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The Role of the SAP Business Process Expert Print E-mail
jonerp_full_logo.PNGThe Role of the SAP Business Process Expert:
How the "Process First" Book Emerged from the SAP Business Process Expert (BPX) Community
by Jon Reed
Unabridged Version, Never Before Released

When it comes to the question of "what's next" for SAP, there's no question that "BPM" is a big part of the answer. At the fall 2008 TechEd conferences in Las Vegas, Berlin, and Bangalore, BPM (Business Process Management) was one of the most prominent themes during keynotes and workshop sessions. SAP is focused on BPM (Business Process Management) because without a well-thought approach to business process execution, all the fancy SOA tools in the world can't make a difference. SAP customers want bottom line results, and SAP is counting on SOA, running on the latest versions of NetWeaver and informed by smart process management, to give SAP customers the combination of stability and adaptability they have always wanted from their SAP systems.  

To make good on the promise of innovation on top of a stable ERP core, SAP must also cultivate a different kind of professional, the "Business Process Expert." The SAP Business Process Expert, or, in short, the "BPXer," evolves from the traditional business analyst and application/implementation consultant roles. The BPXer needs to have the know-how to take conceptual business processes, map them into process modeling tools, and help to create executable code that other business-minded IT folks can translate into the final technical specifications. The tools to make this happen are rapidly maturing, but the talent side of the business process equation needs support also.

SAP started its Business Process Expert (BPX) community (bpx.sap.com) two years ago with the aim of creating a community of members who could collaborate on implementation knowledge and industry best practices, as well as defining the new BPX roles that would be needed to fuel SOA implementations on project sites. Today, the SAP BPX community is rapidly approaching 500,000 members, and with the recent unveiling of the first-ever SAP BPX certification, there's no question that the BPX community is arriving at a whole new level of recognition in the SAP world.

process_first.jpgAn important milestone in the growth of the SAP BPX community is the recently-released book "Process First: The Evolution of the Business Process Expert" by Marco ten Vaanholt, Global Head of the BPX Community. This book, with a co-author credit to the entire BPX community, is a unique work product because it is a community-authored project, with more than sixty collaborators providing input into the book via the "BPX book wiki." Thus "Process First" became a pioneer in the technique of writing books via a collective wiki that the entire community could post comments to.

In this article, I will share some highlights from how the book was created. Then I will address the relevance of this book to an economic period where many companies are dealing with very tight IT budgets. I will also share some of the main points of the book, with a focus on the impact of BPX on SAP job roles.


1. How the Book Was Created

With close to 500,000 members and counting, the SAP BPX community has now become the largest online business process community in the world. One of the cornerstones of the BPX community is that the collective intelligence of the members is more powerful than any one contributor. So when Marco ten Vaanholt conceived of the "Process First" book with Dan Woods of Evolved Media, they viewed it as a community project. Once the initial draft book draft was created, they posted it on the BPX book wiki and began inviting contributions from BPX community members.

This wiki-based process brought a learning curve with it. In a recent podcast featuring Marco and Dan (which you can hear at bpx.sap.com, Dan shared his biggest lesson from the venture. "We learned something that will help us do a better job in the future," said Woods. "The one thing that we probably could have done better is to first ask the community what questions they wanted to answer in the book before we posted the first draft. What we did instead was we confidently went forth and just wrote that first draft. So some people in the community felt like the book was inflicted on the community, not that the book came out of the community. But we realized that, and we did a lot of outreach to people to make sure that they understood that the book was really owned by them."

Collaborative approaches do pose new challenges, but the end result was that many people did contribute, and the book was shaped by this dialogue. You can now purchase the hard copy  version of the book on Amazon.com, with all proceeds going back to the BPX community). More importantly, there is still a "living" version of the book on the BPX book wiki, as well as a free downloadable copy. If you are so inclined, you can make further comments on the wiki. Just be forewarned that you may open a future edition of the book someday and see your own quotes featured!

2. The Relevance of "Process First" in an Economic Downturn

As I wrote this article, the question on my mind was, "that's a nifty way to create a book, but what relevance does the book have to a struggling economy?" Few of us expected the suddenness of the market changes that have impacted the world we live in, both inside and outside the corporate enterprise. On a corporate level, we know that the spending environment has shifted profoundly. SAP's withdrawal of its fourth quarter earnings estimates was the latest sign that even a company like SAP, which is often successful in less-than-optimal economic conditions, cannot escape the circumstance we are facing. One of the most interesting debates since the financial markets tumbled is whether SAP customers are going to continue with business process innovation or put such plans on hold.

Those who argue that putting process-driven approaches will be put on hold contend that in a time of economic turmoil, companies move into "bunker mode." Insecure about their credit sources, companies stockpile cash, put leading edge projects on the back burner, and focus their efforts on cost cutting and serving customer needs. From this angle, exploring "BPM" might seem like a luxury, the latest in a long line of buzzwords that may have eventual merit but seems to have no immediate benefit.

Others have argued that the economic downturn has actually created more of a "process innovation imperative" than ever before. With costly approaches to custom development on the back burner, the potential to compose services without the need for a big development team or seems appealing. Also, this "innovate now" argument goes, what better time to restructure ERP around key business processes than the present, when revenue channels are lagging? Some BPX-driven projects, especially those with a Web 2.0 context, like a new approach to online marketing, may be much more affordable than the conventional advertising there is no longer a budget for.

My own view lands somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives. In a recent blog post on JonERP.com, I conceded that some companies may need to wait on some types of innovation, but individual SAP professionals do not have that luxury. BPX skills enhancement might be the most important pursuit the SAP professional can undertake in any economy; the "Process First" book remains central to that discussion.

Before this article went to press, I asked Marco ten Vaanholt to share his views on the relevance of "Process First" in an economic downturn. Here is what he had to say:

"Normally in a downturn, it is back to simple and back to basics, and often less about innovation. The focus of most organizations is on specific, key priorities. In a downturn, I believe the most important priorities are, first; lower risk projects with the biggest impact; second, those projects with high risk, but high probability to succeed that should allow you to jump ahead of the competition. Last but not least, you probably also should continue to focus on what I call ‘conjuncture agnostic projects' - the ones you need to do to continue survive.

"I can think of projects that allow you to cross organizations in order to optimize the processes in place and to reduce the costs associated. Other projects can make the silos in your organization harmonize. In these economic times, people who can help you optimize your business processes are the ones in need. A good BPXer can help you align better and quicker with your organizational goals, allowing you to become more agile, so that next time, you can change courses even faster.

"I also recommend a greater focus on organizational change management; all skills that are developed by the ultimate BPXer. "Process First" describes the value of the BPX role, whatever the circumstance is, and describes the notion of why the business process imperative is the right one. The aim is to help you use technology to your advantage even in these tougher times." 

3. Highlights from the Book: BPX Roles on Project Sites

"Process First" is intended to be a breezy guide through the fundamentals of a process-driven approach to ERP. Although there are some SAP-specific examples in the book, "Process First" is less of a hands-on SAP manual and more of a skills roadmap. Each reader can use the chapters that interest them as a springboard for further discussions on the BPX community and elsewhere.

The book is structured into seven chapters:

1. The Business Process Perspective

2. The Solution Creation Process

3. Completing the Definition of the Business Process Expert Role

4. The Business Process Expert Community

5. Organizational Change Management and the Business Process Expert

6. The Technology Environment for the Business Process Expert

7. Patterns of Success

The part of the book I'm going to focus on in this article is from Chapter Five on organizational change management. The chapter is of special interest to me because it goes into detail regarding BPX job roles on project sites. There are a couple reasons why I feel this topic is critically important: first, by refining the specifics of emerging BPX job roles, we come to understand that a business process orientation is not about one particular role.

A diverse set of professionals from the IT side and also the business side get pulled into the mix. Hands-on BPX roles will be complemented by higher-level managerial positions that also incorporate some of these competencies. Perhaps the only generality we can make about all of these job titles is that they represent some type of intersection between technology and business. Yes, BPX roles bridge that famous "geek gap" and provide incentive to parties on both sides to meet somewhere in the middle.

The other reason I'm a fan of outlining specific job roles is that with formal job titles comes legitimacy. Until companies create formal jobs that are dedicated towards BPX responsibilities, BPX will lurk as a shadow skill, vitally important but lacking the endorsement needed to realize its promise. Up until this point, the only BPX-specific role I have seen on many SAP customer sites is the "Enterprise Architect." A key BPX job role, the "Enterprise Architect" typically has an SAP programming background but has evolved their skills into a higher-level position that involves the ability to map business process requirements into SAP's technical architecture. The Enterprise Architect is thus a new "techno-functional" role with roots on the technical side.

But most other BPX job roles have yet to be clearly defined. Some companies are in a different place than others around these process changes. SAP itself has some pretty unusual BPX job titles in its online communities. If you mingle in the Community Clubhouse at the next Sapphire, you are likely to meet some of these folks, perhaps a "Community Evangelist" or a "Community Alchemist."

What we can say with authority is that new BPX roles will come in two flavors: totally new job titles and reconfigured roles that incorporate BPX skills into them. I suspect that in the near term future, we'll see fewer examples of new job titles and more examples of people adding BPX skills into existing SAP roles.

In Chapter Five of "Process First," some of these familiar (and new) roles are redefined in the BPX context. Let's at some common SAP job roles and how "Process First" described their relevance to BPX:

Senior Management - "Must be on board for a business process expert to succeed." Despite good intentions, projects can get bogged down, and business process experts can come under scrutiny. "In times like these, it is important that senior management be supportive of the transformation towards the business process perspective."

Project Managers - Frequently, project managers are more than willing to consider a process-centric approach to ERP because they have seen other approaches bring less-than-optimal results. Project managers also "frequently fill in gaps as needed in support of change management and communication."

Application Experts - Application experts "have a deep understanding of how to configure enterprise applications." (In SAP, we often refer to these folks as ‘functional SAP consultants.') "Business process experts usually spend a lot of time with application experts understanding the way that processes are currently automated by the applications. Application experts also provide an understanding of what functionality is not being used and how the applications are service enabled....most of the time, application experts and business process experts work in harmony to pursue implementation of processes that are most beneficial to the business."

Engineers and Developers - These folks "build the solutions that business process experts help design. Business process experts spend time with developers understanding the effort involved in creating various aspects of the solution. Business process experts also get help from engineers and developers in evaluating the quality of model-driven development tools."

Business Analysts - Many of today's business analysts will evolve into tomorrow's business process experts, but there may be some turf wars between the two in the meantime that companies must anticipate. Why? because "business analysts are usually an important part of the innovation process and are expected to come up with suggestions for improvements and enhancements. The business process expert role can seem like a major incursion into this territory." When companies promote people into business process expert roles, care must be taken to align them with the business analysts and ensure that everyone realizes they are working towards the same ends.

End Users -  End users provide an important feedback loop to business process experts: "Business process experts work with end users to understand existing systems and to confirm that problems identified by process owners and experts are the whole story."

In addition to the existing roles that will get pulled into the process-driven enterprise, there are some newer job roles that are vital to the BPX world. Here's two examples that are profiled in the "Process First" book:

Process Owners - Managers who own a process from the business point of view, for example, a director of warehouse management who looks at all the performance indicators pertaining to warehouse operations. "The process owner wants the IT solutions to help implement processes that will help business results...they can be powerful advocates for change if a business process expert can produce the results to gain their trust."

Enterprise Architects - I already described this role in my own words;

"Process First" has this to say about Enterprise Architects: "Business process experts frequently find that the most extensive descriptions of business processes and the most advanced modeling tools are used by enterprise architects...the two roles have powerful common ground in that both are interested in promoting the business process perspective. You can probably imagine the enterprise architect defining the IT landscape and the business process expert defining the process landscape."

4. Moving towards a BPX-Centric Organization: Guiding Questions

It's important not to overlook the cultural and organizational challenges business face when they move towards a process centric approach. For that reason, I wanted to close this article with a few useful questions that companies can use to assess their BPX competencies.

One of the key questions that must be addressed is where business process experts should be located within an organization's reporting channel. Not surprisingly, there is work to do in this area. "Process First" explains that companies are currently handling this differently: "The business process expert role does not have a natural home. Some organizations have business process experts reporting to IT, others have them reporting to the office of the CFO or COO, while still others have them reporting to lines of business...organizational structure for the business process expert is highly dependent on the characteristics of each individual business."

It will be interesting to see how much standardization occurs in terms of where to position the business process expert within organizations. But for now, regardless of where companies place their BPXers, there are some helpful questions in "Process First" to consider:

- To whom do business process experts report?

- Is there a center of excellence and an internal community for business process experts?

- How is the value provided by business process experts measured?

- Are there variations in the roles played by different business process experts?

It goes without saying that these questions are best addresses not in isolation, but in conversation across department and online with other BPX-focused organizations.

Conclusion

The emergence of the business process expert is a meaty topic that cannot be wrapped neatly in one article. Fortunately, the whole point of the SAP BPX movement is that this is a community-driven dialogue that continues to advance on a daily basis. All of us in the SAP ecosystem are encouraged to share our own honest experiences with how important these skills really are to our companies and what skills our projects need to ensure the bottom line success that ensures our livelihoods.

Marco has told me personally that he wants to hear your project experiences on these issues, so all readers are encouraged to pass those along. For those who haven't joined in this conversation yet, the "Process First" book is an excellent start, but it's only a start. The SAP BPX community, as well as related conference events, will provide a forum for companies that realize that when it comes to process innovation, a book can be helpful, but a community of fellow users is indispensable.

 

Site Editor's Note: This article appeared in a modified version in the December 2008/January 2009 edition of SAPtips. SAPtips is a subscription-based publication, but you can obtain a free sample issue from the SAPtips web site, as well as information on all previously published articles.    

SAPtips Bio: Jon Reed, JonERP.com. Jon Reed is an independent SAP analyst who writes on SAP consulting trends. He is the President of JonERP.com, an interactive Web site which features Jon's SAP Career Blog and his podcasts for SAP professionals. Jon has been publishing SAP career and market analysis for more than a decade, and he serves as the career expert for SearchSAP.com's "Ask the Expert" panel. From 2003 to 2006, Jon was the Managing Editor of SAPtips.

Jon Reed was recently named an SAP Mentor. The SAP Mentor Initiative is a highly selective program which recognizes those individuals who are making an outstanding contribution to the SAP community. Jon is one of 70 mentors who are playing an active role in SAP's online ecosystem, which includes the combined 1.3 million members of the SDN and BPX web sites.  

 

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