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Recently I had the chance to talk with ASUG CEO Steve Strout about ASUG EDGE, ASUG’s new searchable online directory of SAP consultants and consulting firms. With its new ASUG EDGE offering, ASUG is hoping to have an impact on how SAP skills are sourced and evaluated.

In this special blog entry, I’m going to share what I learned from Steve about ASUG EDGE. I will also offering my own preliminary take on how I think ASUG EDGE might impact SAP staffing, and the pros and cons of this service as I see it so far.

A few key facts about ASUG EDGE to keep in mind: this is not a free service that anyone can access. ASUG EDGE is a paid, subscription-based service that charges an annual fee for access. SAP customers that are already members of ASUG get a discounted annual rate for ASUG EDGE access. If you’re not an SAP end customer, you can get access to ASUG EDGE by becoming an ASUG member. (By the way, if you’re not crazy about how often I’m capitalizing EDGE, neither am I, but since ASUG formally capitalizes the entire product name for some reason, I’m sticking to their format).

There are actually four types of ASUG EDGE subscription types, which allow everyone from SAP customers to individual consultants to get access to ASUG EDGE. To the best of my understanding, the pricing is $995 annually for ASUG members who are SAP customers. The same price applies to ASUG Associate members. Non-ASUG members who are SAP customers get annual access for $1495, and non-member SAP Solution providers can get a 30 day limited trial and then must become ASUG members to get the annual subscription access. You can check this link out for more pricing info, but you do have to fill out some information to get the pricing details that are appropriate for you.

When you think about the potential impact ASUG EDGE can have on the market, I it’s much more than the convenience of being able to search for SAP consultants based on release number, industry, or solution expertise. It’s the consultant ratings system that is central to the ASUG EDGE design. All the consulting firms (and individual consultants) that are registered with ASUG EDGE are formally evaluated and rated by SAP customers.

Those who have access to ASUG EDGE will be able to see how each consultant (or consulting firm) in the system has been assessed by other SAP customers. In fact, and this is a very important point, there is no way to get into the ASUG EDGE database except by being evaluated by SAP customers. So, like other ratings-based web sites like Amazon or eBay, there is no way to avoid being rated. If an SAP customer wants to add their perceptions of a particular firm or consultant to ASUG EDGE, they can do so, and the firm in question can’t do a thing about it. As Strout put it to me, “The intent was to not allow a company to opt out. Rather, it is the opportunity for a member to actually be pro-active and say ‘Yes, I used this company,’ and ‘Yes, I used this particular consultant,’ and ‘Here’s what I liked and here’s the rating I would give them.”

Those who use ASUG EDGE will not have to pay ASUG any transaction-fees for consultants they hire through the system. The only fee is the annual subscription fee; once you find a consultant you are interesting in hiring, you contact that firm or consultant and work out the rate details with them directly. ASUG is not a part of any individual staffing transactions.

As for the question of whether ASUG EDGE can help to address the so-called Is There Really an SAP Skills Shortage? I think it’s too early to say. On the surface, ASUG EDGE seems more about validating the existing SAP staffing market than beefing it up. After all, ASUG EDGE won’t be adding any new consultants to the marketplace. On the other hand, it’s very important to be able to hire the most capable SAP talent for your project.

It’s not easy to evaluate SAP consultants based solely on their resumes, and we’ve all heard stories of SAP consultants who ace their interviews but don’t perform so well once they get to the project site. There should be a name for people who specialize in charming their way through interviews but can’t roll up their sleeves once they get the job. What we do know is such people are a nightmare for hiring managers everywhere. Another point that Steve Strout made is that ASUG EDGE could be a huge help when companies are looking for rare niche skills. Its powerful screening system should be a good option for those hard-to-find SAP skill sets.

This kind of community ratings system, while subjective, could be a real asset to SAP hiring managers. ASUG EDGE represents an automated way of sharing recommendations that historically have been limited to word of mouth. If ASUG EDGE catches on, it could truly help SAP projects to make better staffing decisions. This might not necessarily solve the SAP skills shortage, but it would surely add significant value to the SAP staffing process.

You may be wondering if being an early subscriber means waiting till the system reaches critical mass. I was impressed to learn from Steve Strout that 400 service providers had already been evaluated by ASUG Edge, with more being added every day. One of the cool things about ASUG EDGE is that it presents a great opportunity for SAP customers to “reward” those firms that do quality work on their projects. And for subscribers who have access to the system, you can actually contact the company who submitted the review of a particular service provider.

ASUG EDGE has figured out how to do this while protecting the anonymity of those who submit the reviews. This has the potential to enhance accountability on all sides. Those who enter reviews know they are accountable to follow up inquiries, and those who are being reviewed know that they are facing another level of scrutiny that can either be an asset or a liability, depending on how they perform.

Steve told me that all firms being evaluated by ASUG Edge receive a letter grade, somewhere from A to F. Grades below C are not listed on a firm’s review. Those D and F grades ARE taken into account in the cumulative score for a firm, however. As I told Steve, the system they have put into place should help create a forum to share honest staffing experiences while discouraging people from taking potshots or settling scores. Steve responded: “That is one of the things we definitely wanted to take into account. We didn’t want a place where it’s ‘gee, let’s just bash somebody.’ Let’s make sure that it’s fair, honest, and accurate.”

Web sites that provide community ratings can be very powerful, but there are problems as well. For example, in attempt to cut back on brutal feedback wars, eBay has recently taken the major step of not allowing sellers to rate the buyers who in turn rate their transaction. I asked Steve how ASUG EDGE would resolve the inevitable flare ups over negative ratings that will occur, and what a firm that received a negative review that they felt was unfair could do about it. “We will communicate the fact to an associate member or to a vendor that they have somebody that scored them that low and allow them to provide their back end of the story,” said Strout. “We’ll take that into account, potentially get the two together and find out what is real. If it’s just a shouting match, then we don’t want to get in the middle of it, and we don’t want to post it on our site.” ASUG Edge may face some challenges with this kind of mediation, but they are certainly going into it with their eyes open.

I also asked Steve if they have identified any common factors that lead to a rating of “A” within ASUG EDGE. Obviously receiving plenty of “A” ratings within ASUG EDGE is going to be a coveted thing to obtain. Everyone will be interested to know if there are common ingredients for staffing success to aspire to. Steve saidthat this data has not been aggregated yet, but he told me that he was hopeful to pull such information together down the line.

ASUG EDGE has been officially out of beta and available for online use since July 1, so if you’re interested, you can go to the site now and learn more. As for how SAP AG feels about ASUG EDGE, from the quotes I have seen to date, ASUG EDGE seems to have SAP’s full endorsement. Here’s one quote from the ASUG EDGE press announcement: “Building a network within the SAP ecosystem can have far-reaching benefits, which is something ASUG members have known for a long time,” said Edwin B. Lange, executive vice president and chief customer officer, SAP Americas. “By allowing customers to make critical connections with experts that can save them time and money in the implementation process, EDGE provides a valuable service to the broader SAP community.”

In conclusion, I would like to offer a few thoughts on how I think ASUG Edge will do in the marketplace. My first thought is: ASUG EDGE is here, like it or not. Those who are steadfast in their commitment to quality services should welcome it. For those service providers who are skimming off the SAP market but not adding real value, the introduction of ASUG EDGE is one more nail of accountability in the coffin of SAP service scams that thrived in the mid-90s but are getting much harder to pull off these days.

I have already had a couple of staffing firms ask me about ASUG EDGE. I’d like to share a few excerpts I sent to one SAP Partner that asked for my take on ASUG EDGE:

“This kind of SAP consultant peer review system has been tried by a couple of smaller web sites, but it has mostly been on underfunded sites that have not gained traction. Web 2.0 peer review sites have been a driver for a number of successful businesses, and I expect one of them to take off in the SAP consulting community. There is a strong demand for a ratings system for SAP consultants.

This is reinforced by the understanding that even with the Is SAP Certification Worth the Money?, certification will never tell the whole story when it comes to assessing the relative hands-on value of particular consultants or firms. ASUG Edge has the advantage of being well-funded. However, tying this system into ASUG membership and putting some gates around access will make the challenge of broad acceptance a bit tougher than if it was a completely open system. Of course, if it does not gain broad acceptance, then the ultimate impact of ASUG EDGE will be less than what it could be.”

I do believe, however, that there will be real marketing advantages to those firms and consultants who obtain significant amounts of positive ratings in the early phases of ASUG EDGE. Of course, since individual consultants and firms cannot initiate this process, getting a rating on ASUG Edge is easier said than done. But if you know you’ve done some solid work for an SAP customer, now is a good a to encourage them to put in a good word for you on ASUG EDGE.

From what I can tell, I don’t think ASUG EDGE has a pricing plan yet that will be appealing to individual consultants. Even the most successful independent SAP consultants are going to think twice about paying more than $1,000 a year to have access to this system, unless they are suddenly in a position where they need another searchable source of SAP talent to place some colleagues on a project. If ASUG EDGE wants to get more individuals to join as subscribers, I’d recommend some kind of monthly credit card installment plan. One would hope, if ASUG EDGE is successful, that anyone who is making a positive contribution to SAP services will have an affordable way to get access to the system and help it to grow.

In closing, I would like to thank Steve Strout for taking the time to speak with me about ASUG EDGE. Thanks also to Jim McClure of Tech Image for facilitating the interview.

One of the benefits of the “SAP Ecosystem” is the chance to instantly discuss and refine this kind of breaking news. So along those lines, I’d like to welcome all readers to comment on this story. Perhaps those who are involved with ASUG EDGE or who have access to the system can offer their own experiences or clarifications on what I have written here. I’m sure there is much more to say on ASUG EDGE that I have yet to touch on.

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6 Comments

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  1. Stephen Johannes
    I find asug edge way too much like the classmates.com business model.  In the early phases they are asking the ASUG members to populate the database and then once populated charge those who provided the information.

    The subscription model is actually not going to make people want to use it or contribute.  Honestly ASUG should have provided this as a value added free service to it members and perhaps funded the cost through targeted advertising(ala google).

    The other part is that those resources who are really “good” don’t need an exchange like this to get work.  I’m thinking a group on linkedin could accomplish the same target without the cost.

    Take care,

    Stephen

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  2. Ajay Das
    Not many would like to take the extra effort to go there and put ‘valuable feedback’ (or even tick some checkboxes), unless solicited, cajoled, aggressively requested etc; not to mention having to pay for it.

    You need a critical mass of user base and content to sustain such concepts; EDGE should rather be giving out goodies to early users (ie as opposed to charging them) if it is to have any amount of ‘success’.

    Another way to improvise would be to highlight negative feedback; there may be higher incentives for customers to report real bad experiences (human nature – we would rather complain than complement, this comment being an example:)) than otherwise. And it may provide more bite (or edge), making it imperative for vendors to be seen in good light here.

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  3. Jim Spath
    Jon: thanks for your insightful comments on the ASUG EDGE program. It’s been said that any publicity is good; while you may criticize facets of this service, I’m sure the end result will be better informed consumers.  A few comments from my perspective:
    * I like to think of this as a systematic approach to rating the service marketplace, and draw an analogy to finding a good car mechanic.  What my neighbor says might be useful, but what 100 consumers say is much more valuable. I’ve noticed Amazon product ratings skew to the top and bottom ends; it’s human nature to complain about very bad service and praise very good service. The middle ground is often quiet.
    * The service is fee-based; you should note it is being operated not by the non-profit users group called ASUG, but by a different entity called “ASUG Services, LLC” per the Terms of Use page: http://www.asug.com/PortalId/0/TabId/238/Name/43/Default.aspx
    * My company pays for market opinions by a well-known consulting firm, and I’m sure the contract is over $1,000 per year. I doubt we could get this type of information from them, so if we were interested cost is one weighting factor we would use to decide.  If we had a multi-million dollar SAP project coming up $1K would be feasible, but if we just need someone for a few days, that’s probably not reasonable.  I assume my peers would follow the same logic.
    * Other commentators have criticized this program, but as you say, it’s here, and I say, deal with it. While LinkedIn and other sites provide related information, I would always lean toward having more and not less information to make hiring decisions.  As for “handing out goodies” that seems like a positive approach to keeping a critical mass of useful ratings, especially since firms and staff change over time.
    Jim
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  4. Jon Reed Post author
    Hey folks…thanks for the comments so far. One reason I posted this piece here first was so that we could all benefit from the feedback and impressions of the SDN/BPX community. I hope that the ASUG EDGE folks will find some value in our comments.

    Jim, your ASUG corporate structure clarification is important, thank you. Your experiences as an end user/hiring manager are also vital here, so thanks for sharing those.

    Stephen, your comment on LinkedIn is interesting. I think there are all kinds of ways to validate and refer “trusted” people, and social networking groups like LinkedIn seem like a good option. But, without getting too sidetracked about LinkedIn, I find their group structure rudimentary at best. They seem to have some kind of hangup about keeping the LinkedIn environment focused on one-on-one networking, so they launch things like groups but with very few collaborative features. I do think that there is a level of infrastructure and investment needed to manage the process of rating and evaluating SAP consultants and consulting firms. There is big money at stake here and also liability issues involved in giving powerful firms negative ratings. Whoever succeeds in becoming the defacto SAP consulting firms ratings site, I believe, will need to be dedicated to doing so. Not that social networking groups like LinkedIn don’t have many valuable and related uses.

    Finally, to both Stephen and Ajay, whenever I write a piece, a couple days later I can usually think of a few things I would have changed or emphasized differently. I’m glad you emphasized the point about open versus closed systems on the Internet. The lesson of the Internet does seem to be that opening systems up and worrying about monetizing later, while not a foolproof approach, is much more effective in general than monetizing right off the bat – especially in systems that require community participation. But, ASUG has its reasons for its approach and who knows, there may be ways of altering the course of that approach if enough informed feedback is offered. In the meantime, I will keep an open mind and see how this plays out.
    Keep the comments coming!

    – Jon Reed –

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  5. Nathan Genez
    I participated in some of the market research calls with ASUG on this and I’m not supportive of what they’ve rolled out.

    As a consultant I’m certainly in favor of any service that tries to rate my competition and provides more visibility into the seniority that I (and my practice) provide.  But I’m not confident in the accuracy or validity by which the ratings of consultants/PSOs will be made using this tool.  Consider that some customers are so limited in their consulting budgets that when they have an issue that needs to be outsourced, their margin for non-delivery is zero…  they absolutely have to get a solution out of the limited time that they have that particular resource.  The ASUG EDGE service would be valuable to them in this situation but it places even greater importance on the accuracy of the rating and opinions that are recorded.  After all, we’re not rating the purchase of a second-hand DVD player.  Does EDGE really support this critical line of staffing?

    For myself I tend to do a lot of high-end spot work where there are not always readily available solutions.  In situations like that it is next to impossible to be 100% successful 100% of the time.  No one bats 1.000.  But with the complexity and (potential) emotional intensity of ‘clean up’ work like that, it’s possible for the customer to be less than pleased with the service rendered.  We all know what a bear SAP can be in situations like this.  I won’t shy from that line of work but I certainly won’t support a db that tries to rate me from 1 star to 5 without factoring in the complexity of the job or a way for me to contest it.

    -nathan

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    1. Jon Reed Post author
      Hi Nathan. Thanks for your comment. As you know I always like to hear your perspective on the SAP market, there is always something worthwhile there when it comes to your take.

      I found your comments on this topic interesting because I was left wondering if you had other criticisms of the ASUG EDGE system you did not mention. Your main objection seems to be the ratings system, and that it might not take into account the project challenges you take on, but what if you get a bunch of super-positive ratings in ASUG EDGE? Then, wouldn’t your main objection to the system sort of go away?

      It seems like you are assuming that the ratings won’t take into account the complexity of what you do, but if those ratings do take that into account, and you get positive ratings in EDGE, I wonder if you’ll have other concerns about the system or if you’ll be more inclined to support it?

      I’m not trying to criticize your viewpoint here, I am honestly just exploring your argument a bit further.

      I think it’s also interesting when you talk about not supporting ASUG EDGE. The tricky thing about ASUG EDGE is that consultants have the potential to get rated in the system whether or not they support ASUG EDGE or even know about it. And, to be fair, they do have a mediation process in place for ratings perceived to be unfair by the consultant or firm. Now, that mediation process may turn out to be unsatisfactory, I don’t know, but it is there.

      Anyhow, I can certainly understand your concerns about the system and perhaps you are right that your work will not be assessed properly within EDGE. I was just trying to better understand your position. 🙂

      Feel free to respond to me privately if this is more of an off the record discussion at this point.

      Jon

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