Interview with Thomas Michael, Michael Management
For many years, you were known as “The Fixed Asset Guy” due to your extensive knowledge of that particular module. Now your company is known for e-learning. What made you consider changing your business focus to e-learning?
I hope I’m still the assets accounting guy – as I volunteer for ASUG in a position of market leader for assets accounting – but our business focus has shifted over the last 5-7 years. While Michael Management started out as a boutique consulting company, focusing on the ***ets accounting and capital investment management area. We’ve really morphed into the leading provider of SAP e-learning training. And that was a result of our client asking for it. They approached us with the situation that when they were hiring SAP users they had a training need. But, our clients didn’t want to send everyone to an onsite class for five days, nor did they want to bring in a trainer to train in a new person. At that point in time, nothing – outside of those two options were available – and that’s when we starting thinking about online training. We knew what we didn’t want to do: we didn’t want to do “Death by PowerPoint” – buzzwords and slides – that’s not what people want, and that’s not how people learn. So we started to develop on-line content with engaging hands-on simulations, as if you were logged in to a real system. Our client loved it and wanted another. So we did, and we kept on developing. Fast forward and we now have over 100 certification programs and Michael Management is the second largest certifier in SAP, only behind SAP itself.
What does it mean to get SAP certified?
Every year we conduct a SAP training survey about experiences and expectations when it comes to SAP training, selfishly too so we can keep our finger on the pulse of the market. But one of the things that we see in the results is that they ask about certification – are you certified and if so, why? What drove you to get certified? If not, why not? What we found out is that over 90% of people agree that certification is beneficial for their position for their salary level, promotion levels, ability to find a new job quickly. Everyone sees value in it. Yet, only about 1/3 of SAP professionals are in fact certified. My personal take on the discrepancy is that in the past it has been very difficult to obtain certification if you are an individual. It’s quite pricey. SAP certification classes are cost prohibitive for individuals. We hope to change that to make it a lot more affordable and a lot more focused on the actual users’ job role. And that’s why we are seeing our numbers grow over 40% year after year. If you are a serious SAP professional it makes sense to get certified. It just goes hand in hand to get a third party certification or verification of your skills; CPA, realtor, carpenter… many professions have certifications attached to the jobs.
You’ve recently had a few exciting things happen at Michael Management. You’ve released your 100th training course, what has been the most memorable one?
The party we had after the 100th, that was a very big milestone for us. But, if I had to single out just one course it would be the very first course. We really didn’t know where we were going with this as we were responding to a client request. And it grew legs by itself. When I look back to the first one we created to the ones we have created now, they are vastly different in our approach. But, that seed we planted has grown into what we have now.
Another big news item is that you have released a SAP subscription service with monthly and yearly plan options.
This “sandbox system” is functional for individuals and corporate users. Individuals have the problem that they can get access to training material but cannot find a real SAP system where they are allowed to practice what they have learned in their training. So, that is something that we offer with our subscription. We offer access to the SAP sandbox in which you can play; you take your training and learn about whatever job role you are studying for and then you may log in to these real SAP system where you can play and practice what you’ve just learned. Michael Management offers affordable monthly subscriptions. SAP also has a product too that they offer, but again, it’s difficult and costly to get access to. They sell you access by the minute whereas ours is a monthly allowance where you may play as much as you want during that month. For those who do work at a company and have access to a system, it’s usually just a productive system and your access is restricted to only the activities that you are authorized to do – so it makes it difficult to learn new functions and features and to practice new things.
Tell us about your SAP Career Paths and why you felt it was necessary to create.
As we grew, we eventually got questions from our clients asking what courses they should take. For example, “I am working as an accounts payable person, what courses should I take?” So, we wanted to make it easy for people. We didn’t want them to hunt around in our catalog – therefore we put together these career paths. We created about 30 very common SAP job roles and grouped the training courses for that job role into that path. We also wanted to show how valuable SAP skills are so we did the research and found the median salaries for that position. We listed salaries because we wanted to point out how valuable certification is to our clients. It requires financial commitment, but also keep in mind what the certification does to your salary. Now looking at our career path it is very clear how to get to a position, what training you need to take and in what order.
Your gamification of training sounds like a fun way to keep interest in an otherwise normal activity. Could you please share the process that went into this gamification concept?
That’s something that is very interesting to me personally. I speak a lot at SAP conferences, and talk to people so I know that the general reaction that you get when you tell someone that they have to take training next week is not always a positive. Ugh, I have a full schedule already and now I have to take this training on top of everything else? I have no time for that. So, the general feel is that training is a chore although we know that it will make you better and more efficient in your job – ultimately it’s a good thing. So, that’s something that we are really trying to solve. Our company mission is to create awesome SAP e-learning. We want people to WANT to take the training. And one of the ways to do that is the gamification elements, turning the drudgery into a fun and engaging experience. This includes things like badges, tokens, points and levels. Basically you are playing an online game. And as you progress though the course you earn better status, badges. Studies have shown that the gamification process increases user engagement by 10x. Ultimately for companies that employ this it’s wonderful because it increases their training goals significantly. People enjoy it. And gamification goes hand-in-hand with the buzz word that’s hot right now “social learning” it’s great if you can progress in your game of learning, but it’s even better if you can SHARE your achievement with others – and that’s where the social aspect comes in.
Tell us your secret sauce – what allows you to keep coming up with new course ideas?
Our secret sauce is two-fold. The easier part is coming up with courses, which is a direct result of our clients asking. We have a pretty long development list that we maintain and we add to it when clients approach us and ask if we can make a course for this or that. The more requests we get the more we know what people need. This is where it gets interesting as SAP has their own development list and people who push their products, for example HANA. It’s the buzzword and is getting pushed and pushed as it’s their new product, but we haven’t been seeing its use in the industry yet. I think SAP is getting ahead of their own schedule a little as HANA hasn’t caught on with clients yet. I’m sure it will. Give it another year or two and it will. But, we keep a finger on the pulse of companies on what they are really using. And that is the secret sauce, we know what doesn’t work. And we know what people want. They don’t want PowerPoint slides, word documents or outdated training material. What they want is to log on and have on demand content. Which is what we focus on.
What are the most common challenges in creating an e-learning program?
It’s easier said than done. It’s easy to create bad training material. So we go through great length and expense to make sure that our training material is engaging. Not just regurgitating text. We want it to be real. We want them to recognize the business situation and say “oh, yea, that happens all the time!” As opposed to some abstract, key words concept – we want this to be real. Yes, I do this every day and I need to know this.
Are there any best practices you can share?
The biggest thing for companies specifically is that they need to realize that training is a process not an event. It has a defined start date but it doesn’t have an end date. Research giant IDC has done studies on this and they know that knowledge leakage, when people quit, get promoted, moved to different role, retire, is as high as 25% per year. So, worst case scenario every 4 years your SAP knowledge skill set is depleted. Unless you replenish it with ongoing training. The second area where companies fumble is that they aren’t listening to their users. They don’t even ask “how would you like to get your training, how much training do you need?” We found out that 60% of SAP professionals received less than 10 hours of training over 12 months. But they admitted that they needed over 31 hours of training in that same amount of time in order to just do their job. That is a huge SAP training gap. The bigger the gap, the bigger the risk issue is for the company. We see it all the time that they are short changing their consumers.
What don’t people know about your company?
What they might not know is that Michael Management is a very virtual company. We have offices in San Diego and New York City, but our team is spread over the whole United States. If you go to our website on our about page you’ll see the five things that we believe in. And one of those is that you don’t really need to be in an office to be productive and to do work. We try to make it easy for them to come into an office if they want to or work from home. That is one thing people like in working for us.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
We have a couple interesting things in the hopper, don’t want to give away too much, but in the next few months we will have a SAP skill assessment coming out on the website. We’re trying to offer an even more complete package now – when people apply for a job and say that they have SAP skills, how do we really know? There’s really no way to objectively quantify the skills between candidate A and candidate B. This will also be helpful when companies call us and say that they need financial accounting training, for example, and we give them the prerequisites for that training. They’ll say “yes, my team has that knowledge/credentials” but do they really? They assume, but they don’t know. We wanted a way to objectively quantify the skills with a grade and a hard number where our client will be able to see, over time, the growth and impact of training.
What was the last book that you read?
I’m currently reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life. Which is a very interesting book about the Rolling Stones. I certainly would recommend reading it, even if you aren’t a Stones fan. It’s a fascinating story about how he and Mick Jagger met by accident at a train station. And that was the birth of the Rolling Stones.