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Do SAP projects fail due to project manager limitations?

Hi Jon,

I have been a project manager for about nine years working on Web development projects, data network projects, VoIP projects and contact center/ CRM solutions. Previously I was on the technical side in the Microsoft enterprise solutions space (MS Exchange, SQL Server and SMS).

All the major project management methodologies strongly emphasize the generic nature of the methodologies, and I have found no difference managing Microsoft projects where I understood the underlying technology intimately, compared with Genesys or Avaya where my knowledge was much less. I have successfully brought in projects where I was not technically an expert on several occasions.

Do SAP projects not conform to accepted team structures where various roles are recognized and understood as distinct, and if so, why the insistance on having SAP technical experience for managing SAP implementations?

Could this be a reason why so many SAP implementations are problematic? Don't SAP projects have team structures that include SAP SME's assigned to the project? Why then does the PM not concentrate on managing the risk, scope, budget, resources and stakeholders just like any other IT project? Could it be argued that having broader technological experience might bring some advantages to SAP projects?

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I'm not going to say I disagree with your assessment, but I do think you are making generalizations about SAP that don't apply to every SAP implementation. Some SAP implementations are very well run, some are not. Some achieve all of their benchmarks, some struggle. Of those that struggle, I do suspect that weak project management is a major reason. However, there are many factors that relate to weak project management.

I do agree with you that a broader knowledge of the organization's overall technology and business processes is critical to succeeding within the SAP project. As to why SAP project managers are required to have SAP technical backgrounds, that's an interesting question. I personally find that SAP is not unusual in this regard. Many business application environments are run by folks who themselves have been "under the hood" and worked their way up. However, once you get towards the CIO level, the folks that manage the managers -- these folks are not usually expected to have the same hands-on skills backgrounds. You've raised a provocative question, and it is certainly one that warrants further discussion.

I will say this: with the amount of technical change that SAP is going through right now, I can't imagine a successful SAP project manager that is not keeping up with the evolution of the SAP product. Whether that person is technically deep in SAP is another matter. Sometimes I think you are right, that companies are too obsessed with hands-on technical skills, but that also pertains to other positions on an ERP implementation besides project management. For example, I know many ERP consultants who would be very successful in an SAP environment if they were only given a chance to train on SAP. Their knowledge is relevant and they'd come up to speed quickly. But they rarely get that chance. In closing, I don't know if I agree that the insistence on project managers with SAP backgrounds is causing SAP implementations to have problems, but I would say that there are a range of quality non-SAP managers and consultants who are unfairly excluded from SAP projects on the basis of their lack of experience in SAP, despite having many relevant ERP skills. Perhaps this answer allows us to meet each other halfway.

This was first published in December 2005

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