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Tales From the Front Lines – The Tale of Early Obsolescence

Tales from the Front Lines

In addition to my on-going series of articles relating specific business and project needs to the need for continuing SAP Education, Certification and University programs, I am starting, with this article, a series of specific examples drawn from my personal experience that are illustrative of various errors either in projects, within companies working with SAP, or relating to the need to change mindsets and skills.  I will relate each to the kinds of knowledge and skills that were/are necessary to be effective in the SAP business environment.  I am going to call this series “Tales from the Front Lines” and this first article is called “The Tale of Early Obsolescence”.

The Tale of Early Obsolescence

First let me relate my own personal experience with the introduction of technology in business (yes, I am old enough to have had to reinvent myself a couple of times over my 40 year career).  I can remember being exposed to my first “personal computer” in around 1980 (I was working in Chemical Plant Management at the time).  I can remember Donkey Kong and maybe Ms Pacman, but this may have come even later, I am not sure.  The point is that it really wasn’t anything that I could apply to business.  

My first desktop in the workplace was in 1984 when I found an Apple 3 sitting in a back room in the Accounting trailer (expanded office space, but that is another story) covered with dust.  I asked the Accounting Supervisor what it was and why it was there and basically he indicated that they bought it thinking they might use it, but without any commitment to doing it (sounds a little like ERP conversions today at times).  Not surpisingly, there was never time.  It quickly became mine as I learned to use PFS (Personal Filing System), which was a simple form creation, filing, collating and reporting system, as well as Visicalc, an early spreadsheet program, which had come with the computer.  I can remember working through the instruction manuals (yes, I actually read them back then) until I could develop a PFS program to record and report on absenteeism and tardiness (not exactly rocket science, but pretty good at the time), and with this new visibility I was able to get our experience from 10% to less than 1%.  Admittedly, there were other parts to the solution required to manage the organizational change necessary to achieve the results, but this capability allowed me to understand, analyze and fix that problem. 

At yearly budget time, I constructed a simple spreadsheet based upon cascaded “what if” functions (well before look-up tables) that allowed me to reduce the time to estimate a manufacturing budget for the coming year from several days to a couple of hours.  Imagine the value of adopting this new technology and learning how to apply it to solve business problems.  Everytime I see the commercial today that talks about the elder as “he who speaks of floppy disks”, I think back to the early days and in those days I was really working with no education or knowledge of how these could be used – fun days. 

My first desktop computer (on my desk) was in 1985 and, with the help of an admin who was tired of trying to figure out my handwriting, I first learned to use a Word Processor and the next level of spreadsheet.  My first “portable” computer (which was barely portable) was in 1988, first e-mail was “PROFS” in 1989, first Word Processor that I could actually format was Word Perfect with WYSWYG in 1991, and on it went.  During the time from my first exposure to computers as anything but a Friday pile of tractor paper, to the current use of my laptop and iPhone and software programs that allow me to Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, blog, e-mail, track expenses and teach SAP, among others, I have been on a constant and increasingly aggressive program to learn the new stuff, weed out the superfluous, and figure out how to apply what I could learn to operating a business (and yes, my own life along the way). 

The Tale

In 1995, I was engaged in leading a Business Process Re-engineering program for a 14 division Business Group and in the course of the various study/design sessions we were holding, we came to the inevitable conclusion that the legacy IT systems that controlled Procurement, Inventory, Manufacturing Planning and Execution, and Finished Goods Shipping among others were simply inadequate to support the business needs going forward.  At the same time, one of my Divisions was engaged in a project to implement something called “SAP”, which was my first exposure to this application.  Although the 2.2(b) implementation was problematic, the concept of integrated systems to help me drive business process change into the Divisions in order to achieve the intended business benefits, was new and powerful, even though a little ahead of its time for the range of functions that were being implemented.  The Business Group IT staff, as well as the Systems Integrator were working with the Division team to design and implement the program, however, it was difficult to find even a pocket of enthusiasm for either the program or the application.  The implementation, once it went live, also was nearly a disaster, but ultimately worked.

At about the same time, one of my colleagues (out of the sales function – I was out of Operations) was tasked with designing and implementing a new sales end function that today we would call CRM, however, there were few options at the time before SAP or Oracle CRM.  He had chosen a proprietary software development firm to develop this system with him and he spent a lot of time in Boston going over the design, discussing options and testing the new software, which was truly a proprietary program using very cutting-edge technology for the time. 

One morning I was in his office and he was talking about his recent trip to Boston.  He had asked his lead developer to have dinner with him one evening, and the developer (who held two Master’s Degrees in IT from MIT) indicated that he would be unable to join him as he was taking yet another Master’s program and had class that evening.  My friend was incredulous and asked him why he would be engaged in yet another technology program at this level, and his response was that working at the cutting edge of technology, if he stopped taking additional courses he would become obsolete in 6 months.  Now, I have no idea if this was accurate, but my point is the mindset of someone who was at the top end of his profession and recognized the need to continually learn and learn to apply the new discoveries that were coming along at that time. 

This meeting left me thinking about how this applied to all of the rest of the business world and as I went to lunch with my colleague, we ended up sitting with the IT Director and his staff, who were engaged in supporting the SAP project, but who were mostly engaged in conversions, Basis and other technical functions.  As we joined the group, they were having a friendly conversation and the subject was whether or not they would be able to keep their legacy skillsets and remain in leadership positions in the IT industry for the remainder of their careers, which was easily 15 years at best, and in a couple of cases, more like 25.  Their conclusions were that they should wait and see what was going to happen with things like SAP before committing to retraining themselves in the new technologies.  I have always felt that this conversation was happening on two levels – firstly a personal  level, as they each tried to figure out where to go, and secondly as an indication of their employer treating professional education as something to be rationed.  The point, however, is that COBAL demand fell off a cliff after Y2K and there were legions of programmers left scrambling for their next career.  Secondly, they were taking a purely IT practitioner view of the world and failed to consider that the developing needs of their organization were changing and that they needed to change with them in order to remain relevant. 

How does this apply to the “Front Lines”

The story that I have recited here is absolutely true.  I believe that it remains essentially the same in most businesses today.  The relationship between effective eductional programs supported by businesses is seen as a cost, rather than as an investment in their most important assets – their people and the IT applications that determine to a great degree how the business performs.  I am talking about developing ongoing educational programs within an organization and encouraging people to engage in a continuous learning program that will allow them to better define, support and implement business improvement programs based upon better organizational understanding of business principles and the technology. 

For my friends, I know that they eventually updated their skills and moved on with their careers.  For today, I constantly get questions about which certification is the “right” one to get a job or complaints about becoming certified but can’t find a job.  The message is that working in SAP (either consulting or in a client) is not an event, it is a career.    

Continuous Education Drives Business Benefits 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this need.  As the world has changed around us, we are constantly challenged by how to keep up, how to remain effective, essentially how to not become obsolete, just like in 1995.  There are, however, many opportunities to create the tools to constantly increase the effectiveness of our most valuable asset.  A thorough review of all of the positions in the organization that touch SAP, can provide an outline of educational deficiencies.  Some of the findings might be that a Sales Administration person has been trained in ERP SD, but is using IPC in the CRM application and has not been trained to use that functionality.  Another could be that our Basis Administrators are allowed to be several versions behind in their certifications or training or that there is no program to teach our functional and executive leaders what the potential is for SAP and how they can continuously improve their personal understanding of the systems to help them perform more effectively in their positions.  When you recognize the fact that SAP doesn’t provide business benefits directly in most cases, but it does provide the opportunity for business leaders to use the programs and functions to drive business process change, which will produce the improved business results, you can see the business case for on-going education across the workforce.  The possible tools available are many and varied, including:

1.  Overview training for individuals who have not had it – SAP01, or to gain deeper understanding of the potential of SAP, TERP 10 certification courses.

2.  Functional or technical training from SAP America, which can include general courses in each ERP function or more extensive courses in particular areas.

3.  Tailored functional training from several SAP training partners who can take general courses and tailor them to the functions used in your enterprise

4.  Certifications in functional areas where this may have value.  Often corporate programs may require the successful completion of a program for tuition reimbursements and this can help.

5.  University courses – TERP  10 academy is taught by several Universities, many schools in the University Alliance Program teach various courses as part of longer programs.  Central Michigan University has TERP 10 as an integral part of a year-long SAP Graduate Certificate Program, or included in the SAP Concentration for the full 2 year MBA program.  There are a couple of other graduate level programs at Victoria University in Australia and a new pilot program in Germany, but there need to be more. 

We continue to marvel at the speed with which technology and applications like SAP are expanding, and we recognize that businesses also are confronted with significant and continuous challenges.  It is unreasonable to assume that if we don’t individually and collectively look to improve our skills, we will fall farther and farther behind just by standing still.  We have to learn continuously just to stay even and have to learn aggressively if we are to progress faster than the world we work in. 

Whatever your choices, investing in your most expensive and valuable asset can avoid the issues described in the Tale of Early Obsolescence. 

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  • Arthur,

    I would agree with your comments about IT training – it appears that most companies (and users) assume that if you work in IT, you automatically know how every single piece of hardware or software works, where all insignificant tweaks are performed, and exactly what processes they use to achieve a given task (usually incorrectly!) This attitude doesn’t seem to have changed in the last 30 years!
    I would also suggest that there is a real issue with many IT people – I’ve found that far too many believe in the the hype and think that they DO know absolutely everything that is needed to be known. A few years ago, I came a cross a comment “suffering with delusions of adequacy” that seems to fit this quite nicely.
    In reality, every one in IT needs to look carefully at what skills they have and make sure that they keep them updated in order to be better able to deal with the changes that take place. In addition, companies also need to provide the resources required to allow this to occur – whether this be paid training, time to undertake training or providing necessary equipment.
    Attitudes on all sides need to change if we are to get the best out of the systems that we invest so much time, money and effort into installing and managing.

    • Thanks so much for your note.  It is interesting that, obviously to some degree depending upon what company you are referring to, you will get the same from both sides of this debate.  The need for IT experts who understand the business, as well as Business experts who understand IT was covered in a book “Shaping the Future” by Peter G W Keen in 1991 (Harvard Business School Press).  Although this book covered far more than just this point, it made this point in Spades.  I read it in 1992 and it helped to align my thinking, as I was a Business executive assigned to turn a business around.  Without this concept, I would not have had the subsequent career in SAP Consulting leadership that I did.  I am hoping that this blog can start others on this line of thought.  It is the only way that we end up deriving the business benefits that this large investment really deserves.