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Beyond the resumes: What to look for in a SAP implementation partner

It's important to look beyond technical expertise and consider cultural factors when choosing a systems administrator, according to experts.

Many organizations considering SAP implementation projects have heard horror stories about implementations gone wrong. These tales often share the same plot -- a company brings in the wrong SAP systems integrator and the project goes off the rails.

A good systems integrator will adapt to your style.

Susan Tan,
Gartner Inc.

A successful project hinges on the cultural fit between the SAP systems integrator and company that hires them. That's why experts advise evaluating the "soft" skills of integrators before signing on the dotted line.

Soft skills cover everything outside of the realm of the technology and include, for example, the integrator's working style, culture and overall approach to interacting with customers. Most companies primarily assess the integrator's experience and technical know-how, leaving cultural fit as an afterthought.

But cultural fit can mean the difference between success and failure, and companies should approach hiring a systems integrator as they would approach hiring a new employee, according to Susan Tan, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm Gartner Inc.

"When you hire your own employee, you hire both for capabilities as well as cultural fit," Tan said.

No matter their capabilities, integration consultants who clash with the company's culture may make business users feel that the systems integrator doesn't understand their objectives. Those users might end up resisting the program and that can lead to failure, according to Tan.

At the same time, businesses need to choose an integrator that can impose the kind of discipline needed to finish projects, Tan added.

"A good systems integrator will adapt to your style," she said.

Choose the right integrator working style

Systems integrators have three main work styles, according to Tan. The first is an order taker, someone who expects the company to drive the project. The second style is more rigid. With this approach, the integrator employs a strict methodology and expects the customer company to fall in line.

"Those are the two extremes," Tan said. "In the middle, you have a more collaborative working style where the systems integrator brings the approach and methodology but also blends with how the client wants to work."

Tan notes that even if the company's culture is collegial and collaborative, a systems integrator with a more rigid approach may be needed, particularly if the SAP implementation will unify several departments within the business.

"A collaborative approach may not be the best way [if] you want to impose some discipline into the project," she said.

Assess the integrator's industry knowledge

After examining working styles, companies should look at some of the other cultural factors that can help organizations build a good working relationship with a systems integrator.

For one thing, it's a good idea for companies serving a particular industry to assess just how much the integrator knows about that industry, according to Eric Kimberling, president of Panorama Consulting Solutions, a Denver-based firm that helps organizations select and implement ERP systems. A manufacturing company, for instance, should select a systems integrator that is familiar with manufacturing processes.

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"Do they just understand the soft parts of being in that industry?" Kimberling asked.

In one example, Kimberling pointed out that manufacturing and engineering companies tend to prefer hard numbers over abstract progress reports. When working with companies like that, the integrator "has to work hard to [deliver] change management in a way that is practical, tangible, hands-on and results-oriented," he said.

Personality goes a long way

It's also a good idea to examine the personalities that make up the system integrator's team, according to Kimberling.

For example, some systems integrators hire consultants that have just graduated college and this can lead to clashes when these well-trained but inexperienced workers collaborate with executives who have 30 years or more of industry experience.

"It's not that you never want a 22-year-old consultant working with a 60-year-old vice president, but bringing in young, inexperienced consultants can create a lot of tension," he said.

Kimberling advises companies to find a systems integrator that has achieved a balance between seasoned consultants and younger consultants that have a fresh perspective. During the selection process, he added, companies should always remember to meet the team that will be working on their account.

"It's not just looking at the resumes or bios of the consultants but getting that comfort factor," he said, "that gut [feeling] that this is someone I could spend the next one to three years working day to day with in the battlefield."

Consider the offshore factor and governance

Organizations should also remember to consider the amount of work that SAP systems integrators do in faraway or offshore locations, said Liz Herbert, a principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, Inc. Some integrators perform very well with work done offshore, Herbert said, so companies shouldn't immediately consider offshoring a disqualification.

"For example, requirements gathering tends to need a lot of on-site work, versus development and testing, which can usually benefit from much more of an offshore mix," she said.

The process of building a successful relationship with an SAP systems integrator should also include taking time to define how the partnership will be governed. That means clearly defining the frequency of meetings, who the key attendees will be and the purpose of any planned meetings. Herbert said rules related to the governance of the partnership are often clearly defined in the final contact between the two parties.

Companies that are extremely particular about the personalities they want to work with can also specify in the contracts who they want on the systems integration team, added Cindy Jutras, president of Mint Jutras, a New Hampshire-based consulting and research firm that concentrates on enterprise applications.

"Some of the systems integrators often times will resist that because they want to have full control over where they have their people placed," she said. However, companies can still include a "right of refusal" in the contract to give themselves additional leverage.

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