SAP consulting trends:
The revenge of the core consultant and other new developments
by Jon Reed
This is the first part of SAP jobs guru Jon Reed's in-depth report on the state of the SAP consulting market. Make sure to check out part two for more information on how NetWeaver changes the consulting landscape and part three to learn what the new, hot skills needed to get into the sweet spot are.
Good news for SAP professionals: The SAP market is as healthy as it's been since the late 1990s. The catch? A healthy SAP market does not translate to good fortune for all SAP consultants. Unfortunately, the SAP market no longer represents a "rising tide lifts all boats" situation. This poses a problem for consultants (and aspiring consultants), especially those who assume that as long as they stay focused on SAP, good things will happen.
SAP technology is changing quickly and creating skills gaps that are not easy to fill. The end result? A "winners and losers" market where some consultants see their rates rise and others have trouble breaking in. Even experienced consultants may find themselves on the outside. In this article, I look at why the demand for SAP skills is changing, making a special note of what is hot now. I combine my own observations with those of some industry players who have been in the SAP market for a decade or more.
Several factors are affecting the types of SAP skills companies are looking for. The underlying push is the impact of upgrades (along with brand-new implementations, mostly in the midmarket). There are three main skill areas that SAP upgrades are driving forward. On the technical side, the NetWeaver platform is changing the nature of technical job orders. On the functional side, we see a big shift back toward core areas such as financials, human resources (HR), and sales and distribution (though these modules now have fancier SAP names, like mySAP HCM instead of HR). We're also seeing the increasing impact of business intelligence (in particular the BW product) on SAP job orders of all kinds. Let's take a closer look at each of these three areas.
The revenge of the core functional consultant
Ever since 2000, I've been recommending that SAP consultants move away from core functional modules like FI/CO, SD and HR in order to keep up with SAP's new eBusiness product line. Of course, we're referring to the oddly named "New Dimensions" products, which are now renamed as part of the mySAP Business Suite. In 2000, I suggested that consultants should move out of the R/3 core and into emerging areas such as CRM, APO, BW, and later SEM, SRM and PLM. Some of those turned out to be pretty good consulting niches, but none of them took off to the degree we all hoped (with the possible exceptions of BW and CRM). Now we see that functional consultants who ignored my advice and stuck with the core modules may have the last laugh.
Why is that? Because, as we've noted, new installs at midsized companies and upgrades to the core on existing SAP sites are the main consulting drivers. Both types of projects tend to emphasize the implementation of the core modules first. However, there is one big caveat: Even if you have five years (or more) of SAP experience, you won't necessarily be in demand for these projects. I tell SAP consultants that "you're only as hot as your last project," and that's never been as true as it is now. It's the last six months that really defines you. Yes, deep SAP experience helps. But it's got to be topped off by project work in a hot area to keep the rates high and the phones ringing.
Contrary to what SAP may imply -- that everyone is moving to 6.0 -- companies are upgrading to a range of SAP releases. We can certainly expect most future upgrades to involve ECC 6.0 or eventually higher (ECC 6.0 is the NetWeaver 2004 release, and the full suite is referred to as mySAP ERP 2005; ECC 6.0 is the "enterprise core" of mySAP ERP 2005, so ECC 6.0 is the product evolution of the core SAP R/3 release). Some companies are still in the midst of upgrading to 4.7 or ECC 5.0, but SAP considers 6.0 a "foundation release," as 4.6C once was. Translation: "You'll all be running on 6.0 sooner rather than later."
Brian Trout, SAP Practice Manager for B2B Workforce (www.b2bworkforce.com), an SAP Premier Partner, believes that SAP consultants must understand SAP's release schedule if they want to stay marketable. "If you want to stay leading edge, and you want to be on the high end of the rate scale, you must stay current with the release logic," Trout says. "The most successful consultants we work with at B2B Workforce take that into account when evaluating each opportunity. It's very easy to advise someone to stay current, but it's not always easy to do that. One way to stay on top of things is to study the release notes and be able to speak to the new functionality during the interview process."
These new releases bring significant twists to core functional areas -- too many to list in one article. One major example is the new General Ledger. FI/CO consultants who have experience configuring the new General Ledger in ECC 5.0 and especially ECC 6.0 have a big edge over their FI/CO colleagues. A junior-level SAP Financials consultant who has this experience might be able to score a contract over a more senior FI/CO person who has not configured the new General Ledger. There are similar examples in HR, or as it is often called these days, mySAP HCM. We can point to the same in SD, which is now subsumed in SAP marketing literature into the broader supply chain management (SCM) functionality.
"The days of the SAP consultant saying, 'I've got eight or ten years of experience, and that's good enough to keep me on the cutting edge,' are over," Trout says. "It's more about having the recent experience than it is the depth of experience." As one example, he points to the latest HCM-Portals functionality in SAP E-Recruitment. "I have seen numerous situations where people with seven or eight years of HR experience have been passed by in favor of someone with much less experience who has exposure to the latest version of E-Recruitment (6.0)."
Jerry Walter, owner of the staffing firm Walter and Associates (www.itopps.com), has seen how SAP consultants can get themselves into trouble by assuming that the skills that got them by in the past will work for them in the future. "You need to have the mentality that you don't know it all and that you're looking for opportunities to build your expertise," Walter says. "I have a couple of people I am working with who are attempting to build on their current SAP skills, but from our conversations, they've realized that they shouldn't be positioning themselves as expert-level consultants, because they're not yet on top of the latest SAP releases. They are in that mode of doing whatever it takes to get the skills they need to be a senior-level SAP consultant."
Michael Doane, Chief Intelligence Officer for Performance Monitor (www.performancemonitor.net) and author of the recently updated SAP Blue Book: A Concise Business Guide to the World of SAP, agrees. "Anyone doing SAP consulting – even if they've been doing it for many years – should consider themselves ready to go back to school. The mySAP ERP era involves a whole new set of skills that consultants need to acquire."
Another big change in how core consultants are evaluated is this: All three of the experts I spoke with noted that industry-specific SAP experience is becoming more and more important. A classic configuration background is not going to be enough to stay marketable. "It's not the consulting market of the 1990s," Trout says. "SAP customers don't just want the SAP module expertise, they want the specific industry know-how, and they want the latest release expertise to go with that."
Doane's research supports this point. "More and more, and we see this coming from our data, [it is the case] that SAP customers are demanding vertical industry background – true vertical industry background. The percentage of SAP consultants across North America that have deep industry background is still too low." Doane notes that in Performance Monitor's findings on systems integrators, "did not demonstrate sufficient vertical expertise" is one of the most frequently cited negatives made about SAP consultants and systems integrators on project sites.
Of course, just because the core SAP areas are returning to marketability, it isn't necessarily the case that mySAP add-on releases like mySAP CRM, PLM and APO are now irrelevant. There is good consulting work in some of these areas, and if you're doing well, there's no reason to go back in time. But if you haven't moved into a mySAP product yet, you may want to stick with the core and ride the upgrade wave, perhaps adding some industry-specific focus to that core skill set.
Once the upgrade push is over, I expect functional consultants to see renewed emphasis on these "add-on" Business Suite areas as SAP pushes them as the logical extension of the enterprise core. However, we should note that some of these products have now been incorporated back into the core release -- BW into NetWeaver being a prime example -- so we'll have to keep an eye on how SAP handles its mySAP products going forward. Lately, SAP does seem to be cannibalizing its add-ons in order to provide more value and integration to the core.