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Podcast: SAP BI Consulting - Strategies, Tools, and Skills Trends Print E-mail
podcastlogo_jonerp.gif"A Three Person Discussion of SAP BI Consulting Trends with Special Guests Vijay Vijayasankar and Kevin McManus" (ERP Lounge #12)
Podcast Interview Date: August 26, 2010
Podcast: Listen Now!

What it the future of SAP BI consulting? Why is there still lingering confusion over the SAP BusinessObjects tools amongst SAP users? And why is BI strategy an afterthought when it should really be incorporated into the core ERP implementation? To get a fresh take on these questions, I taped a podcast with Vijay Vijayasankar of IBM and Kevin McManus of McManus Consulting. Both these guys have deep SAP BI experience, and Kevin brings hands-on expertise in BusinessObjects tools into the conversation. Kevin's blog Clear Cut Reports focuses on Crystal and Webi reporting.

During the 55 minute podcast, we take a close look at which SAP BI skills are in demand. I ask the guys what separates a mediocre SAP BI consultant from an outstanding one. We talk about whether there are functional BI roles emerging, and whether BI is becoming a skill that all SAP professionals need to reckon with. Is BI the "holy grail" of value realization for ERP projects? And is in-memory for real? Vijay and Kevin address all these questions.

Editor's note: Thanks to Vijay for taking the initiative with an email chock full of questions about BI strategy. The email exchange between Vijay and Kevin provided the basis for this podcast. This podcast makes reference to the presentation Kevin gave at SAP Inside Track St. Louis. Click on the event link to view the slides and session replay. Also recommended: Vijay's personal blog and his blog on SCN. During the podcast, we also refer to products that are undergoing name changes. Don't treat this podcast as the definitive record of the new names, rather, check out the SAP Business Objects Community for that info.

Note: to comment on this podcast series, or send in a question for us to answer in the next one, be sure to join our ERP Lounge Group on Linkedin. If you want to subscribe to the series, get the The JonERP Master Blog and Podcast Feed. Or find Jon on his @jonerp Twitter feed. The ERP Lounge podcasts are also included in the JonERP iTunes podcast feed.   

0:00 Introductions

Vijay - I come from an ABAP background, but when SAP started doing BI, that was a natural extension for me. These days, my role has changed and I'm more in practice management and strategy work. This is what inspired the podcast for me - there is an upswing in the economy, and many are keen on doing BI right, but many also jump in without having a good strategy in place. This is not a tools problem, there are plenty of good tools out there. So you're wasting your money and time without a strategy. 

3:10 Kevin: I've been doing BI for 17 years, really focused on BusinessObjects space. Pre-BO it was Crystal tools and then Crystal was acquired by BO, and was then bought by SAP, so I've gone up the food chain. It's been pretty interesting to see how SAP has incorporated BusinessObjects, and how SAP has turned what we believed was a best of breed platform into a flagship of their own BI initiatives. In my experience, there are always different SAP BI drivers, when we talk about large enterprise BI.

Some companies will do a tool selection process, other companies are given the tool they need to use and are making best use of it. One of the things I don't see is BI tools being tied into identifiable success factors and tying it into something measurable that ties back to the company's goals. Those types of strategies are talked about, but usually the initiatives become much more tactical and budget constrained so something can get out the door.

6:00 Vijay to Kevin: What is new in the market? Here's a couple things I have run into: one is the concept of federated data warehousing. A lot of companies that had money stacked away, during the slowdown, they went ahead and bought companies. One of the challenges I've seen is that they've tried to move the new acquisition in, and then wait for it to be incorporated into a data warehouse. But in the process, they lose a lot of time, so they can't get out a quick P and L. This gives a lot of grief to the CFO. What do you think?

Kevin: Federation and different data warehouse architectures were big a couple years ago, but then people started to back down in terms of the size of projects they could take on and also the skill sets needed. But recently there has been more talk about it again, in terms of handling complete data issues in multiple locations. Cases where the BI system needs to be delivered at the same time as the transactional system are also coming up more often. To deliver the BI system at the same time, now that BI is mission critical, you have to use some techniques and technologies to ensure that you can have the reports and analytical tools for data while the model underneath is changing. When different companies and data sources merge, it creates a new set of challenges. This year, some companies can handle more complex situations now that basic data warehouses are in place.

9:20 Vijay: Putting some skills context in: a year a go, I was on a project where the company spun off a manufacturing division, and the BI system had to be split from its parent company. These kinds of issues are beyond your average data modeling and reporting. If you can handle that kind of complex BI spinoff, that kind of skill keeps you on the edge of the market at a premium if you're an SAP BI consultant - and those skills needs aren't going away, even in a difficult economy. There are products to master, such as SAP's own Data Federator - you have to know when to use it and the skills needed to implement it. And you have to know what the products can't do either. It's not easy to try it out, you can download it from Service Marketplace, and if you can advise clients on that, that's a hot skill to have.

11:00 Jon to Vijay: It seems to me that the major ERP vendors are pushing BI to justify the holy grail of taking companies' transactional systems and delivering a deeper value, with more visibility, better anticipation of inventory needs, etc. Is BI the holy grail of ERP value justification and will it live up to that?

Vijay: I do think that without a solid BI system, pretty much every investment in ERP wouldn't get the dollar value out of it. An example is that it's very important to have a good logistics system for sales orders and billing and so on. But that's not how the business is ultimately managed. The business is managed based on higher level decisions, and you can't get that out of a sales order system. The next step that's needed is contextual BI and predictive analytics. But ERP as it is today has serious limitations into decision making, and whether you move the data into a separate system is another question. But to get value out of ERP, you do need a comprehensive system that includes BI.

13:30 Kevin: SAP is heading in the right direction, as far as embedding BI into existing transactional processes that give you visualizations of what you are doing as you are working on transactions. The technology can be relatively straightforward - on our projects, we do a lot of taking Business Objects and integrating it back into the application so people aren't jumping back and forth between an ERP and BI system. From a technology stance it's quite achievable, but from a data and process standpoint, it's much more challenging. Moving data from systems does take time, and then you get into federated data store technology to alleviate some of that. Lots of technologies are going to be involved in making that seamless interface for a user between their ERP system and their BI.

Jon to Kevin: During our Certification Five Bangalore presentations, we fielded questions from some prettv smart consultants - a couple questions highlighted ongoing confusion around SAP's BusinessObjects strategy and the future of BEx tools. How much confusion is there now around the roadmap? Why should be there be confusion on the SAP's Business Objects roadmap now? Hasn't there been enough time to sort this out:? What's going on?

16:00 Kevin: I saw presentations years ago on the SAP Business Objects roadmap, but what I've found presenting at ASUG and Inside Track, and maybe it's just the audience, is some confusion. Maybe that's because it's been more high level, or maybe there hasn't been enough passing down the ranks, but a lot of people I'm talking to are people heading up the SAP BI implementation doing the rollouts and training to the end user, and they were interested and really did seem to be seeing the roadmap for the first time, or maybe seeing it for the first time in a simplistic way. SAP has stuck to their guns with the roadmap they presented years ago and they have kept to that roadmap, but confusion remains.

I think it's just a matter of getting it to people who are using it on a day to day basis. I've had quite a few questions, such as: what are the right skill sets? Can you hire one person to handle all those SAP BusinessObjects needs? I've seen different opinions. At a high level, it's very difficult to find one person who understands report writing, semantic layer design, the business analytics necessary to create a semantic layer, and also server setup and configuration. So there's definitely some education that has to be happen, companies need to know the skill sets that they are going to need.

18:30 Jon to Vijay: How do you focus on strategy, when you have so much confusion on the tools side?

Vijay: It's a problem. SAP has had trouble keeping the names consistent. Confusion is out there. BW went to BI and back to BW again. Pioneer went away (as a name). Xcelsius is done (as a name). For the market, the confusion is huge again. What is Crystal Dashboard Design? There is lots of confusion on the market - it needs more time. More education is needed - implementation partners need a better education on that tool. Kevin's firm is very well versed, but that's not common, there are way more people who don't know, firms that are more tools focused and can't advise a client properly. SAP's is not the only solution in this area either, including Cognos, IBM's product, so if SAP misses the boat, another company could take the market share.

21:44 Jon to Vijay: You had a series of points on strategy you wanted to ask - were there others you wanted to cover?

Vijay: I started this discussion because if you know the right strategy, then you can handle the tools. Some people ask me, can you move from BEx to Web Intelligence? On the other hand, maybe it's not a OLAP tool need. Maybe it can be handled another way. Maybe you need OLAP slicing and dicing, but maybe you need alerts and exceptions, and Webi may not do everything. Having a strategy would tell you when you can migrate to Webi already and what you can wait for "Pioneer" to come up with.

23:45: Kevin: In terms of getting down to individual features, it gets very confusing. Every tool vendor will say that they can handle ranking, but how easy is it to set up and how well does that perform? That can very from tool to tool. With OLAP, you can do a lot more. As far as a user interface, that is one of Webi's strong points, and it can make it easier from someone to do once they are trained. But the questions are: why are you doing this type of analysis and what is the benefit you are trying to get, and often, that question can get a glassy eyed response. But it's important to know what info you need and what you intend to do with it. "That's what my boss asked for" is not a good enough answer. This line of questioning can also help you to determine when to use BEx and when Webi is a better fit.

25:46 Jon to Vijay and Kevin: More on BI skills: Business Intelligence seems to be becoming less and less a specialized area. There is still a need for specialists in BI, but it seems there is a need for all SAP pros to reckon with BI, either to help with executive decision making or provide userswith reports. What do you guys think?

Vijay: BI specialization is not going away - without a few people with deep expert knowledge you can't implement a good solution. That's the technology part. The other part is the process knowledge which may be even more important. And in that case, everyone on the team needs awareness on where BI fits, and that skill area leaves a lot to be desired. Think of any blueprinting exercise - that kind of reporting stuff comes at the end of the exercise. Concern about reporting is always sidelined, but that needs to change. SAP acquired BO to change this.

If you don't know what you business leaders need in terms of information, you can't just do transaction-focused work, that has been a weakness in the SAP implementation space for ages. I do see a lot of change in that these days, as more people are becoming cognizant they need to incorporate BI as they are implementing - otherwise it is hard to go back in time. So there's a behavior change needed for functional and technical folks, and two, there is still a need for deep experts to understand the limitations and technology, and they need input from the process experts.

29:35 Kevin: I agree. In the past, BI was always the second phase, and too often, they'd put out reports and they would perform very poorly as it was such an afterthought. It's interesting because once you start to integrate BI, the technology is moving in such a way that it's going to force you to take those questions into account as you're rolling out your BI system. From a process perspective, if you're trying to get those folks to give input on the process, that can be very challenging. Will there be people who are focused on operational effectiveness, and will there be a second group of people focused on BI, or will the expectation be that every person involved with the business will be able to handle all those types of questions? When you're designing a cube, the person answering the questions needs to be familiar with the terminology and be able to answer questions about more than just transactions, and that's going to be the biggest challenge for the business and business analysts. They will have to be educated on these concepts into order to be effective.

32:18 Jon to Kevin: All consultants aren't created equal - especially for a firm like yours that stakes its reputation on the caliber of your people. What separates a mediocre SAP BI consultants from an excellent one?

Kevin: A lot of it comes down to experience, in other words, what experience have you been involved in. If you spend 2-3 years working on a technology and you're passionate about it, you're going to need a desire to become an expert in that. As far as an organization, if you have a group of people with those skill sets based on experience, and you have a team environment where you can collaborate and bring those experts together, you're going to have a good organization. When you have a smaller company that is focused on a particular area of technology or expertise, it can be easier to prove that value to the customer. As you expand out into different technologies and concepts, it's a challenge to develop that expertise across the board.

Vijay: Nothing beats experience. I work for a big company that has a lot of experience. One of our big value propositions we can put in front of the customer is industry experience. I mostly support high tech companies. Since I moved from one to another, I know the problems that this industry faces, what kind of reporting they all need. You cannot divulge confidential information, but the industry experience adds lot of value to what you do for customers. For example in blueprinting, you have to know what the customer is going to analyze. Somebody with general BI experience might take some time to figure my industry out. Industry experience is a big differentiator. BI is very specific, there is no generic BI. What I need to run my business is different than what you need to run yours.

36:45 Jon: Historically, we had a few distinct BI roles, mostly technically focused: the ABAP-BW person skilled in customizing reports, the Basis-BW person skilled in installations and performance tuning, and maybe a higher level technical data warehouse person. On the functional side, sometimes there were functional needs helping to design Infocubes and such but not very often. The tech roles are changing a bit due to newer set of tools, but on the functional side, will we see the emergence of functionally-focused BI roles?

Vijay: in my opinion, I totally hate the functional/technical divide, I think all BI people should have a good mix of functional and technical skills. If you don't know what your product can deliver, there's only so much can you do for the client. The best FI consultants know how to make use of BADIs and technical tools, if not, they wouldn't be the best. The same is true in BI, and you may need to know it beyond products, even beyond SAP products.

39:10 Kevin: That's one of the most challenging areas. The way BI projects are normally structured is that the tool selection process is handled by one team. Determining the design of the output rarely translates into an opportunity for the report developer to gain an understanding of the why behind the report. Depending on the size of the project, what I see is that the developers are focused on delivery. That's a pull mechanism to give them just enough info to create hundreds of reports, what gets lost is the opportunity to really understand: "what is the benefit that this report is bringing to you?"

There's a value in having a person that sits in between the tech and the business users. I've seen people who are not writing reports, and developing reports, but they know the value of both sides, and they know how to move the report developer's info and have a better grasp of the business than those individual report developers will ever get. I rarely see an opportunity for the BI developer to get enough of a grasp of the BI need to actually come up with questions and suggestions that can help evaluate and select the right tool. In those environments, you need that business analyst person.

42:14 Vijay: I agree. Having been a developer earlier in my career, I can say that often the developers were not brought into the loop, the seniors on the team didn't have input and didn't seek out the developers. All I can say is shame on them. If you're a good manager, this is a great opportunity to bring the next BI consultants up from that technical side to have balance, and it's a shame to miss that opportunity to bring that technical expertise together with  process knowledge.

Kevin: In addition to that missed opportunity for growth, when a change comes, for example if the report or dashboard is not meeting the needs of the business, that gap that was never removed during the early-on process now needs to be dealt with. In a lot of cases, the business driver has changed. And when you have someone who is connected with the business on the BI team, there can be a huge benefit in their being able to come up with suggestions and new ideas on how to improve the business. The might have recommendations from a display standpoint or whether that data should be in a report, an email alert or a dashboard. To make those kinds of decisions, you need to be connected to the business on a regular basis.

44:34 Jon to the guys: before we wrap, we have to talk a bit about the future of BI. We have to address in-memory. A lot of BI systems aren't real time yet, and Hasso Plattner's vision is that the abstraction layer (ETL) is almost becoming evil thing, stopping us from getting exactly what we need in real time. Thoughts?

Vijay: In-memory is here to stay, we got a big speech on that at Sapphire and we've been hearing about that a lot. A lot of vendors outside SAP have been doing it successfully now, though it's not quite mainstream, but it's been tried out in production. In-memory really works. But in-memory doesn't solve all - you may still need info from a legacy source, so hybrid architectures will continue to exist. Most of the problems, in terms of the need for real time information, never dies. A good example is that for month-end closing, you post the entries in the journal and you want to see the impact on the forecast. This requirement has been there forever, but we have an ETL process which introduces a time lag and frustration.

Now, in 2010, hardware is advanced and pretty inexpensive, and so is in-memory. So if you are that keen on getting real-time info, go back and do an ABAP report. Sometimes it's a mistake to say "I will only report out of BI," because those separate repositories were built when we had more drawbacks in hardware and processing speed. That's why you have to have a strategy and also renew it every couple of years or so. Otherwise you are stuck in a state of limiting notions.

48:12 Kevin: We were doing in-memory OLAP around 10 years ago, and as a developer I was saying, "This is gold, everyone will be doing this." But it's really taken this long for BI to become mainstream and for this technology to be necessary. It's definitely encouraging to see it's become a part of the mainstream offering. There's a time to load it into a cube, and a time to just do a data stream. Knowing when to do that needs to be constantly reviewed. One of the key roles of a successful BI implementation is a BI architect, familiar with tech and streaming info, and when you have that role, you can get benefit of in-memory, columnar and other trends.

50:09 Jon to the guys: Give your closing thoughts, and tell us how you stay on top of your skills in this market. Vijay: I read - anytime someone says something on BI, I have it queued up on my RSS reader. There is a lot of reading to do, you need to constantly compare what people are saying so you are not getting a skewed opinion. Don't just look at SAP, SAP is a fabulous company, but to get your total vision, look beyond SAP as well. Keep it broad, look around. A lot of thought leadership is out there on this topic. Expand your horizons, and then you can come back an apply it to your SAP projects. SAP does listen - so if you have input based on that knowledge you have learned, you can get the input and take it forward. Or pass it along to the Mentors and we will gladly make the case.

Kevin: It's amazing to me that SAP as a whole is such an open company. There's ample opportunity to provide input. I constantly subscribe to different feeds and Twitter and SCN to see what people are doing. People are doing some very exciting things, and those are things I'd like to bring to companies that can benefit from them. In our project work, we do get to see a lot of different companies doing a lot of different things, we can see across industries and get a sense of what works and what doesn't. We're always learning and coming up with new adaptations, and reading and keeping up to date, we all keep ourselves pretty well rounded that way.

Note: to comment on this podcast series, or send in a question for us to answer in the next one, be sure to join our ERP Lounge Group on Linkedin. If you want to subscribe to the series, get the The JonERP Master Blog and Podcast Feed. Or find Jon on his @jonerp Twitter feed. The ERP Lounge podcasts are also included in the JonERP iTunes podcast feed.   

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