The certification timebomb

I wish I had been a fly on the wall at yesterday's meeting between some of my Irregular colleagues and SAP's Leo Apotheker. I've been in some of those 'tense' meetings.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

I wish I had been a fly on the wall at yesterday's meeting between some of my Irregular colleagues and SAP's Leo Apotheker. I've been in some of those 'tense' meetings. While it was ongoing, Larry Skyped me to say that Vinnie Mirchandani was giving Leo a tough time.

It seems that SAP is finally getting to grips with its wayward ecosystem and for that they should be applauded, even if it is years late. Apotheker is reported to have said:

On certifications for consultants, Apotheker said they are necessary. SAP currently has certification programs, but SAP mentors–top players in the developer community–say the specifics are vague. Meanwhile, Business Suite 7 will add even more competencies to the equation. A developer could get certified on SOA, specific modules and processes and vertical industries.

This is a topic with which I have been recently embroiled. It started out innocently enough as a blog post on SDN [disclosure: I blog on SAP community sites and am an SAP Mentor] but when you see the explosion of comment it quickly became apparent this is a red hot topic. Not in the sense of something that needs attention but which sets off alarms:

Earlier this evening, the Twitterverse burst into a short SAP frenzy when @jonerp (Jon Reed) dropped a couple of Tweets:

Zia Yusuf = strong keynote w/ good specifics. One point: SAP is going to strongly encourage customers to hire CERTIFIED consultants #pkom

Yusuf = emphasis on certified SAP consultants is part of overall SAP theme of year: Emphasis on quality, including quality resources. #pkom

Almost immediately @jspath55 (Jim Spath) @njames (Nigel James) @blag (err...Blag) @oliver (Oliver Kohl) @yojibee(Anne Petteroe)  @grahamrobbo (Graham Robinson) and myself @dahowlett (apologies if I missed anyone - Twitter has limitations on what you can 'see') entered into an animated conversation about the usefulness and validity of a formal certification process.

Most of the participants were highly critical of such a move, suggesting that real world ability is far more important than the possession of a piece of paper. In principle I agree but have specific reasons for being a strong advocate of the certification system.

Here's the problem: the perception out there among the Mentor group is that certification is about rote learning that can be parroted into an exam context. It proves nothing. It has little to do with what's needed on a day to day basis. In a recent straw poll, the majority of SAP Mentors who are intensely active in the SAP Community are certified in...nothing that is relevant to what they do as implementers, coders, architects, designers or business process experts. Does that mean SAP has drawn in a bunch of clever fools? Anyone who seriously thinks that is true is themself foolish. But it is easy to understand why the Mentors would become so agitated.

The problem for SAP is that this is a highly influential group. They deserve every bit of attention they get. I know a number of them personally and they have fundamentally changed the way I view geeks. The best are not the 'for hire plumbers' but super smart people who truly understand business issues. I would say that wouldn't I - well actually no. Despite being a business process guy, these people know far more about SAP than I could ever expect to accumulate. They live with it every day. Even so, there are connections into the business world they don't necessarily 'get' and that's something I can contribute back. That means despite their concerns, I still believe that certification is the right thing - but only ONE step - on the road to quality implementations. But equally, if SAP is to get serious about certification then it must get this group on board. That's the certification timebomb. Getting Mentors on board is achievable but there needs to be far more transparency into the certification process, what it means and how it is articulated in the field.

In the same blog post, I went on to say:

If you're an SI/developer/consultant then you are holding out to operate at a standard that clients can recognize and believe in. That will not guarantee trouble free implementations. Nothing can do that with a system as complex as R/3 or ECC6. But it [certification] is one way of providing a hygiene factor that SAP implementations badly need.

Too often when projects fail, SAP has to parachute hit squads of people who DO know what they're doing to sort out a mess. While Mike Krigsman has a pet theory about this [the Devil's Triangle] it's not fair on anyone. Certification could go some way towards curing the ills that bedevil our corner of the IT landscape.

I have problems with Mike's theory. For me it is at once self-fulfilling and sets up a straw man that cannot be defeated. The Devil's Triangle does not appear to leave any room for responsibility ownership. I don't buy that. If you sell something to me then there are three pre-requisites:

  • It is of merchantable quality - that's directly down to the software company
  • It is executable - it can be implemented, that's down to the software company and its partners
  • It delivers on what the customer believes is the promise they were sold - that's down to the software company and its implementation partners.

Of course the customer has a part to play and of course the politics of software acquisition are a part of that but when "you boil it down," to use Apotheker's words, the finger in all cases points back to the software company and how it manages its ecosystem. Part of that has to be about mandating certain standards of understanding in the software being implemented. That must be especially true now when SAP is saying it wants to be active in helping customers get through the current recession. If you agree with these assertions then it is but one short step to putting the responsibility onto the software provider to set the ecosystem goalposts.

But then Apotheker let go of the ball:

How will this certification process be managed?

“It’s a very hard question. We are not a university and it’s not up to SAP to make a judgment on people’s skills. We can only certify people on their knowledge,” said Apotheker. “We will try to keep it at a reasonable level.”

I disagree with the last statement. It's too flaccid. In discussion with SAP Mentor managers the idea of reputation and referral has been tossed around. Some like the idea of a LinkedIn style approach. I kind of agree but see that as unable to scale and flawed. LinkedIn works great on a 1-2-1 basis but what about when you need to tool up a 30 person team? What about on reputation? LinkedIn recommendations are always positive and evertyone's a rock star. That's simply unrealistic and untrue.

In a conversation immediately prior to yesterday's event, I spoke with a senior Mentor who is at one of SAP's marquee customers. He agrees with the reputation principle but said he wants honesty, not unbridled glowing reports.

Where to next? In fairness to SAP I have been advised they have looked hard at the certification process, are re-modeling it, are making it more practice based and are serious about making it something of value. They need to persuade the likes of Roche that they are on the right track:

The Roche CIO understands that integrators don’t want to send all the good consultants to one company, but there has to be a better way. But labor–and talent–are big issues. The costs of an ERP implementation largely revolves around labor. Allerton wants SAP consultants certified–a hot topic in SAP circles–to indicate that a systems integrator has some level of competency. Allerton said she’d prefer that SAP adopt a certification system modeled after Microsoft’s.

“It’s my experience that the people you get with Microsoft certifications are good in general. SAP certification is not yet indicative,” she said.

That last point must hurt. It is something I've pointed out as well but even so certified in SQL Server admin compared with FICO? Ugh!

In the meantime I want Apotheker to be angry. Not at us messengers but at those who are culpable and responsible for delivering on what SAP promises. If he can get past the immediate criticisms of my colleagues he'd see that we're all on the same page: value for customers.

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