Last week's SAPPHIRE was largely greeted with enthusiasm by those on the ground. Heck, even I liked it, mostly because of what customers were telling me. Even so, the undercurrent of concern about integration as the great 'known unknown' in the S/4HANA story loomed large in many people's minds as was the business of 'getting from here to there' in terms of migration away from the Business Suite and/or ECC.
We got most of the top line answers wrapped up in roadmaps that executives were keen to display as evidence that SAP has listened to the messages it was getting from its leading customer CIOs, a topic we explored at depth in our Boyz shoot. But we forgot something that is vital to this discussion. Education.
I touched on the question of knowledge transfer in my session with SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner where I noted:
My meeting with Hasso Plattner was relatively low key with talk about educating the ecosystem for the transition to S/4HANA. It worries me that in some circumstances, the super high powered PhD’s at the Hasso Plattner Institute have to be parachuted into customer situations. Where is the knowledge transfer to SAP engineers and out to the partner ecosystem?
I made the mistake of not pressing this point further. Here's why.
In 2010, a group of us presented Bill McDermott, CEO SAP with a framed gapingvoid cartoon. The photo which commemorates that event is at the top of this story. The text to the cartoon reads:
Quality isn't job one, being totally frickin' amazing is job one.
This was a play on SAP as an engineering led business and drew plenty of giggles at the time.
The back story to that event is interesting and directly relevant to S/4 today.
In the fall of 2009 and into 2010, a group of us got together and developed a white paper on SAP certification. It included the results of a survey among 500 verified SAPpers, all of whom had implementation experience.
The purpose of the exercise was to highlight where we believed SAP certification failed to add value to both SAP customers and those who took the certifications.
You can still download the original. (PDF) The report was produced in time for SAPPHIRE 2010 and we spoke with people from SAP education about its findings both during the preparation phase and post publication. We also posted an extensive commentary on the SAP Community Network (SCN) which drew more than 70 responses. That content is all there though hard to surface today as SAP is currently re-engineering its SCN resources.
We recommended that SAP develop fresh forms of certification that recognize the acquired and required field skills that often make the difference between a good implementation and one that is, at best, so-so. That didn't really happen.
A key recommendation was that SAP drop the idea of multiple choice questions in proposed advanced certifications because they do not adequately test an applicant's real world skills. We saw this as a genuine pathway to avoiding project failure while recognizing the skills of the smartest people in the SAP ecosystem. Our recommendation was based upon research based evidence and countless interviews with subject matter experts. It's a piece of content for which the whole team continues to feel rightfully proud.
Fast forward to today and McDermott's warmly welcomed commitment to customer success. Some generalized roadmaps are in place. Tailored roadmaps are there for SAP's top customers. But what about the education resources?
I noted the knowledge transfer problem above and part of Plattner's response to me is that SAP has commitments from five of the top SIs and is creating programs for that group. That sounds familiar, representing a pattern we've seen before. Plattner gave a shout out to one (under non-disclosure) but it was only afterwards that I remembered the company to which he referred was one of the most commonly cited in older implementation failures.
I have no clue what has changed but I have to take SAP at its word that it is skilling up as quickly as it can. The problem comes in tracking down resources in the public domain.
S/4HANA education resources are thin on the ground. Here is what I found having done an exhaustive search through SAP content properties for curricula and certifications. There are two certifications and nothing that covers the latest S/4 release which came out six months ago. The one that sounds the most appropriate is at SAP's lowest 'associate' level, which is a multiple choice format exam.
In talking to people who are armpit deep in HANA topics, there is never any discussion about certification. From what I can gather, there is a good amount of required back and forth with SAP in order to get S/4 projects underway so in one sense, everyone is faced with a chicken and egg situation. From an external perspective you can't implement S/4 without understanding what S/4 is about but S/4 is both relatively new in the marketplace and a moving target. So the idea of having external experts today is likely to be something of a stretch. For its part, SAP is running as fast as it can to implement confirmed projects but it too is resource constrained.
From everything I have seen and heard, SAP is answering the most pressing questions about S/4HANA's value. That solves what would likely be a sales crisis in the near future. But it faces a looming problem in the shape of a skills shortage once customers hit the project 'go' button.
Based upon what we have seen in the past, and the apparent lack of physical and education resources; SAP runs the risk of running into all sorts of project trouble 6-9 months down the line. If that happens then it would undo all the good work and goodwill built up at SAPPHIRE Now 2016.
I have long felt that SAP has not done the best job in both surfacing and harnessing those people in the ecosystem who are truly outstanding engineers. Advanced forms of certification could have been (and still could be) a way to overcome that problem. Trawling among the SAP Mentors and alums could prove equally useful. The problem with that last group is that many of them are highly vocal and will not let SAP off the hook when they find difficulties. That makes them something of a cat herd. And we all know what it's like herding cats ;)
The HANA Distinguished Engineers (known as HDEs) could be a piece of this puzzle. Though the program is still modest in scope - 45 total HDEs to date - they are selected based on their field experience and community involvement/knowledge sharing. I'm told by Jon Reed, who helped launched the community-based program, that the HDEs can scale with proper funding.
There is also a "deep dive" OpenSAP S/4HANA course. This is a good start for those new to S/4HANA, but it doesn't solve the problem of identifying and validating those further along the HANA and S/4HANA path. Those with S/4HANA field experience are still rare, even amongst the HDEs, so the time to escalate this issue is now, before customers find themselves in a problematic resource pinch.
I am hopeful that having learned what concerns customers today, SAP executives will be thinking more expansively about how to get 'from here to there.' Right now, the education hole may be little more than a pothole in the road but it won't take much momentum for it to become a yawning chasm. Last week I heard precious little about that topic. And while I may have forgotten to press the arguments, upon reflection, it is a concern.
As a reminder, SAP needs to consider what it is looking at in S/4HANA: 3,200 sales, 800 committed projects, 170 go lives and a sales machine that has to continue delivering substantial growth. Then what?