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”
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a better chance to apply governance to ensure your external consultants are using best practice techniques rather than outdated and inefficient approaches.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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.