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The Skills Conundrum

Earlier this year I delivered a presentation at a Mastering SAP Technologies conference in Sydney (hosted by the Eventful Group) on the topic of ‘Developing a learning culture in your SAP technology team’.  This presentation described my journey in driving a higher focus on learning within an SAP team. I was surprised by the response … several people approached me after my presentation.  They were in ‘lead’ roles and were grappling with the problem of how to reinvigorate a culture of learning in their teams.

What I’ve concluded is that there are many SAP teams out there (even groups in some consulting organisations) that are struggling to reinvent their skills. Reasons might include:

  • Inability accessing the latest SAP releases
  • Lack of time to try out new features (or even old ones existing in earlier SAP releases – anyone still not tried BSPs?)
  • Life changes – many of us started SAP careers when we were young and single, but now we balance families and other commitments
  • Complacency – a sense of ‘I know how to solve the problem using the old approaches so I’ll stick with that’ (eg. sapscript)
  • Disinterest – lack of motivation to learn new things, or individuals no longer seeing SAP as cool and interesting.
  • Cost constraints – training budgets being slashed
  • Lack of management sponsorship – if management doesn’t see any value in improving the skills of the team then this attitude can permeate the teams below

Some of these challenges are easily tackled (eg. want to access SAP NetWeaver Gateway? … just go here ), others less so easily. 

WHY embark on a learning programme?

Chinese proverb: “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still”

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There are many reasons why it might make sense to tackle this problem to reinvigorate your team with a culture of learning.  Let’s consider some possibilities that might motivate you:

  • To keep your team relevant – it’s a competitive world out there, and if you don’t know how to squeeze the most out of your SAP systems, then you are at risk of being substituted by competitors, outsourced or offshored (and even if this does occur, you have a better chance of landing on your feet by keeping your skills current).
  • To keep your consultants honest – if you are operating an internal team, you have a better chance to apply governance to ensure your external consultants are using best practice techniques rather than outdated and inefficient approaches.
  • To keep your team interested – clearly if team members are intellectually stimulated then morale and productivity improves.

SAP at an engineering level constantly delivers new technologies, techniques and solutions to customers (maybe not as quickly as we would like, but that’s a separate topic).  Yet based on my observations some customer and consulting teams need to bring their skills and knowledge to a level where they can more effectively wield these technologies.  And this is not simply about being on the latest release levels.  As an example, ask yourself whether your existing SAP deployment is making the most out of the ICM? (if you don’t have one, then ignore that question).

WHAT might you do?

OK, so let me share some of my personal experiences here.  In 2008 I took leadership of a team of SAP developers in a large SAP-centric organisation.  These were good, competent developers with years of SAP experience and (more importantly) deep understanding of the business and it’s processes.  However, the ERP environment had just been upgraded (ECC6) and brand new products added (CRM, BW, Portal, PI, and others).  So the challenge before me was to shape a learning programme to drive skills shifts in the team.  And all this with limited funds.

Learning Channels

One thing is clear … when you work with limited training funds, or it is impractical to lock your people away in training courses for weeks due to work commitments, you need to take a more creative and pragmatic approach to skills building. 

Below are some of the key learning channels that we engaged.  This list does not seek to describe all possible learning channels, but rather the primary ones which this team leveraged …

SAP Online Resources

Since you are reading this, you probably don’t need to be educated in the value of SCN and the resources it provides.  That said, I still cross paths every so often with a SAP technology person who doesn’t use it.  There is also virtualsapteched.com, help.sap.com and of course the service marketplace (service.sap.com).  There are other online SAP resources I haven’t mentioned but for me SCN is the 1000 pound goriila.

SAP Press

I’ll be honest, I’m a big fan of SAP Press.  An SAP course might cost you several thousand dollars for one team member to attend.  A SAP Press book can stay with the team and costs you typically less than one hundred dollars. In terms of ‘bang for your buck’ I think it’s a no brainer.  Some SAP Press titles are truly outstanding.  For ABAP developers seeking to rebuild their skills, I have over the years recommended ‘Next Generation ABAP Development’ by Thomas Jung and Rich Heilman (2nd edition was released early this year). That title is so respected that some of my team possessing the 1st edition still went out and purchased the 2nd edition.  So, typically I seek to purchase a few SAP Press titles each year with training funds.  Also, team individuals purchase their own titles personally.  We pool these resources in a shared library maintained in an internal wiki.

Of course there are other publications such as SAP Professional Journal, but in terms of printed publications SAP Press is my favourite.

Twitter

I was a relatively late adopter of Twitter (a year ago), but once there I saw the tremendous learning potential of this service.  One ‘experiment’ I tried with my team members was to request that they ALL sign up to Twitter (if they had not already) and to follow some SAP knowledge related handles (eg. @SAP, @SAPCommNet, @SCNblogs, @SCNLibrary, @SAPlearn, @SAPMentors etc.).  I asked them to follow this service for TWO weeks, and if it ‘worked’ for them they could continue to do so.  If it didn’t, then that was fine also and they could stop following this service.  What I found six months later was that approximately fifty percent of the team still watched their Twitter feeds regularly.  That is half the team finding a new knowledge channel which they otherwise would not have used, and I felt that was an excellent result.  It was heartening to see team members discussing and arguing the merits of a blog that had been published by somebody on the other side of the world just a few hours prior. 

One reason why I think Twitter feeds are a very effective learning mechanism is that it provides for a constant base load of incremental learning each day.  If individuals absorb 15 – 30 minutes of learning every day, this information is more effectively absorbed (the short timeframe doesn’t impose learning fatigue) and this adds up to a substantial quantity and coverage of learning over time (somewhat like the idea of ‘compounding interest’, the same concept which made Warren Buffett very rich).

Twitter feeds are also very easily consumed using mobile devices, so you canabsorb the information during what would ordinarily be ‘dead time’.  Instead of staring out the bus window on the way to work, you can catch up with the latest feeds on your smartphone.

Of course, there are many blogs by the true Twitter experts on SCN discussing the value and use of this service.  Here is one example …

Twitter and SAP – Whats in it for You (by Jarret Pazahanick)

If you lead a team, why not try the same ‘experiment’ with Twitter that I did?

SAP Conferences and Events

If you can find the funds, it pays to send representatives to events such as your local SAP Inside Track, SAP InnoJam or especially SAP TechEd.  If you can’t find the funds for SAP TechEd, at least you can catch some of the sessions virtually using virtualsapteched.com .

eLearning

In some instances eLearning sources have proved useful.  I have used this service on occasion with team members to tap into tactical skill building requirements (especially if you can’t wait for a scheduled SAP instructor led course).  For instance, in one case a team member needed to build skills in Javascript, so an eLearning service was used to accomplish this (along with use of some publications as well).

SAP Instructor-Led Training

In some respects this is a learning channel of ‘last resort’ (ie. when all those discussed here have not proved adequate).  It doesn’t mean I have not turned to it, but it needs stronger justification due to the cost.  Also, in my experience some big shortfalls of this channel are that (i) the course content is sometimes out of date (eg. currently if you attend a SAP Sybase SUP course, it will still be based on an old release SUP1.5); (ii) often you cannot find the course you need scheduled when you need it; and (iii) if you do manage to find it and book it, there is a good chance (from personal experience) the course will be cancelled due to lack of attendees.  That said, SAP instructor led courses do have an important place for specific needs.  For instance, if you seriously need someone to learn SAP business workflow for a forthcoming project, it makes sense to send them on a course to jump-start them.  In these situations relying on other channels alone may be insufficient.

On the Job Training

Of course, nothing beats on the job training when it comes to building deep skills in an area.  But there is one shortfall with relying entirely on this channel. Firstly, you don’t necessarily have control over what projects your team will be involved in (so relying entirely on this means taking a reactive rather than proactive approach to skills building).  Secondly, if you are not at least aware of what technological options are available to you, your team may not be in a position to KNOW that they could apply the latest techniques when on a project. It’s like the old saying … “You don’t know what you don’t know”. So whilst this might be a ‘core’ learning channel, it can be compromised if a set of satellite learning channels (as described in this blog) are not established around it to help ‘inform’ it.

Knowledge Building Sessions

This brings me to the most successful aspect of the journey to bring a culture of learning to a real team. There are many aspects to describe here, so this is the entire focus of Developing a learning culture in your SAP technology team – Part 2.

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12 Comments

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  1. Sascha Wenninger
    Hi John,

    I can only attest to the effectiveness of these different approaches in our team, and there is enough variety in your list to cater to various learning styles!

    However, I think the list might benefit from the addition of one other item: Non-SAP – but still IT-related – events, conferences, blogs and webinars!

    Sites like InfoQ offer lots of high-quality blogs and recorded lectures on all sorts of Enterprise IT topics; most web companies run great blogs at which they share how they attacked various internal problems – for good examples look at the Evernote or Twitter Engineering blogs, Google, StackOverflow, etc.

    Then there are conferences… A lot of ‘general’ IT conferences are a lot cheaper to attend than those associated with major platform vendors but provide equally good value and often world-class speakers. Almost more importantly IMHO is the opportunity to learn from people outside the SAP space and then bring that learning back to your day job. Many times I find that topics discussed there are years ahead – well at least in the technical space. Web-native companies frequently have really interesting challenges to meet, such as the need to scale massively without expensive
    hardware, massively-parallel computing, real-time stuff and running lean/agile/etc.

    I recently watched a whole bunch of recorded sessions from the O’Reilly VelocityConf for free on YouTube and learned some eye-opening lessons which I’ll try to bring to my workplace as soon as I can. InfoQ publishes many recorded sessions from their QCon on their site for free, and there are many others focused on specific topics such as JavaScript, mobile, functional programming, etc.

    In Australia, YOW! runs an annual, 2-day conference for $800 and educational evening events once a quarter for $10! While they contain 0 content on anything to do with SAP, they are still about technology and thus do provide some great inspiration while being a lot cheaper than anything with the blue logo on.

    Having said all that, I’ll still see all of you at TechEd in Vegas! 😉

    Sascha

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    1. John Moy Post author
      Hi Sascha,

      Well said.  This could almost be the subject of a separate blog.  As you know, I completely agree that SAP technologies can benefit from an intersection with technologies outside the ecosystem.  In fact that is where alot of interesting things can happen.  Take for instance last year’s Las Vegas TechEd Demo Jam winning entry … applying HTML5 technologies and intersecting it with an SAP ABAP engine.  Take also your introduction of XSLT/Xpath, REST and other concepts to the team over the years – concepts which we have adopted.

      So thanks for your comments, it nicely augments my blog post.

      John

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      1. John Moy Post author
        One other thing, it is InfoQ that has me thinking of getting an Android tablet (to complement my iPad) …. simply so that I can conveniently watch the video lectures (which are Flash-based)!
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  2. Bala Prabahar
    John,

    Excellent blog. I would add a few more:

    1) User Groups:

    In US, http://www.asug.com does a great job of presenting the latest and relevant technologies to their audience. They’re open to all members. If you’re an independent consultant, the annual registration fee is $500. Since asug.com is run by the customers, what they present is normally business-relevant. Not only you can use asug.com to enhance your skills and knowledge, but also it would probably give you an idea as to what is hot with customers.

    2) InnoJam:

    InnoJam IMO needs bit more introduction. It is hands-on. The participants will have access to latest technologies/products. They’ll collaborate with other participants, developers who developed the products etc. They’ll get first-hand introduction to SAP’s products. If they get excited with any one of those products, InnoJam organizers would normally tell you how to get access to those products after the event. The participants may need to prepare beforehand in order to get maximum benefits from this event. Whereas every other channel of learning doesn’t require collaboration, this one requires collaborative approach to derive maximum benefits. As a result, you learn faster and helps build professional relationships.

    This event will be held in Sydney, Australia on July 30-31. Details here: http://wiki.sdn.sap.com/wiki/display/events/SAP+InnoJam+Sydney+2011
    (It seems SAP is looking for a certain number of registrations in order to host this event. I don’t know current status).

    3) Downloads:

    One can also download some SAP products for free(Trial). In sdn.sap.com, downloads tab would provide more details.

    Thanks,
    Bala

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    1. John Moy Post author
      Hi Bala,

      Yes, thanks for your additions.  I agree they are all worthy of being listed. 

      Whilst we do engage with SAUG (our equivalent to ASUG and we are an international affiliate of ASUG), this tends to occur moreso at an architect level.   There is plenty of online and other content I agree and it probably gives me impetus to tap into that further at the team level.

      In relation to InnoJam, yes that would be an excellent vehicle for learning.  The fact that it is hands-on, is aligned with a core principle that I will describe in Part 2 of my blog (yet to be released).  I think the Sydney InnoJam is an excellent opportunity to take an entire team there and use that event to rejuvinate their skills and interest, hands on with the very latest SAP technologies.  At a price of $180 for 36 hours hands-on training, it’s outstanding value, especially for Sydney-based teams.

      I should also have mentioned the free trial downloads you can get from SCN.  I will blame that oversight on writing these blogs too late in the evening  🙂

      Thanks again

      John

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  3. Kevin Grove
    John:

    Thank you for a well-written, insightful post. Personally, this learning “gap” became very personal when I was laid off earlier this year. Looking back it was obvious that my former employer AND I allowed my skills to get stale. I was quite competent at my job, but was not accessing materials for the next new implementation on the horizon.

    It seems to me that we have a huge tendency toward inertia, as employees and employers. Of course tight budgets do not help the situation. I hope to use this insight with my new company to start building a learning culture here as well.

    One last thing, I believe that this is something that applies equally to all areas of our lives and not just work and not just our SAP teams.

    Well done. I am looking forward to part 2.

    Kevin Grove

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    1. John Moy Post author
      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the feedback. I can identify with you on this.  Years ago I also was part of a IT group in a large corporate, and the entire group was offshored.  It’s a fact of life in the IT world.  What you can do proactively is to ensure you and your fellow team members work together to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies and techniques, so you will always ‘land on your feet’. 

      Good luck with your new endeavours!

      Rgds

      John

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  4. Kumud Singh
    Hi,

    Thanks for the motivational blog.
    But can you please acknowledge below:

    1.Lets say a team ‘A’ is currently doing a project using BSP’s.Still many of us are not aware of many of the updates,new releases happening in SAP.
    If the team members , let’s say get trained in Webdynpros, just for proactive action. But is non-project knowledge enough to be written even in CV’s?
    I myself have attended couple of theoritical sessions but can gain confidence only after working on it.

    Thanks,
    Kumud

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    1. John Moy Post author
      Hi Kumud,

      I agree there is no substitute for hands on experience.  And typically project experience is the only way to gain true expertise.  But my blog is not intended as a vehicle to add lines to a CV.  It is aimed more deeply than that … simply to give people some stimulus to focus on learning, and to kickstart a culture of continuous learning.  That may not immediately result in project work or lines on a CV. If you set off on the right path those things I believe will eventually follow. The learning may only involve an additional 15 mins each day looking at twitter feeds, for instance.  But the cumulative effect can be substantial (I reiterate my ‘compounding interest’ analogy).   I can give another real life example … a few weeks ago I was looking at implementing the AJAX framework for a portal.  At around the same time, I saw a tweet from @SCNLibrary with an article on how to configure the framework.  I printed it in the morning and read the article, then applied some of the concepts.  If I had not spent that few minutes in the day looking at the twitter stream, I would not have come across the article, and would not have benefited from it.  When this story plays out over and over, your knowledge and skills will naturally accumulate.  And trust me, if you can demonstrate this ability to learn, that means much more than lines on a CV.

      Rgds

      John

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  5. Rama Shankar
    John – Thanks for writing this excellent article which has motivated several other bloggers to provide valuable inputs to SAP professionals on ways to stay on top of cutting edge technology to keep themselves marketable.  Good job, once again!
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