More Thoughts on Certification
More Thoughts on Certification
There is a lively debate going on concerning the value of certification and the direction in which it is or should be evolving. To catch up with some of the views that have been published, I suggest reading the following:
1. Certification 5 White Paper – This paper was created by 5 SAP Mentors and offers suggestions to improve the effectiveness of current programs as well as a roadmap to the future. It offers valuable insight into potential improvements and is a good basis for discussion – http://www.jonerp.com/pdf/sap_certification_from_cert5.pdf.
2. My initial blog article on the value of Certification – this is part of a blog dedicated to the role of Higher Education in workforce readiness to derive business benefits from SAP investments, written from the perspective of a business executive tasked with improving business results – The role of Certification in Personal Development Programs.
3. Transcript of my Twitter interview with SAP Education on Certification conducted on November 19th, including follow on comments from Jon Reed and myself – 10 Questions about SAP Certification, Passion, and Value with Art Worster.
You will note that there may appear to be a difference between my thoughts and those of the Certification 5, however, I believe that this perception simply comes from viewing the issue from two different perspectives. While there are differences, I believe that we all agree that we need these programs to be valuable to this market, and we support development of more robust programs to enhance the value of certifications. The only point, on which I think we would disagree to an extent, is whether the programs as constituted today add sufficient value to be a critical part of skill development, or whether improvements are necessary before they should be recommended. SAP Management also sees this and is actively working on significant improvements to the programs intending that they become a better barometer for individual performance (my view), which is covered in comments made within the Cert 5 white paper. My intent is to differentiate between the two debates that are intermingled. I think it is important they be recognized as two important, parallel, and complimentary discussions.
- As an individual practitioner, I need a way to differentiate myself and my skill that is recognized by the market as accurate and meaningful. As a consultant, I would like to have a clearly defined, well differentiated and professional career path that will allow me to gain certifications that are recognized as having a strong correlation with the ability to deliver results (really the only valuable correlation), and one that is recognized universally as confirmation of skill level. I could then focus on career progression and peer leadership through the certification process, while gaining business experience through my assignments. This is a highly desired outcome and one I could pursue as my career progresses. The ability to do this today is not sufficient. This is very well laid out in the Cert 5 paper, and I agree with their point of view.
- As a consulting leader, I have always relied on subjective methods to determine qualifications of individual consultants and I never take certification itself as the measure of quality. Certification does, however, tell me two things. It tells me that the consultant is willing to invest time and money to learn the basics of his/her profession, and it gives me an indication of what that consultant should know about the functionality they support. While not perfect, the fact that they have achieved a base of knowledge of how the functionality is constructed, and how to set it up to support a business process is important to me. One fact that confuses this perspective is that many of the larger consulting firms have developed their own tools to screen and then train consultants and have used certification as a criteria less and less over the years, or they have developed their own “certification” programs delivered internally. Smaller consulting companies, however, have fewer resources and less ability to do this, which has created an ecosystem where the quality of consultants is less consistent and the value of certification less appreciated. I would also point out that I am less concerned about the currency of certification (recertifying in recent versions) since once base knowledge is achieved and practiced, it is reasonable for a consultant to keep up with new versions through release notes and other documentation, if they are diligent in doing this. Consequently, I look for examples where the consultant has used new functionality in the version being implemented. Certification is not a requirement, as such, but it does weigh in on my hiring decisions, along with many other factors.
- From the perspective of an end client, I need to hire either employees or consultants who have the best knowledge of the system, the functionality, and methods of gaining business benefits. I need to be assured that process designers will give me the best chance of designing an optimal solution for my business’ idiosyncrasies. This is critical as the team is called upon to design a process that optimizes business impact, while creatively addressing change management issues within the organization’s leadership team (See previous blog article at – Organizational Change Management is a Two-Way Street). For this I look at: years of experience in business, years of experience with SAP, whether their experience is in business or IT (or preferably both, but that is, unfortunately, rare), and any academic credentials. Certification is one of the academic credentials I look at. However, if the person is certified I still have to determine whether they know how to apply this knowledge, and the results here are uneven. If the person is not certified, I have to determine whether they know enough to provide alternative and creative solutions to problems. This is an important point. Many really bright and conceptual candidates can learn to perform and excel based upon experience through study, logical extension and situations they have found themselves in and some may certainly do well or excel without certification. Certification, however, is important to me in constructing teams, even though it doesn’t always provide a clear differentiator between candidates. I neither use it to select someone as qualified, nor the lack of it to eliminate candidates.
How do these perspectives fit?
This is the crux of why we appear to disagree when, I believe, we are all inclined to support both views (the Certification 5 will have to weigh in on this and I don’t purport to speak for them). I firmly believe that certification is one important criterion of knowledge levels, albeit imperfect, when trying to differentiate between junior and mid-level consultant candidates. I also believe that there is much to be done to make certification programs more effective, as determined by the correlation between certification and performance. From my perspective, recommending people not achieve certification while it is being improved doesn’t help, even though reliance on certification is spotty, at best. More rapid progress on improving the overall certification system is warranted and in that I am in alignment with the Cert 5 and SAP, who recognize the need, and are working on improvements, although not always in agreement.
I currently work with Central Michigan University’s Graduate SAP Programs (Higher Education), however, my background is in business and consulting and I am not a “partisan” in this discussion. I believe that any software development company is best at producing technical training based upon defining how their software operates, is configured and deployed, and how business processes are set up and executed (TERP 10). Universities are focused on delivering education on business operations and business skills including effective use of IT Applications (SAP) to derive business benefits, which by necessity has to include the process of designing and leading cultural change in organizations, for example. Continued discussion around how the two can collaborate is valuable and should be supported.
This is one focus of the SAP University Alliance Program (UAP). Years ago Peter G.W. Keen identified the need for these cross business/IT individuals in business organizations in a seminal book, “Shaping the Future” (Harvard Business School Press, 1991). There is an opportunity for Universities to expand educational programs to help fill this “hybrid” need. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have made much progress along this path over the past 2 decades.
While Universities may be ideally suited to deliver “hybrid” education (business and IT), the reality is that this is an evolutionary process. Mr Keen points out in his book that business leaders have rarely fully understood the complex relationship between IT and business at the level required to realize how to utilize IT to support business transformation programs (my paraphrase). Business executives take MBA programs focused on traditional business functions (Strategic Planning, Financial Analysis, Marketing, etc.). IT leaders take advanced education through technical programs, often including an MBA, maybe even with an IT Management Concentration. Programs that combine the two into MBA programs shared by functional and technical leaders have only come along lately and, more slowly, ones that deal with ERP or SAP specifically. One of the barriers to these programs has been the development of faculty who teach as comfortably in technology as they do in business functions, however, this is changing with professors entering the University with business world experience operating in an ERP environment, as well as the cross-learning by existing faculties. The cross-germination of this “hybrid” approach is improving with experience and will continue to improve over the coming years.
One further thought on this intersection of SAP and Higher Education. Along with a different focus on content between applications development companies and Universities, there are also different methods employed to deliver and to evaluate the success of students. Development companies have long relied upon Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ) to test students, many of which have relied upon recitation of memorized material to test, which promotes good memorizers but holds back students who may be more conceptual and better at applying principles to solving problems. I have experienced this also with programs such as PMP (PMI) and CPIM (APICS), where some employees who become certified find it difficult to employ their academic learning to solve design problems. Work is currently going on in SAP to develop performance based questions, still utilizing MCQ but requiring more process-focused thinking. However, to achieve significant testing of integrated business/SAP concepts, more subjective testing methods are required, in my opinion. These methods are ones typically used by Universities, and include independent research papers (graduate programs), group projects and essay questions where grading is based upon clearly defined grading rubrics.
So, what are my conclusions?
- The differentiation between Associate, Professional and Master Certification is positive and should be continued and accelerated. Testing methods being developed should be expanded, and should include SAP Education as well as Graduate Education at Universities. Recognizing geography and career status of many advanced consultants, these fully accredited University programs must be available through on-line, as well as residential, formats, in order to be available to a working population.
- Universities in the UAP should be encouraged to support the development and delivery of more business school programs that go beyond elective courses. Examples that exist today are Central Michigan University, University of Scranton, Victoria University (Melbourne, AU) and a pilot program in Germany supported by SAP. UAP schools need to develop complete programs as part of graduate business degrees. These programs should be incorporated into the certification scenarios being developed by SAP, and perhaps jointly delivered by both, as in the pilot currently underway.
- Continued discussion on evaluation techniques should be promoted. Initial learning of the system can be tested by Multiple Choice Questions, and may continue to be used for entry levels, where the students often have no relevant previous work experience. When you move to Professional level certification, however, there should be emphasis on “how to” as opposed to “what” questions and different testing methods are appropriate. This is where process focused MCQ can improve current programs, but other methods are also required. Subjective grading (essay answers, etc.) are more appropriate and may require a University environment where teaching pedagogy and grading rubrics are more varied.
- Visibility and promotion of TERP 10, both as it is and as part of a larger certification program (Master’s??) should be increased. This certification should be prominently promoted at SAP conferences to consultants, consulting companies and clients. The TERP 10 course should continue to be developed, but even as it is, it addresses needs identified by Mr. Keen two decades ago. When I was leading SAP Implementation programs as a client, delivering projects as a Program Manager for a client, or building a consulting organization I needed team members who understood how SAP integrates across business processes and functions. It was very difficult to find them. This has always been a fundamental need for everyone dealing with cross functional process design, and one that remains a critical need today.
I view current certification programs as necessary and as one criterion for hiring decisions. I support the efforts of the Cert 5 in their recommendations for continued development and expansion of certification programs, including the development of levels (Associate, Professional and Master). I support on-going efforts to improve testing methods through the development of more process focused questions and ultimately different assessment techniques. I support the inclusion of SAP programs as Concentrations or Graduate Certificate programs in Business Schools, delivered on-line to accommodate adult students.
The investment in SAP and Business Transformation is no longer simply about changing back office systems – don’t ever forget that ultimately it is not about IT, it is not about function, it is in the final analysis really all about the business and keeping it relevant in a rapidly changing world. Investment in alltypes of continuing education programs, both by individuals and companies (consulting or clients) is a necessary part of “keeping up with the world”. If you are not learning your specialty (business or IT) faster than technology is advancing, you become more obsolete every day. We are transitioning from implementation to optimization in spending IT budgets and all of these programs are crucial to developing a work force with sufficient SAP and business knowledge to capture the business benefits that SAP is capable of delivering.