Monday, October 6, 2008

SAP Business Process Experts: A Harder Look at the “BPX Skills Revolution”

In my first PAC blog entry, I posted a review of SAP TechEd 2008 in Las Vegas. One of the main things I noted was SAP’s emphasis on BPM (Business Process Management), and NetWeaver BPM specifically. I also wrote the following: “A ‘business process centric approach,’ complete with new modeling tools, is going to require a different kind of SAP professional.” So what does that really mean?

The “SAP Business Process Expert” is an important topic in the SAP ecosystem. However, it’s fair to ask some sharp questions. First: what is the exact nature of this skill set? Second: how soon will this skill set be needed? Third, and perhaps most importantly, does the Business Process Expert (BPX) skill set still carry some traction in a down economy?

Let’s start with the last question since we’re all somewhat distracted by the ticker tape of bad economic news that’s interrupting our workdays. It’s undeniable that economic slowdowns of this magnitude slow down the rate of innovation on ERP projects. We could make the argument that this type of market is fertile ground for innovative business models, but common sense tells us most companies will not go that route. Certainly when it comes to major new ERP projects, we shouldn’t expect many big announcements in the weeks to come.

But for those who have a stake in SAP project excellence, it’s never too early to identify and cultivate BPX skills. For consultants, these skills can make the difference between landing projects and sitting on the pine. For service firms, cultivation of BPX skills means a well-rounded team that is highly adept at bringing the business and IT agendas of its clients together.

Returning to our first question on what skills constitute a BPXer, that too is a question that is open to a healthy, ongoing debate. With SAP announcing its “BPM for BPXers” certification and laying out the other four tracks of the eventual five track BPX certification, some consensus is building around what a “true BPXer” is. But we are right to ask which of these skills have the most relevance to our clients or organizations. On Tuesday, September 30th, I presented a webcast for ASUG’s Business Process Expert series where I reviewed my own definition of a BPXer and explained why I thought the skill set had relevance.

My own research has solidified into these characteristics of the “SAP Business Process Expert”:

  • - Mastery of modeling tools (IDS’ Aris/Enterprise Modeling applications, NetWeaver BPM, Visual Composer, Intalio (open source BPM), even Visio (currently very common, though not a next-generation modeling tool)
  • - "Web 2.0” skills (collaborative process definition and development)
  • - Focused industry know-how (as opposed hopping from industry to industry)
  •  - Knowledge of the end-to-end business processes that rely upon your IT/SAP skills to be properly enabled
  • - Ability to work as the “liaison” or “missing link” with functional and/or technical teams from the opposite side of the aisle
  • - Change management skills (process-driven approach usually means organizational changes)
  • - Project management skills and methodology know-how (lean manufacturing methodologies, Six Sigma, project management certifications, SAP implementation methods, including new business process methodologies)
If you explore SAP’s official BPX certification wiki, you’ll see that SAP’s definition of a BPXer is a bit different than mine. That’s largely because my definition assumes a high level of SAP application competency. SAP, on the other hand, cannot assume SAP competency during the certification process, so that must be accounted for and evaluated. My list consists of skills that are not really SAP specific. Indeed, you could wrap the same skills around an Oracle consultant and achieve a similar end.

“Web 2.0 skills” may eventually mean mastery of SAP’s own Web 2.0 applications, but since the only Web 2.0 advancements in actual SAP applications are on the CRM side, for now, what we’re talking about when we say “Web 2.0” on this list is not how to kill time on Facebook, but how to help companies with real “Enterprise 2.0” projects with bottom line benefits, such as the creation and management of a project-based wiki that significantly reduces the tedious email loops of the participants.

Most of the skills on this list overlap into the admittedly maddening “soft skills” landscape. We are seeing the emergence of talent management systems that are providing better ways of evaluating and tracking the development of such skills, but admittedly, it can be a little fuzzy to talk in terms of soft skills competencies. We know that consultants who can “get along” on project sites have better careers, but getting someone from “soft skills point A” to “soft skills point B” is not always so simple. The BPXer needs to take soft skills to another level beyond schmoozing. It’s also clear that the skills I just listed currently mean nothing to SAP hiring managers unless they are built around core SAP competencies.

So that brings us back to our second question: how long will it take for these skills to be a factor on project sites? The first hurdle any SAP professional must overcome is still the technical skills hurdle. BPX skills have done nothing to change that, at least not yet. Most times, the “first pass” evaluating an SAP consultant happens on paper, via the resume, and currently, BPX skills do not come across all that effectively on paper.

Yes, there are ways to quantify change management or team building experience, but for the most part, a resume does not get across a true BPX skill set. The only real exception is depth of industry experience, something that does flow nicely from position to position on a resume. But aside from “Enterprise Architect,” very few BPX-oriented job titles have gained enough legitimacy inside organizations to be noted as formal job titles on resumes.

Where BPX skills come more into play is during the interview phase of the placement process. Whether it’s a personal interview or a more routine phone screen, BPX skills matter. However vague they might seem, “soft skills” can make the difference between the consultant that lands the project and the one that stays at home. After all, with companies being able to outsource many positions to cheaper labor globally, why bother with premium rates for an on-site consultant that is not a good cultural and personal fit with the project? This is where BPXers of all nationalities currently excel.

But we’re not yet in a phase where BPX skills can stand on their own merits. The SAP skills in greatest demand today are those pertaining to ERP 6.0 upgrade work, as well as the NetWeaver stack that drives those upgrades. Core NetWeaver components like BI, Portals, and increasingly, MDM and PI, are also in demand. Unless a consultant can tie their “BPX” skills to these sought after SAP skill sets, they aren’t going to be in the game.

An SAP consultant who only has 4.6c experience, for example, can certainly work on their BPX skills and increase their marketability, but they aren’t going to get ahead of those with ERP 6.0 experience just because they have white board skills. When NetWeaver BPM hits general release next year, this old version/new version experience will become even more dramatic, as you won’t be able to get actual project experience in NetWeaver BPM without being on an upgraded SAP installation.

I remain convinced that BPX is a skills evolution rather than the dramatic overnight shift some have foretold. The economic slowdown simply reinforces my sentiment that these changes will happen gradually and in line with the adoption and success of BPM in general, and NetWeaver BPM in particular.

Perhaps someday, BPX job titles like “SAP Process Expert” will be prevalent on job boards and on resumes as well. But I just searched 82,000 jobs on for the “SAP Process Expert” job title and got seven hits. That’s not enough openings for any of us to conscientiously cheerlead aspiring BPXers to drop what they are currently doing to pay the bills. Compare those Dice results with 90 dedicated openings for something as new as SAP MDM, and that gives you some idea of the acceptance curve BPX job titles still have to move through.

SAP BPX is much more than one job role. I’d go further: BPX skills can benefit all SAP professionals, regardless of role. That said, I do believe the ultimate success of the SAP BPX skill set depends upon widespread adoption of next-generation modeling tools like NetWeaver BPM. That should eventually happen, but in this early adoption phase, there is plenty of time to put the hype aside and remember that the best SAP skills approach is a practical one: acquire the skills your next client is looking for.