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How is the SAP Functional Skill Set Changing?

Hey BPX folks! It’s great to have a chance to contribute my first blog entry to the SAP BPX community. I will be doing some work with the BPX community this year, including some podcasts with BPX community leaders. I already did a podcast with Marco ten Vaanholt, Global Director of the BPX Community, which you can find here (posting date: Jan.11).

On my web site,, I do both blogging and podcasting on SAP skills trends. keeps me pretty busy, but from time to time, I’m going to try to post relevant blog entries here, especially those that pertain to the emergence of the SAP Business Process Expert skill set.

Recently, I posted a piece on the evolution of the SAP functional skills. This post was based on some highlights from an ASUG-sponsored webcast BPX Director Marco ten Vaanholt did on the Role of the Business Process Expert. What I tried to do was to identify the key components of the BPE skill set, and share my take on the importance of each one.

This piece has already generated some interesting comments, both from SAP consultant Nathan Genez. Nathan is skeptical about some of the hype around BPM tools, and he also has some comments to share on the global outsourcing of functional skill sets.

So, what follows is my initial writeup on the SAP functional skill set of the future, and then I’ll share the follow up comments from Nathan and myself. Perhaps we can get a dialogue going on this blog page also – I look forward to hearing your take.

As we enter the “SAP eSOA era,” one thing is certain: the SAP functional skill set is changing. What we don’t know is how soon these changes are going to happen. We also don’t know for certain is what the “functional consultant of the future” will look like. One thing, however, is clear: consultants are going to need to bring more to the table that just configuration skills. Increasingly, companies want consultants who can add a deeper value to their implementation beyond the customization of SAP tables.

One of the main goals of the rapidly growing SAP BPX community is to collectively define the functional skill set of the future, and to help SAP professionals of all flavors become “Business Process Experts.” We are still early in the process of mapping out these new skills. In this blog entry, I’ll give my best shot at spelling out the key components of the Business Process Expert (BPE) skill set.

In August of 2007, Marco ten Vaanholt was part of an ASUG-sponsored webcast on the evolving role of the business process expert. There were more than 600 people on the webcast, which gives some indication of the urgency SAP customers and consultants are feeling about getting a handle on this new skill set. During this webcast, I picked up on six distinct areas of the “BPE skill set of the future”:

1. End-to-end business process know-how (as opposed to “silo” functional knowledge in just one area). In this respect, consultants need to mirror the evolution of SAP as a whole. SAP is positioning itself as a “Business Process Platform,” rather than a transaction-driven system. To achieve this vision, SAP will need consultants who can see beyond specific chunks of configurable functionality to know how the pieces fit together. In this kind of approach, understanding an entire business scenario, like order-to-cash, is much more valuable than just knowing how to configure a sales order. This is the image of “consultant as advisor” over “consultant as table configurator.”

2. Business Process Management (BPM) tool expertise. SAP has been honing and releasing a range of modeling and BPM tools. Some of these tools involve technical knowledge; others are specifically designed to pull business users into the modeling process without requiring deep technical expertise. Up to this point, the best-developed of these tools were the domain of the “SAP techies,” but this is going to change. I would expect to see some big announcements along these lines at the big SAP conferences of the spring and fall. I’m not going to make a huge list of these BPM tools here, but here’s a link of some of the tools that may be relevant. You can see more of them in my “SAP Skills You Want to Have” article on From Visual Composer to Aris for NetWeaver (now called SAP Enterprise Modeler), from Guided Procedures to Intellicorp’s Live Model, there are plenty of tools that are worth getting a handle on sooner rather than later.

3. Soft Skills – “Soft skills” can be a maddening phrase because it’s hard to define exactly what it means. To some, “soft skills” simply means the ability to talk in complete sentences. I like to think of “soft skills” as encompassing a range of interpersonal abilities, in particular the ability to move from the project team to the boardroom and communicate the needs of the project to a wide range of audiences, understanding the agendas of each and being able to explain how your role fits into the overall project mission. As Marco ten Vaanholt puts it, soft skills are about having the savvy to be a “marriage counselor” between IT and the business user community.

You could also describe “soft skills” as the ability to be a customer-facing SAP professional who understands business strategy (as opposed to a “cubicle coder.”). Anyone who can function in an “outward-facing” role these days, working either with customers or suppliers, has more job security – period.

4. Industry knowledge – SAP professionals need to cultivate more of an industry focus, as opposed to the typical jumping around from project to project across many industries. This is not just a hypothetical – staffing managers from many different firms have told me that SAP customers are becoming increasingly insistent that the SAP consultants on their project understand their particular industry. Ray Kelly, Vice President – B2B Workforce Solutions Center and a seasoned SAP staffing professional, recently said, “Learn a specific industry. The time has long passed when a consumer goods client will accept an FI/CO consultant who only worked on manufacturing clients. Restructure your resume to show specific industry experience gained. Our clients are consistently asking us to not only align the SAP function, but to bring industry-skilled resources to bear.”

5. Web 2.0 skills – Web 2.0 skills are hot – if only we could define what they are. In the SAP context, I like to think of Web 2.0 skills as the ability to harness the power of user communities and collaborative tools to solve business problems. When you think about SAP’s venture into Web 2.0, you think first of its SDN and BPX communities – some of the best developed software user communities on the web today. But in terms of SAP’s own product, SAP has yet to unveil a robust Web 2.0 platform that is fully integrated with ERP 6.0. But if we know anything about SAP, we can be confident that such tools are coming sooner rather than later. In the meantime, anything that SAP professionals can learn about how Web 2.0 tools can be leveraged in a corporate setting is time well spent.

In particular, I think it’s important to learn about how participatory tools like wikis can support knowledge transfer and project communication. But it’s also crucial to get a handle on how all this unstructured information can be monitored, and, if needed, incorporated back into a business intelligence structure. For example, if several employees on an Intranet wiki are problem solving about a particular customer account, how do the follow ups from that conversation get pulled back into a CRM program or onto a salesperson’s daily task list pulled from the same? The consultants who are innovators in leveraging Web 2.0 for profitability are going to be in demand inside and outside of SAP.

6. SAP product knowledge – last but not least, we can’t forget about traditional SAP product knowledge, along with a good understanding of the underlying NetWeaver architecture and the delivery of future upgrades via “enhancement packages.” For now, this product knowledge still centers on configuration know-how, at least for functional consultants – though the best functional consultants understand the entire SAP implementation lifecycle, including blueprinting, training, and testing. Keep in mind that it’s not enough to know your stuff, you also have to know how to leave your team smarter than how you found it. The “wank word” for that is knowledge transfer, and it’s one more important skill to have. But as broad as the SAP consultant’s knowledge needs to be, it also has to have depth. It’s hard to succeed in SAP consulting without a depth of specialization.

Clearly, you could write a whole series of articles on becoming an SAP BPE. In closing, a couple quick observations: for most of the ‘90s, all you needed to rake in some great SAP rates was number six, SAP product knowledge. And within number six, the main thing you needed was hardcore configuration skills.

Obviously configuration is still an important part of the SAP skill set – how could it not be? But a more balanced consulting skill set is now in order. And when you look at this BPE list above, note that all six of these skills can be developed via free online resources, and that’s not even considering the various SAP training programs and advanced degrees that are out there to supplement the self-education options. Because so many of these resources are available online, those who find themselves lagging behind will have to look in the mirror first.

One final comment: when we talk about this next-generation consultant profile, one answer I get in return goes something like this: “Jon, this is an old story. The best SAP consultants have had this type of skills approach since the mid-90s.”

To a point, I agree with this feedback. The top tier of SAP consultants has always been reserved for folks who had this type of well-rounded skill set. But there are two things that have changed: one is that SAP customers are expecting (and often demanding) more than ever before. It used to be that the exceptional consultants did very well and the average consultants did almost as well in SAP. I expect that to shift. It’s not a matter of getting paid more, it’s a matter of being the one who lands the assignment.

Another difference is that the tools are finally catching up with the skill set. True, the best SAP consultants always made an effort to stay ahead of the curve, but this is the point in the market where the Web 2.0 and SOA tools have reached a maturity level to make the “Business Process Expert” skill set relevant to the technologies that are now available. As the SAP product continues to shift into a more adaptable, flexible framework, those consultants who have acquired the BPE skills that match where SAP is headed are going to be well-positioned in the SAP market for years to come.

So that was my initial entry. Soon after I posted it, Nathan Genez, Managing Partner of Serio Consulting, posted the following comment on the blog entry:

“Jon, In regards to 2 and BPX skillset, I remain skeptical but hope that it materializes. I think this is yet another skillset that has been prevalent in the industry from both the IT and business oriented communities so I’m not sure what SAP is truly creating or empowering. If the tools take root, they’ll truly enable a business user to develop value added tools in a timely manner… that would be great for any consultant in this area. But it seems like Visual Composer still requires a significant amount of either development skills, or in the case of a simple dashboard, knowledge of the underlying BW information model.” 

– nathan –

I think Nathan’s skepticism about the emerging collection of BPM tools is common amongst many SAP consultants. Here’s what I said in response to his comment: “Nathan, I have no quarrel with some skepticism about how the BPM type tools might impact the functional skill set. For SAP consultants, some healthy skepticism regarding almost any new set of SAP tools that is billed as “market changing” is warranted. Certainly modeling tools are already have an impact on the development side of SAP shops, there is no real debate about that anymore. The question is: how much will these tools become a required part of the functional skill set?

No one can say for sure. But, I certainly see the benefit in functional consultants learning what they can about these kinds of modeling tools and in that way staying ahead of the curve. Much of this can be done on your own time so I can’t really see the downside to developing some familiarity with the different modeling tools and approaches. I personally think that these tools will have an impact on the functional skill set over time, but I see it playing out over years, not months.

What I try to do on this web site is to talk about what’s hot now and also give a window into the future. Future predictions always have to be treated with some skepticism. Thanks for the comment.”

– Jon Reed –

After I posted this comment, I had a chance to think a little further about my original blog entry. I realized there was one more important issue in terms of the functional skill set that I hadn’t covered: the globalization of the SAP labor pool. So, I added the following comment:

“I wanted to make one more comment about why I think this Business Process Expert skill set is important to on-site SAP consultants. We are starting to see more outsourcing of core functional SAP tasks than ever before. It is happening gradually, and there are still cultural and security issues to overcome in some cases.

As it becomes more viable for companies to consider a global labor pool for core functional tasks like configuration, it makes it more important for those consultants who want to keep their work on site to deliver a new value proposition to the client. Yes, the best consultants have been doing just that for years. But in today’s market, becoming a well rounded BPE is more of a savvy choice than ever, and the global SAP labor pool is one more key factor influencing these trends. You could think of this skills list above as not only a great way to become a BPE, but to keep your skills relevant to on-site SAP projects.”

– Jon Reed –

Nathan had another response that I thought was insightful:

“Jon, I agree, and this will most likely require SAP Consultants to actually work as… consultants, and not just as contractors.

True consultants have usually been heavy in the analysis and design of solutions but that hasn’t always been the case in the SAP market. This was due to the significant demand that the SAP market has had since it was first introduced in the US. It’s one thing to analyze a situation and deliver/recommend a solution… but we sometimes had to continue through the process and actually make the decision, implement the solution, support it, upgrade it, etc. As you point out, that type of contract work is progressively being outsourced. Some US-based consultants have naturally viewed that as a threat, but I think it will put even more emphasis on those that can operate in the manner that you are describing. I hope the tools take root and that customers will adopt them in getting more value out of their SAP investments.”

– nathan –

My final comment to Nathan was as follows: “Nathan, I hope many consultants read the comment thread of this piece because what you have said is very, very important and I think you have nailed this as accurately as I have seen it.

I like your distinction between the classic old school heads-down “contractor” and the need to transform into a polished on-site “consultant” in order to stay marketable.
Sometimes I save the word “contractor” for temporary work as an independent and “consultant” for those who work full time for a consulting firm, but I think your distinction may be even more useful at this point so I’ll try to use that going forward on this site.

As you have already pointed out, some of the tools needed to fully complete this transformation are still being unfurled (I expect more announcements along these lines at SAPPHIRE 08), but there’s plenty to do on the skills development side while the tools mature.”

I wanted to share this back-and-forth response with the BPX community because I believe that the definition of the Business Process Expert skill set is something that will arrived at through an ongoing discussion, rather than just one person’s point of view.

If you have comments of your own in response to this entry I’d love to hear them, and I look forward to posting on this topic in the future.

Jon Reed

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  • Hi Jon,
    As I welcome you I would also very much welcome evolving conversation around the impact of web 2.0/enterprise 2.0 on the BPX set.  More about adoption, collaboration, what environments make sense would be a good theme.  Whether or not it is harder to engage the business folks in these online communities, then say, the technologists and if there is a different engagement model, exploring what it is and why.
    I’m also pleased that you’ve had public discussion and healthy debate with one of our outstanding community contributors.  Good opportunity to remind folks of the high level of engagement and quality of content that Nathan Genez has been providing. 
    Again, welcome Jon.  Help make this sphere Business friendly.
  • Thanks Marilyn! 

    I’m glad I finally found the time to get a blog going on BPX and participate more actively in the conversation here. I look forward to hearing from others and helping all of us to anticipate this skill set as it evolves. One thing that really comes out of Nathan’s comments is that there is both a warning and an opportunity here.

    I think too often we get caught up in the “warning” side – like the commoditization and globalization of skills makes it harder to stay employed. But as Nathan points out, there is an opportunity too here: a new kind of SAP or consulting excellence, if you will, that involves a combination of classic consulting skills and a grasp of new Web 2.0 and BPX tools and markets.

    So, I look forward to continuing this conversation on this and future blog postings!

  • I love to get your perspective. I would love to see your feedback on my latest blog entry I wrote on BPX education and certification as well.

    For all of who read John his blog.. you can see the spiderweb diagram he discusses in that blog. You might find that a helpful visualization.

    In the meantime I think we should add one more skill which is business case building and performance measuring… or do you think we should we put this under soft or BPM skills ?


  • Hey Marco!

    You’re right, it’s a good idea to post the “Skills Spiderweb” link, it’s a different way of framing the same skill set we are talking about. I haven’t tried to post a link in the comments section yet, here’s my best attempt.

    Here’s the direct link Marco’s Skills Spiderweb PDF on my site:

    BPX Skills Spiderweb

    Hopefully that link worked!

    And as far as business case building and performance measuring, and whether that should be part of “soft skills” or a separate skill area entirely, that’s an interesting question. I’d like to hear from others on this.

    It seems like “soft skills” currently serves as a kind of umbrella for range of BPX-related skills. It might be helpful to spend some time simply on that portion of the skill set and everything it entails, since “soft skills” can so often be a cliche. And if we were to spell out all the different components of “soft skills” that were most important to becoming a BPE, then we might be able to determine which ones deserve to be broken out into a separate category and which should remain grouped as soft skills.

    Just an idea – I’ll give this some more thought and wait for ideas also.

    I’ll post a comment to your certification entry soon.

    – Jon –

  • Hi Jon,
          Your post has brought a good insight. There is also another side of coin. There were days when the project implementation duration were rightly planned depending upon the complexity and requirement. Now the same level of projecs, it is in vogue to do project in 4 or 6 or max 8 months duration. cutting of time lines are taken as cost cutting tools, what many companies are looking at!!! but the quality of delivery is going down in many cases. In this case either the projects are going for reimplementation or are kept on shelf after use.
    the consultants are sloggings for more than 15 hours a day to complete the deadlines.
    Most of consultants end up just doing repeating the same job from one project to another.

    I feel the think tank in companies should appreciate your view point and come up strategy for work and work force to equip with latest trends.

  • Hello Rajesh.

    I really liked your comment. The reason is because I have a tendency to sometimes write “head in the cloud” posting about the future of SAP skills and meanwhile, on project sites all over the world, as you say, many SAP consultants work their tails off and may not feel like their work is futuristic at all.

    There’s no one right answer to this. You would hope that companies would be more strategic, as you say, in how they approach SAP because they will get more out of SAP that way, and consultants on those projects will experience both a skills enhancement and a better quality of life.

    I look at SAP skills as kind of a two track conversation: one track, the one this post was about, was, “what is the future of certain skills?” The other track, which I think you are alluding to, is “what the reality of project sites now and what skills do I need to land an SAP job today?”

    Both tracks are important to consider. The challenge, of course, it to connect the dots between the two. Hopefully we can do that together on this blog and elsewhere.

    – Jon Reed –