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What Does it Take to Become an SAP Business Process Expert? Print E-mail

jonerp_full_logo.PNG What Does it Take to Become an SAP Business Process Expert?
by Jon Reed
Unabridged Edition, Never Before Released

When it comes to building skills on SAP project teams, there are two main approaches. In the top down approach, the management team invests in skills development for team members. In the bottom up approach, individuals take the initiative and invest in their own skills.

One of the exciting things about the SAP "Business Process Expert" skill set is that you don't have to wait for company-wide programs to improve your skills. Another appealing aspect of Business Process Expert skills (which I will refer to as "BPX" frequently during this article) is that whether you are a hands-on SAP person or a higher level manager, there is something in this skill set that you can incorporate. 

In the December/January 2008 edition of SAPtips, I wrote about the different roles that utilize SAP BPX skills in the context of the "Process First" book that was written by SAP BPX Global Director Marco ten Vaanholt, with a co-author credit to the BPX community. I defined a number of project roles related to BPX skills in that article, but what we didn't get into were some of the specific skills that comprise the BPX skill set.

In this article, I'll take a closer look at SAP BPX skills. I'll share my personal definition of the SAP BPX skill set as I see it today, and then I'll provide you with SAP's own view as defined by their new BPX certification and curriculum. I will also take a closer look at a few skeptical views of the BPXer, so that we can get a better understanding of why becoming a Business Process Expert is not just hype, but an important trend - one that directly relates to the integration of Information Technology into a "process driven" approach to business.


1. Responding to BPX Skeptics

It's always healthy to have an honest dialogue about emerging skills. After all, SAP project teams can't afford to indulge in skills that won't improve their implementations, and individuals can hardly afford to invest money and time chasing phantom skills that don't show up on actual job orders. So let's set a "no-hype" tone for this article by starting with my responses to the most skeptical views of BPX skills I have heard from visitors of JonERP.com.

Skeptic #1: "BPX skills are tied to the adoption of Business Process Management (BPM) solutions, and we won't see much of that in this slow economy. Therefore, pursuit of BPX skills can wait."

Response: It's true that Business Process Management tools such as NetWeaver BPM, which will allow companies to "compose" processes using modeling tools rather than going the traditional route of expensive custom coding, are not yet in maturity. It's also true that some companies are moving more slowly on exploring BPM modeling and composition due to a "bunker" mentality during the economic slowdown. But as we will see in this article, BPX skills involve much more than next generation modeling tools.

The key to the BPX skill set is developing skills that bridge the "geek gap" between business and IT.  It's never too soon to pursue these types of skills. In a podcast interview I did with Mario Herger of SAP on BPX certification, which you can hear on JonERP.com, Herger cited recent studies which found that almost 70 percent of IT implementations in the U.S. fell short of their desired objectives. He believed that the BPXer who can bridge the gap between IT and business can increase the success rate of IT projects. Even if some companies are stalled out on wishlist projects due to the economy, individuals who stay ahead of the curve can pursue BPX skills that will have an impact now.

Skeptic #2: "The best SAP consultants have always been ‘BPXers,' with a well-rounded set of consulting skills that blended hands-on SAP skills with soft skills and change management skills."

Skeptic #3: "BPM is simply ‘business process re-engineering' all over again. These methodologies are nothing new, and the skills needed to implement them are nothing new either."

Response: I put these two skeptics together because they are related. There is some truth to the views of Skeptic #2. When you take a closer look at the ideal BPX skills profile, you see many so-called "soft" skills that the best SAP professionals have always cultivated. However, in my experience, only the top 10 percent of consultants truly excelled in these areas. Historically, most SAP consultants were able to find work with a narrow focus on SAP configuration. In today's ERP environment, whether you are a consultant or an employee of an SAP end customer, it's important to broaden your skills beyond a narrow technical focus. The reason? If you're simply performing a technical role, you are more likely to have your position outsourced to somewhere else around the globe where this "commodity service" can be performed at a discount. In the past, having a well-rounded SAP skill set was a luxury to stay competitive. Now it is an imperative.

There are also new tools today that were not a part of the SAP consulting skill set of the ‘90s. Beyond the modeling and composition tools that are becoming a factor on project sites, there's the SOA architecture that makes such composition possible, not to mention a host of Web 2.0 capabilities that tie into this architecture and create the possibility for new collaboration and so-called "mashups" of ERP data and external web services. I have only met a handful of SAP professionals who are totally ready for this new world of "mashed up" skills, no matter how much they excelled in the past. (I have written two articles pertaining to mashup trends in the SAP enterprise, which you can find in the "CIO Corner" section of the SAPtips Document Library).

When we consider business process re-engineering (BPR) and respond to Skeptic #3, "that was then/this is now" is again part of our answer. It's true that BPM as a methodology has a lot in common with the BPR of the ‘90s that helped the "Big Six" firms of that time to sell SAP R/3, and ERP as a whole, as the way to realize the potential of BPR. But in truth, the ERP systems of the ‘90s were not designed to be built around flexible, adaptive business processes. ERP was not technically capable of living up to the BPR hype - though the ERP systems of the ‘90s were not without merit. ‘90s-era ERP did a good job of integrating internal systems (such as payroll and financials) that traditionally did not talk to each other. The BPM methodology of today is much better aligned with the technical capabilities of today's next-generation ERP systems. SAP's own approach to SOA, supported by its NetWeaver architecture, will provide the basis for a "process centric" and "BPM-friendly" approach to ERP.

In a nutshell, a process-driven approach to SAP should free customers from having to conform their processes to rigid ERP structures or embark on custom development that is threatened by every upgrade cycle. Instead, SAP customers can start on the modeling board with their ideal end-to-end process flow. The next step to this "new approach to ERP" is to map what you can into your ERP system. Then, you compose services in areas that require special functionality, ideally re-using services from a pre-built repository such as SAP's ESR (Enterprise Service Repository). Properly realized, this truly will be a "new generation of ERP," as Ann Rosenberg, Global Practice Owner for Business Process Management at SAP, describes it.

As my last article for SAPtips discussed, this new wave of ERP does require new skills, and the BPXer is at the center of this new "skills paradigm." (For more on how ERP might finally be able to realize the vision of BPR, check out my article "Turning ERP On Its Head" which appeared in the October/November 2007 edition of SAPtips.) 

Now that I've responded to some SAP BPX skeptics, I hope I've built a good case for why BPX skills matter. Our next challenge? There is not yet a consensus on what constitutes an "ideal BPXer." What we do know is that there will multiple BPX-related roles, the specifics of which will vary from company to company. In the next section, I will share my own definition of the SAP Business Process Expert, and then we'll look at SAP's own BPX curriculum.


2. My View of the SAP BPX Skill Set

In September of 2008, I conducted a webcast with ASUG on "The Keys to Becoming a Business Process Expert" (you can hear that webcast replay on JonERP.com). That webcast gave me an opportunity to go into detail about how SAP professionals should approach BPX skills based on their technical specialties within SAP. We can't cover all of that detail in this article, but here are the key components of the BPX skill set as I see it:

Mastery of modeling tools - It would require a full article to go into all the different process modeling tools that can be used in some aspect of SAP business process management. Most of these modeling tools are still intended for technical users, but more are being geared toward business users. The most important thing is to worry less about which tool you are using and focus more on the methodologies that inform the use of these tools. Some of the tools require significant customer investment, like the Enterprise Modeling Applications from IDS Scheer (formerly called Aris); others cost nothing and are purely open source. Intalio, an open source modeling tool based on the BPMN (Business Process Modeling Notation) standard is one open source tool. One of the most common (and affordable) modeling tools available for SAP customers is Visio, although Visio is not a full-fledged process modeling and simulation tool.

Soon, perhaps by the time this article is published, SAP's new NetWeaver BPM tool will be available in general release NetWeaver BPM (code-named Galaxy) is unique in the modeling tool world because it is designed to create executable code ready for use within an NetWeaver-based SAP system. Most modeling tools still focus on the modeling side; coding the results of that model is a separate (and not small) task. NetWeaver BPM combines these two separate processes. Another powerful modeling tool for SAP users is Visual Composer, which can be used in third party mashup scenarios and also for user-friendly GUI design.

In the last section, I discussed the ideal process flow for next generation ERP. Now, let's apply that to the use of NetWeaver BPM, because there is considerable confusion about this point amongst SAP customers. SAP recommends a best practice of modeling end-to-end processes in a modeling and simulation environment along the lines of IDS Scheer's Enterprise Modeler. Then, map those processes into standard SAP ERP as much as possible.

For those truly cutting edge processes that differentiate a company from its competitors, SAP envisions that those processes will be "composed" in NetWeaver BPM and then integrated on top of the NetWeaver SAP platform - again, without altering SAP source code. With NetWeaver BPM still on the verge of general release, this vision is not yet reality, but this is the best practice that SAP is embracing, and it's helpful to keep this vision in mind as you look to acquire modeling experience on your project. This should also help you to understand the distinction between the IDS tools and SAP's own tools, which puts you ahead of many as of this writing!

With all these modeling tools available, I recommend gravitating towards the ones in use on your project and targeting the tools most appropriate to your skill set. Note that a preview version of NetWeaver BPM is available as of this writing on the SAP Developer Network. 

"Web 2.0" skills - To distinguish Web 2.0 consumer tools from business-friendly tools, I like the term "Enterprise 2.0." Enterprise 2.0 makes clear that not all Web 2.0 activities - such as photo-sharing and tagging - translate seamlessly to the enterprise. The exact definition of Enterprise 2.0 depends on who you ask, but I think of it simply, in terms of tools that provide real business value. For the aspiring BPXer, I see three key areas in Enterprise 2.0:

-         familiarity with collaborative online tools such as wikis which have big advantages for project collaboration versus old standbys like email;

-         understanding of the user-friendly appeal of sites like Amazon and Facebook, including an ability to incorporate better user experiences into the use of enterprise systems by employees and, in some cases, customers and suppliers;

-         ability to cultivate a more "open" (but still secure!) technical environment via online information sharing, founded on a belief that the involvement of people outside the company in areas such as product research, customer dialogue and marketing "conversations" is beneficial to the company as whole.

I spent more time on the first two characteristics of the SAP Business Process Expert because they are still new areas for many SAP professionals. I'll breeze through the rest of my BPX skills attributes more quickly:

"Soft skills" - Soft skills is really a cliché; it takes real work to get at the specifics of why soft skills matter. I think of soft skills as the ability to mix as effectively in the plant break room as the corporate boardroom. We don't all need to be able to get in front of the dreaded "white board," but we do need to be able to get across the business case for what we are currently doing. Another misconception about "soft skills" is that you are stuck with whatever skills you have in that area. That's not the case. There are many ways to improve soft skills, whether it's PowerPoint training, Toastmasters, or even a formal MBA program. It all depends on the specific skills that need to be improved.

Industry know-how - Increasingly, SAP professionals are expected to bring "industry best practice" knowledge to the table, and this will certainly apply to the BPX skill set of the future. Even technical SAP professionals can add value to their skills by understanding the specifics of their industry, such as knowing the keys to successful development on retail projects. Knowledge of SAP's own Industry Solution functionality can play a role here as well.

Knowledge of the end-to-end business processes that relate to your SAP skills focus - While it remains important to have a focused SAP skill set, there's no question that the "big picture" knowledge needed around that skill set continues to grow. Traditionally, many SAP professionals functioned in "silos" such as HR or Financials. Increasingly, SAP customers are approaching ERP in terms of end-to-end business processes such as order-to-cash. Enterprise trends such as information lifecycle management and product lifecycle management also indicate that we need to understand how our skills focus fits into a bigger picture. 

Ability to work as the "liaison" or "missing link" with functional and/or technical teams from the opposite side of the aisle - It's no accident that the phrase "become a marriage counselor between Business and IT," first used on the SAP Community Network by Denis Browne, is often brought up in the context of BPX skills and presentations. Marco ten Vaanholt, VP and Global Lead of SAP BPX, has a nice graphic that he used in his last TechEd presentation to illustrate how the "BPX Sweet Spot" overlaps a range of IT and business roles - similar to the types of BPX roles we discussed in my last article for SAPtips (see Figure 1). The only thing I would change about this graphic is that even hardcore developers have something to offer (and learn from) the BPX skills evolution, but as we can see in Figure 1, the overlap between business and IT is the "sweet spot" for the "BPXer of the future."

Figure1 Reed BPX Skills.jpg

Figure 1: BPX Role "Sweet Spot" - Used with Permission of SAP AG

 Change management skills - A process-driven approach to ERP often means organizational changes. SAP professionals who understand the cultural impact of the latest SAP installations and how to pro-actively address these changes have an important skill that is central to the SAP BPX role.

Project management skills and implementation methodology know-how - Project management know-how comes in many flavors, from lean manufacturing methodologies like Six Sigma to project management certifications. Obviously SAP implementation methodologies, including new business process implementation methodologies, are also relevant to SAP BPXers.


3. SAP's BPX Certification and Curriculum

 SAP's new BPX certification program provides an official view of SAP's take on the necessary skills of the BPXer. Most of the skills I have detailed in the last section are found somewhere in the SAP BPX certification curriculum, though perhaps with a different emphasis.

Although investment in BPX certification is not the only way forward for those who aspire to be BPXers, there is considerable insight to be gained from at least studying the BPX certification materials. I see several valuable aspects to the BPX certification: first, it provides a new level of credibility for BPX skills throughout the SAP community. Second, it provides a structured approach to BPX skills expansion for individuals and project teams. Lastly, it provides the beginning of consensus on which BPX skills are most important to SAP implementations.

There is plenty of information on BPX certification on the SAP Community Network (SCN) web site, but here are a few highlights that are not always obvious during a quick browse of the site. The "BPM for BPX certification," now available, is the first of five eventual BPX certification tracks. This makes the BPX certification unique in the SAP certification program, in that it integrates five separate tracks into one umbrella certification. The BPX certification is also patterned after SAP's new three-tiered certification structure which features the Associate, Professional, and Master level (the Associate level is the equivalent of the "classic" SAP certification).

The Associate level of the BPX certification is available now. The Professional level is due to be available as of February of 2009, and the Master level is still in the planning stages, with availability still to be determined. The five eventual tracks of the BPX certification will be as follows:

1.     End-to-End business scenarios and software certification for the BPXer

2.     Application solution and industry knowledge certification for the BPXer

3.     Software and IT knowledge for the BPXer

4.     SAP BPM Certification for the BPXer

5.     Soft Skills and experience certification for the BPXer

Obviously, it's the "BPM Certification for the BPXer" (item #4) that's available now. There are four course sections within the "BPM for BPX" certification: Basics, Governance, Methodology, and Tools. Each of the four sections has one to three classes, depending on the skill level of the participant. Check out this link for more details on the BPX certification, including the project roles that are appropriate for the BPXers.

As we went through this overview of the SAP BPX certification, I hope readers were able to pick up on how the previous content we have discussed on the integration of methodologies, tools, and process know-how has also come together in SAP's formal SAP BPX curriculum.


4. So How Do You Start? Conduct a "Skills Gap Analysis"

The BPX skills topic can quickly become overwhelming. It's good to remember that becoming a full-fledged BPXer is a long journey rather than a crash course. As we wrap this article, the most important question is: how do we get started? Whether you're approaching this as an individual or a project team, I find that the most useful place to begin is to conduct a "skills gap analysis," preferably in writing. In that analysis, determine the most pressing skill need within the SAP BPX "skills umbrella" and go about filling it. Once you determine the most urgent skills gap, you can then assess the financial options within that particular area, from certification to free open source tools, from book study to community involvement, and determine the best resource allocation for that particular skill area.

The most important thing is to realize that becoming a BPXer is not about the exploration of exotic tools exploration. It's about the convergence of business and IT, with a pressing shortage of skills in that intersection. During a TechEd 2008 presentation by Wolfgang Hilpert that I attended, he showed a simple graphic that illustrates why there is such a skill shortage in the BPX area (see Figure 2). As you look at the "BPX skills funnel" in Figure 2, note how tight the funnel becomes between business and IT.  If you can learn to navigate that funnel, you will be in a better position to help your project team succeed as they undertake the "process driven" projects of the future.

Design collaboration relationships

Figure 2: SAP BPX Skills Funnel, Used with Permission of SAP AG

Yes, the "BPX era" will require functional SAP folks to be a bit more technical, and technical folks to be a bit more functional. Project leads, in turn, will need to be able to roll up sleeves, and hands-on folks will need a bit more management know-how. But this does NOT mean all SAP professionals are morphing into one generic skill set. In SAP, specialization in a focus area will always be crucial. SAP is too vast to allow one individual to effectively master all aspects. It's more about spicing up your skill set with some BPX know-how, while staying on top of how your core competency is being impacted by new tools and approaches.

Finally, I do want to emphasize that when I meet folks at technology events who are unemployed and looking for work, I do find that some of them seem to be great "business process experts." These folks have management skills, soft skills, even some Web 2.0 savvy, but they lack the specific skills in a package like SAP. That's why we need to remember in the SAP world, BPX skills work best when wrapped around core SAP skills competencies. Without the SAP core, you become a BPX generalist without a current home on many SAP projects, and that's not an appealing fate, especially in this economy. That's why SAP's own BPX curriculum does include verification of SAP application knowledge. I did not include that in my definition of a BPXer because I treated SAP application knowledge as a foregone conclusion, but we should never forget its importance.


Conclusion

Becoming an SAP Business Process Expert is a meaty topic that is not easy to encompass in one article. I hope I've made a good case for why BPX skills matter and provided a useful view of BPX skills and how to get started using them. I'd like to close by reminding readers that pursuing BPX skills is not something to do in isolation. At major SAP events such as Sapphire and TechEd, you can attend a "BPX Community Day" that will put you in the mix with many BPX skills leaders, and you're likely to run into me as well. In between trade shows, the SAP BPX community has a critical mass of professionals who have taught me a lot about where BPX skills are headed next. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend getting involved at bpx.sap.com.  

Site Editor's Note: This article will appear in a modified version in the February/March 2009 edition of SAPtips.

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 that 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's "Ask the Expert" panel. He is the author of The SAP Consultant Handbook. From 2003 to 2006, Jon was the Managing Editor of SAPtips. Jon was recently named an SAP Mentor, a highly selective program which recognizes those individuals who are making an outstanding contribution to the SAP community.
 

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