Creating a Workforce Educational Program for SAP
As discussed in my previous entries, I have presented four key change characteristics that must be considered for a SAP program to be successful in a client company. Remember that this construct is an arbitrary one, designed to talk about the relationships between the quadrants and business performance. They are:
1) Business Process Design
2) Cultural Barriers and Enablers
3) Dynamics of IT Strategy
4) Workforce Education
I have discussed the need to engage in an educational program throughout a working lifetime in order to continue to learn about both the SAP systems that are being used, and also about the business processes that determine your business results. In this article, I am going to address what is needed in an enterprise, in training and education, in order to allow the business to make the most effective use of this extraordinarily expensive and powerful asset. I will talk about:
1) Transactional Training
2) Functional or Technical Training
3) Business Education in an ERP World
Although this training seems intuitively obvious, in real-life execution it can be anything but. I have twice been involved in remediation activities at companies who were close to having to shut down because of inadequate or complete lack of initial training. In both cases, the consulting organizations responsible recommended a training approach for the workforce that was deemed “too expensive” and consequently initial training was nothing more than “point and click” – and in both cases, the costs for that decision were nearly tragic. As ERP business processes are designed and configured, there are many decisions that have to be made, on the business process, on organizational levels and on how the required information is going to be collected. This latter level requires that individual fields on input screens be defined, the data being either required or optional, and how the fields are populated has to be determined. As well, the design decisions reflect how these transactions will affect how the business is intended to operate, as well as the results planned.
As a simple example, in a Standard Cost system, the standard cost is determined and entered into a master data file and then the cost on the line item level of the purchase order is automatically entered by the program. For non-standard items (non-inventory, for example) there are options on how this is done and reflects a business rule decided on by the company. As each transaction is designed, information around how the transaction works is collected at the screen field level and it is important that this information become part of an educational program for the people eventually assigned responsibility for this data collection. You can imagine that in many organizations this knowledge is passed on “word of mouth” or “on the job training” by incumbents. This may work well in a business environment where work is assigned at this job level (probably doesn’t, but giving the benefit of the doubt), but doesn’t work well in an integrated ERP environment, where the more individual workers understand, the better the performance of the system. Additionally, there is always turnover or expansion and formal plans for on-going education becomes critical.
Another aspect is that nothing in the world we live in is static and it is unreasonable to expect that our business world will be any different. The SAP system will have to evolve to keep up as a business changes. An example is where one of the sales personnel signs an agreement to provide a consigned stock inventory location at the customer’s location. Obviously the SAP system will have to be changed to accomodate this, and depending upon business rules could involve the use of new plant codes, inventory locations, stock types, goods movement types and more. If these changes are not incorporated into the documentation that is used for training purposes, the new or transferred employees will not have access to “as built” records for the systems they will be using and slowly knowledge of how these systems operate will decline.
Functional or Technical Training
Beyond the transactional level, each functional area within the company needs to have expertise in how their whole department operates and what the potential associated with different processes might be so that business issues that arise can be analyzed and reasonable cross-functional business process changes can be proposed, reviewed and agreed to. In order to do this, an organization needs to ensure that there is sufficient functional knowledge either within the department itself, or within the IT support function for those departments to understand potential solutions. These resources can then engage across functional boundaries to other stakeholders. If this is not done and kept up, reasonably simple business problems can quickly escalate into blaming the SAP system for preventing the resolution of issues, rather than seeing it as a powerful tool to support change. Typically, functional project team members are selected to attend one or more additional functional training courses (Level 2 and 3) at SAP academies or through on-site programs that can be tailored to the individual enterprise if there are sufficient student candidates. The problem with the last approach is that you want your super-users or experts to know more about the available functionality than just what you have done. This is to prepare them for future development needs. I have found that the broader knowledge set that is designed into standard SAP academy courses is valuable to create the knowledge of potential in functional experts. Of course, the enthusiasm for “new” things needs to be managed by the permanent governance process that will be the subject of later articles.
Additionally, this skill set should be one of continuing education, both through SAP Training, and also through participation in various industry councils like ASUG and others, where different approaches are discussed. Just like seminars designed to increase employee knowledge of functional areas, or company programs that are part of continuing education, constantly improving SAP knowledge is critical to an organization moving toward a true learning environment.
Business Education in an ERP World
So, I have covered the most obvious training and education needs, but perhaps the most important (for long term business health) is typically not even considered. As cross functional business processes have been developed over the past 50 years or more, knowledge of how they all worked were first held in the hands of a trusted few, later disseminated to a few more and eventually were communicated to much larger constituency groups, but always within artificial boundaries. This is true of such programs as MRP (I and II) and Project Management. In both cases, certification programs were developed by industry groups such as APICS and PMI and large numbers of people were encouraged to take the educational programs and become certified – in fact, a much larger number than ever became practitioners of the particular skill sets. Understanding these concepts and how they applied to business design and execution became components of on-going individual learning programs to develop advanced skill sets. ERP programs tend to be much broader than either of the above and have progressed slowly as part of general educational awareness in industry, however, the time to address these needs becomes more apparent every day, as businesses get past managing SAP as a cost center and administrative tool, and start to look at SAP as an effective tool to drive business results.
The ability to envision how this works, however, is in most cases much more complex than just an IT process, and must be incorporated in the educational programs that work on continually improving overall workforce readiness. In order to truly derive business benefits from SAP investments, an enterprise will have to undertake a program to reverse this pattern, and provide opportunities to continually gain a deeper and deeper understanding of the potential available through the use of SAP (not to compete with the IT department, but to help in understanding how the business operates and why). The program that SAP has developed to addess this need is the TERP 10 certification program. Essentially, this program defines all of the business processes that exist in SAP ERP and provides a great cross-functional view of how and why SAP determines to a great degree how business benefits are derived. Additionally, there are University level programs that include TERP 10 and a variety of other courses that can help with this learning. Central Michigan University, for example, has developed and delivers a SAP curriculum as a concentration in the MBA program and separately just the SAP courses as a SAP Graduate Certificate. These, and other programs, can be included in individual learning plans developed to promote personal growth, and other Universities should be encouraged to produce under and post-graduate courses and programs to address this also. This is a true educational need, and not pure skills training. It is more along the lines of why we study business strategy in MBA programs and deserves to be approached with the same academic rigor as those subject areas.
In summary, transition to an ERP environment involves more than just work process decisions and technical configurations. It also requires an organization to take a broader, longer term and more detailed look at how to create a permanent program to promote the development of a true learning environment. This needs to be detailed at the transaction level, functional knowledge based at the expert level and must include the use of higher education to continue to increase the understanding of business leaders, from managers to executives (including those who aspire to be part of this group). Initially, participation in TERP 10 training (possibly to include certification simply as confirmation of achieving the goals) can be a very good start to the development of a cadre of individuals in the organization who can now discuss business performance issues in terms of the underlying support systems. This role no longer will need to be deferred to the technical teams, but provides the opportunity to create true business partnerships between business and IT. After initial cross-functional business process training, continued entrenchment of this understanding can be pursued through the support of individual University programs. Just like the introduction of other technologies and approaches over the years, achieving a true understanding of how to harness the power of ERP systems to gain the maximum benefits requires a lifetime commitment to organizational and personal education programs.