lucrative assignments, they are also short-term engagements that lead to burnout, and you can't secure these positions without having hard-core implementation training. In the final analysis, implementation team training is usually better used by seasoned consultants as a periodic change of pace from project work.

There is a tiny market for gap analysis contractors, but as a rule, the only phase in the implementation cycle that you can specialize in and be paid lucrative rates for is the configuration phase- thus the obsession with obtaining this type of experience.

But we believe that the superior functional consultants should make sure that they get full implementation cycle experience, including BUT NOT LIMITED to configuration work. As we've noted in the past, SAP is doing everything within its power to reduce the cost of the configuration process. As most readers are aware, 'SAP functional configuration' refers to the process of mapping a company's business processes into thousands of tables - literally 'configuring' the tables to meet a company's business specifications.

SAP is doing its very best to reduce the amount of time an actual human being has to spend doing customized configuration work for a particular client. Just like the other ERP package leaders, SAP is doing all that it can to reduce the actual time spent configuring the system. This reduction of work involves two key aspects: using tools to automate the configuration process, and providing pre- configured, industry-specific templates to reduce the need to customize the tables to fit a particular client.

Although it's clear that there will always be the need for some custom configuration work, there's no question that companies are looking to spend their precious IT investment dollars in other, more cutting edge areas, such as supply chain solutions, sales force automation, and Internet commerce applications. There is continued pressure on SAP to reduce this configuration expense, and SAP has responded, most recently with its "Accelerated Solutions" program, designed to provide pre-configured industry-specific templates to speed the process.

The writing on the wall is clear: specializing in configuration can leave you open to vulnerability as the need for this skill declines, while at the same time those who have this experience continue to increase in numbers. What can be especially frustrating, however, for those who have many years of functional industry experience - for example in manufacturing applications such as MRP - is how difficult it is to get this configuration experience. And then these "industry veterans" find that their resumes are ignored, while the young Tier One consultant with a few years of configuration experience nabs a good project and a better rate.

It is time to admit it: there is nothing special about configuration skills. These are technical skills, but very light technical skills that can be taught to anyone with relevant industry experience if they are given a classroom, and then a project to apply their knowledge. The real challenge is not in actually configuring the tables themselves - the real challenge is being able to understand what a company can and cannot do, and helping them to bridge the gaps in functionality however they need to be bridged.

It is this "give and take" with the client's needs that makes a functional consultant outstanding. And it is obvious that those with deep, relevant experience in their area of experience, such as the warehouse management veteran with WM module configuration experience, are going to be the best SAP consultants. They have deep knowledge of the problems and challenges unique to their business and industry background, and they also have the SPA configuration skills to apply that knowledge to their clients.

So the irony is that the one skill you can actually teach quickly, the configuration itself, is the most marketable skill, but those with deep industry experience are often locked out of this market. It's easy to understand this puzzling dynamic though - we all know that most companies have a short-term IT hiring mentality. More often than not, they are not looking for loyal employees to invest in for the long run - they are looking for those who already have the skills they need. You stay on with the company as long as your skills are relevant to ongoing projects, and generally not too much longer.

This is not the place to bemoan the lack of job security in today's corporate IT settings - what's more important is to recognize this dynamic and make plans to protect ourselves from its dangers. And the biggest danger is not having marketable skills when we hit those cycles where SAP rates decline and the demand for SAP talent levels off.

On the functional side, the key is to obtain configuration experience but at the same time to recognize its limitations. If you are going to focus simply on configuration work, make sure you are picking up a serious hourly rate and saving some of that loose change. You may need it to invest in future training as the market shifts. It is, quite simply, unclear how marketable these light technical skills known as "SAP configuration skills" will be outside of an SAP environment. They may be a bit too "proprietary."

By contrast, full life cycle implementation skills are clearly not as proprietary. If you do your best to get in on implementations in the early design phase, and stay through configuration and on into end-user training, then you have full ERP package implementation experience. And that experience transcends SAP and goes beyond, because this experience is about knowing how to work with clients to implement financial and manufacturing software that facilitates business changes- and the market demand for those skills will be there long into the future.

So make sure to get those configuration skills, but spend serious amounts of time in other areas of the implementation cycle. You'll know that you're on the right track if you find yourself spending less time in front of a computer screen and more time working directly with clients solving their business problems.

This perspective on SAP implementation skills is especially relevant to those younger "Tier One" consultants whose main experience in the market is configuration work. Now is a good time to recognize that those lighter technical skills haven't turned you into a hardcore programmer - so use your SAP configuration skills as a vehicle to allow you to dig deeper into understanding functional business issues. And perhaps most importantly, make sure that you focus on one or two modules and gain a deep understanding of the industry issues these modules address. Of course, the time may come when you will move a bit away from hands-on work, if you decide to progress into project management and higher roles on the "food chain."

As long as you are a functional consultant, no matter the level of SAP experience, focus on a couple of key, related modules that are the most relevant to your business background and the areas you are most interested in. This means worrying less about what's hot, and more about your long term career viability. If you want to chase a hot area, go ahead, but try to find a hot niche that ties in with your area of general expertise (for example, instead of abandoning an HR background in favor of CRM, get experience in the latest SPA HCM and Talent Management components). Perhaps the most important SAP skill of all is keeping your head when the market is hot. Good luck, and feel free to contact us with your perspective.

 

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3.26 Copyright (C) 2008 Compojoom.com / Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."

 

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