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Tech skills not enough with SAP implementation partners, expert says

Finding an SAP implementation partner with expertise is only part of the equation, according to one Gartner analyst. Fitting with a company’s culture is just as critical.

Software implementation projects are just as likely to fail when there’s no cultural fit between the client and the SAP implementation provider as they are when the provider doesn't have the right technical expertise, according to one industry observer.

“For all the talk of assets and methodologies and frameworks, in the end, it’s a people business,” said Susan Tan, an analyst with Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.

Once a business has gone through a formal selection process and narrowed its choices down to a few providers, largely on the basis of technical know-how, it typically considers the providers equal when it comes to implementing the software.

But the business is never sure which of the finalists will better be able to work with its organization to ensure a smooth program delivery, according to Tan. She has developed eight criteria companies can use to evaluate providers on those “soft issues,” such as customers service, work style and communication issues, among others.  

Those skills are especially important when dealing with larger deployments, such as those involving SAP applications, she said.

“SAP projects are typically fairly long, very complex and have a lot of stakeholders involved,” Tan added.  “So having that chemistry with a provider that can work with the internal team is a very important factor.” 

Unfortunately, many companies don’t know how to evaluate implementation service providers when it comes to finding one that’s going to fit with the company and its culture. Sometimes they just overlook those issues entirely, according to Tan.

Picking implementation providers that will mesh with a company’s existing culture and SAP implementation plan rings true to one supply and demand planner with a Texas-based metals company, who asked not to be named.

“Technical experience, that’s kind of like cover charge, the price of admission,” he said. “What comes next is just as important. How capable are they going to be determining what your technical needs are once they get in there? That’s all communication-related.”

While the company has used IBM for its bigger deployments -- ranging from its SAP ERP to its supply chain systems -- it opted for using a smaller, niche implementation provider when it came to changes to its SAP Global Available-to-Promise (GATP) application. The planner said his company chose the MySupplyChainGroup (MSCG) based in Birmingham, Ala., close to where his company has a branch office. MSCG is also an SAP partner.

MSCG was chosen for a number of reasons, namely because its consultants possessed the right combination of communication and niche technical skills, he said.

During the selection process, the metals company held a series of meetings in Alabama and at its headquarters in Texas to talk about a range of technical and business process issues.

“The ability to translate that technical expertise and explain it to our business users and our IT support staff and get everyone on the same page is a really big component of the cultural piece,” the planner said.

Tan’s test for SAP implementation partners
To ensure they end up with an SAP implementation provider that matches their culture as well as their technical needs, Tan suggests that businesses do the following:

  • Make sure they are in the provider’s sweet spot: A large provider may have all the capabilities to help deliver its IT program, but if it’s a $100 million company with a $1 million implementation budget, chances are -- with some exceptions -- it will not be on the top of the list of clients a large IT service provider is going to invest in. It’s better to look for a provider that targets small and midsize companies.
  • Watch how the provider’s account team behaves during the proposal stage. If the team isn’t focusing all of their attention on the prospective client, it probably won’t improve during the delivery once the contract is in hand.
  • Grill the consultants: Companies should interview key consulting team members as though they are considering hiring them for an internal position, requesting their biographies, which should include their experience, training and certifications. Ask tough questions that separate the “smooth talkers” from the true experts. 
  • Look for chemistry: The company’s internal team should spend time with the consulting team and consider how comfortable they felt with the consultants, how well how well the consultants communicated and listened, and whether there were any personality conflicts. 
  • Think about compatible work styles: Clients should ask the consultants about their decision-making processes and watch how junior consulting team members behave around their superiors to get a sense of whether their style is authoritarian and hierarchical or collaborative and collegial. “Determine what type of work style fits best with your organization and the project needs. Good service providers adapt their work style to their client's culture and the needs of the project,” Tan said.
  • Look for honesty: Businesses should remember that salespeople will focus on the strengths of their offerings and will often tell prospective clients what they want to hear. They should look for an IT services provider that is honest and open about its software, discussing risks and potential concerns. A good IT service provider should also challenge the client’s assumptions if appropriate and come up with suggestions for improvement.
  • Pick a consultant:Companies should name the consultant or consultants they want on the project to prevent a bait-and-switch routine. If the provider hesitates, it’s a red flag, according to Tan. “Maintain right of refusal of any consultant assigned to the project and replacement of lost resources with an equivalent or higher-qualified resource, subject to your approval,” Tan said.
  • Be thorough when it comes to references: When checking the SAP implementation provider's references, businesses should ask about the provider’s work style, its proactiveness and ability to go the extra mile. While references that the implementation partners offer are -- by definition -- happy clients, a little more pointed digging will usually uncover any challenges or weaknesses or work style issues; for example. Companies should also interview client references that have day-to-day interaction with the SAP implementation partner rather than executive sponsors who may have good relationships with senior members of the implementation partner but no true knowledge of their work style or capabilities, Tan said.


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