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Reducing SAP Consulting Costs: BW Implementation on a Budget Print E-mail
Article Index
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jonerp_full_logo.PNGReducing SAP Consulting Costs:
BW Implementation on a Budge
Unabridged Edition, Never Before Released

by Jon Reed

Jon Reed notes, January 21, 2008: Last summer, we published a piece on in our "SAP for CIOs" section featuring Renfeng Ma and his team at Sedgwick County, Kansas. Entitled "Who Said SAP Was Expensive?" , the article shared the story of how Ma's team implemented a BW-based dashboards project that came in dramatically under budget. The article drew on an in-depth interview with Ma that I never published - until now.

With the economy sucking wind, one thing we know about SAP projects in 2009 is that companies want to make the most out of the stuff they've put in. Analytics remains at the top of that list on most surveys of CIO priorities. For that reason, I thought Ma's story was worth telling in full. The original interview had some great detail that never made it into the article. I'm pleased to share it with readers. Thanks again to Renfeng Ma and his team for giving us such a terrific story.

Jon Reed: One of the things I thought really stood out that's fascinating about what you've done is the level of user buy-in that you achieved. Another is how this fits into the overall goal of transparency and governance. Another is the training and consulting piece, and I think that's really what I was most interested in: in other words, how you were able to use training in a strategic way to reduce your consulting budget.

The other thing is taking this and putting it into action, and actually taking the KPIs and putting it into action. Because it's not enough to have analytics if there's no execution, like if you set up a bunch of green, yellow and red lights but no action is taken. So it's what you've done to ensure that things are followed through. Those were the areas that were standing out to me.

Renfeng Ma: Also, Jon, those are critical areas. And after I finished this project and the NetWeaver article and the Sapphire presentation and some other stuff, I did some reflection back through the process to see how we compare with the rest of the project management world. And one thing that's quite unique about this particular project: as a project manager, I was heavily involved in not just business requirement gathering, but actually in the business culture, the management culture development and training.

I went really quite a few steps further prior to the business process gathering. I do believe that played a more important role later on in making this kind of change management easy and making the user more acceptable to this kind of change. I don't know if we have an angle to look into that area, but I agree with the areas you outlined.

Reed: Let's start at the beginning where you have an SAP system and you're running 4.6 and the transactional piece is in place, but someone comes up to you and basically asks where the good-looking reports are that the SAP representative showed them. You find yourself in the middle of that, and you played a crucial role because without your involvement this whole thing doesn't work: you are the guy that can get everyone on the same page with the politics of it. That's what stood out to me. You knew all the people in the driver's seat in this, and you knew the users as well. Was that part of the key there? You were the right person at the right time?

Ma: That was part of the key. Actually, before I took the ERP Director job, as the Budget Director I was the one launching a long report on the transactional side and within 20 minutes or so I got timed out on a regular basis. I was the one that initiated the discussion with the business team back then when I was the Budget Director as a super-user. I said, "If you want to buy more memory, we can allocate some more resources to you to beef up the system. But can you give me some kind of indication that the performance will be held to a point where I don't time out, where I can get a consolidated report from the transactional side." But nobody could give me any assurance.

Later on I realized we were missing the whole analytical side; the transactional side of the reports was only designed for technicians and not county-wide consolidated reports. They would look at a couple of departments to pick up some technical information. So that's when I started looking into the analytical side.

I do represent the challenges faced by the middle level and upper level managers in accounting. When I first talked about using SAP to make our reporting easier - or better yet, to answer a more important question: What happened with the taxpayer dollars that we're managing? What kind of difference did we make?

Reed: Tell me how you stepped into this role. Did you just one day say not only do I have a problem with these reports but we have this transparency issue across the board, and I'm going to be the guy that leads us forward. Is that kind of what happened, you just threw your hat in the ring?

Ma: Not exactly. Once I realized I had consensus from many folks that we did have a problem getting information to make it more useful to the decision making process, and we agreed that something needed to be done, that something was still vague. I don't know if you are familiar with government work. Many people feel they have the right to information; they demand all kinds of reports, keep the programmers busy, and a lot of the times we don't know if reports are run just because their predecessors have used those kinds of reports to do something. We don't know what decisions were driving those reports.

After we concluded that some kind of reporting enhancement was necessary, it was not clear to us in Sedgwick County how to tackle this. What kind of reporting? So we just focused on the basic questions taxpayers may ask: What's going on, what's happening with the money we're paying in terms of taxes? What difference did we make? So I was hoping in answering those kinds of questions we could set the basic tone of information needs that would drive the overall demand for report generation.

And people may ask for all kinds of reports. How do you prioritize, and what kind of problem are you solving with the reports you demand? By having this kind of dashboard system in place I was hoping we can set the information needs tone for Sedgwick County. And it looks like it has done that trick.

It wasn't designed explicitly, but I was just wishing to have some kind of overall direction on the information. The information reporting needs to be purposeful. Since the government doesn't have a single bottom line, it's difficult to say to one department, "No, you do not need that report," or "You probably need a better kind of report." By having a dashboard system in place, we set the basic tone, so whatever additional report they may request, they better be helping explain how the management information is sending the right message or not.

Reed: The momentum of this is what is interesting because obviously a lot of people have visions of what they can do with some of these analytical projects. But how was the organizational momentum gathered to where you're ready to pull the trigger on this?

Ma: On the momentum part, I didn't feel like I had to do a whole bunch of work to make it happen. I felt like I was simply implementing the County Manager's vision. In a county structure, the county manager is the chief executive, and he works for an elected body made up of five County Commissioners. And many folks within the county report to that single CEO county manager. When he started working here in Sedgwick County, he introduced a whole bunch of organizational development initiatives: missions and goals, the discussion about what business we are in, the values. Those look like smaller steps all by themselves, but over a long period of time those are the foundational pieces that he helped build.

To this point we propose to build a dashboard system so we can show each other and show taxpayers what kind of a job we're doing. That was not met with immense obstacles. There were some Doubting Thomases - you need all kinds of change management practices - but eventually most people got on board with the right balance of demanding this kind of change from the top, and with me working with each department head in the middle.

It's really a combination of some position power being used that basically set the expectation. And we may have all the reasons for not doing this kind of dashboard to increase the transparency, but it's not our money, it's the taxpayers' money. Taxpayers have the right to know what happened with this kind of money.

Reed: So this project, there wasn't as much resistance first of all because it fit in with the culture that was already being cultivated.

Ma: Exactly.

Reed: Okay. Another unusual component here was the amount of time spent on requirements gathering. I assume that the time you spent on that must have been crucial both for the success of the project and also to get users on board. If you're going to measure someone's performance, that means you're not just gathering requirements in the abstract: you're gathering requirements these people are going to be assessed on later. Tell me how you managed to get people on board with things that were eventually going to judge them.

Ma: I do believe we did a unique job with this portion. If we hire a consulting firm to come in and ask for all our KPIs to put in a dashboard, it's not going to work here in Sedgwick County. The right collection of indicators is not there. It's not comprehensive; some of them make sense, some of them don't. In my mind I knew to make it realistic, to make it meaningful, we really needed to develop a set of indicators that were based on real management activities, management practices.

So it's not just business requirement gathering. To a large extent, we developed the managing by KPI culture first. Not from brand new because of the organizational initiative work that's been done over the past 15 years, but we elevated to a level where people believed it was okay to show how they managed one agency. It's okay to let people know, to let the whole world know, what's going on there.

Reed: Once the cultural change happens, which is a gradual thing, then the specifics of defining the KPI, that's probably the easier part of the two, right?

Ma: Yes, that's easier. And that takes relatively fewer months: we spent 15 years basically building up this kind of healthy, more productive culture, and spent about 22 months developing the requirements and then gathering the requirements.

The gathering portion probably only took in net terms about three months or so after people realized we agreed this is what we needed to do. And I don't know if this portion will fit into your advice area, but the unique way of developing KPIs the way we did it was not just to ask them point blank, "What are your good KPIs?" We went one step further; in Sedgwick County we are developing our own managing by KPI model. It's based on your management story: tell me your story about how you manage.

That's a unique exercise that took a good six months. I put in a focus group of 12 department heads. We started asking each other - we were pretty close colleagues and there was not a lot of animosity going on, so there was a lot of trust - tell me how you manage your operation. Without relying on any predefined model, the EMS director would tell his story with all the major areas he watches for. The fire chief will tell his story. The IT director will tell his story. The HR director will tell her story about the way she manages her things and what tends to get her in trouble. And through that kind of individual storytelling at the department head level, we extracted enough commonalities to basically come up with a model for managing by KPI. In the core of that model is your management story.

That's something I feel was very important in making the indicators we developed more relevant. Because any indicators developed later on were in that overall much bigger context of everybody's management story. Every department head will tell his or her management story: "This is how I identify the key things I need to manage. This is how I manage resources and timelines to achieve it." Once that big overall context is set, they would say, "Okay, I need to track those kinds of indicators." So the indicators were developed after the management model was defined for each department.

That's the unique piece. When I look back on the consulting world, that portion is probably typically done by a management consulting firm and not an IT project firm. But that's something we did as part of this project. I believe that's one major reason later on why the implementation and everything was so smooth. Because I was involved in the beginning.

Reed: It's so interesting because the downside is obviously that that process takes longer, but the upside is that unlike an out-of-the-box thing you would try to impose on people and get resistance, yours was organically generated. So while that took longer, once it was in place the buy-in was so much greater.

Ma: Yes, they all can call it their dashboard because they developed the story, they came up with the indicators. Of course later on the indicators were refined by different groups. But the original concept, the original layout, was initiated by the dashboard owner. So we had built-in ownership from the beginning.

Reed: Maybe this is a public sector/private sector difference to some degree, but I think about some companies gathering requirements for two years or more and asking, "Wait, when will we actually have this live?" Did you ever feel like there was pressure, that you had to speed up the organic process of defining all this stuff? Or did you feel they were going to take the time they needed to take?


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