SAP user group looks to ease skills shortage with online directory, reviews database

ASUG launches Web site with listings of SAP consultants, plus user reviews of services firms

SAP AG's U.S.-based user group is launching an online directory of software consultants and a database containing customer reviews of software services firms, in an effort to help users find outside assistance at a time when the SAP market is experiencing a skills shortage that even the software vendor numbers in the tens of thousands of workers.

"It's very difficult to find qualified, skilled talent" for SAP projects, said Craig Lathrop, who became CIO of the independent Americas' SAP Users' Group (ASUG) in January. "It's such a wide set of software packages, so as you deal with software consultants, you don't always get a completely straight picture of what they've been successful at."

The primary pain points involve SAP's newer technologies, such as its NetWeaver line of middleware, added ASUG CEO Steve Strout.

ASUG is charging on a subscription basis for access to the information in its ASUG Edge directory and reviews database, which focuses on consultants based in North America. Members of the user group must pay $995 per year, while nonmembers will be charged $1,495 annually.

The ASUG Edge site, which has been in beta for the past six months, will be formally launched with about 400 reviews from users, according to Strout, who said the group is hoping to get "the most accurate and usable comments, not just negatives."

But David Foote, who tracks the SAP jobs market as CEO and chief research officer at research firm Foote Partners LLC, said that the directory and reviews database doesn't solve the core problem, which is the need to quickly get more workers with SAP skills into play at systems integrators and software consulting firms.

Joe Westhuizen, vice president of business development at SAP, said that when the vendor first assessed the skills shortage early last year, company officials concluded that about 50,000 more SAP specialists were needed worldwide. Because of upticks in hiring by business partners, increased marketing and other efforts, that number has now dropped to the 30,000 range, according to Westhuizen. "We've definitely got the right initiatives in place, but we still have a lot of work to do," he said.

SAP arrived at the lower number by analyzing a range of data points, such as the new growth in SAP certifications among tech workers, traffic to key educational Web sites and the number of new college graduates with SAP skills. SAP has seen its skills base grow more quickly in emerging markets such as Brazil and China, Westhuizen said, but he added that the U.S. market "is in pretty good shape overall."

Asked how SAP managed to let the skills shortage become so large before responding, Westhuizen said that many quarters of double-digit sales growth and a wave of early retirements by baby boomers proved to be a combustible mix. "Those have come together to create an opportunity but also a challenge," he said.

Foote, though, said SAP that knew exactly what it was doing as it rolled out NetWeaver and a series of other new products in recent years.

"When you're a successful company, you're not going to let the steam engine stop rolling unless you know there's no track ahead," he said. "Vendors don't think nor do they want to think what the barriers would be for customers. If [customers] are willing to buy, [vendors] sell, and then let their channel partners deal with it as best as possible."

Michael Bovaird, an SAP consultant and business partner, said that some skills areas are tighter than others, but that the overall shortage isn't drastic — if you know where to look.

Bovaird is president of SophLogic Inc., a Bradenton, Fla.-based systems integrator that has its own team of employees and also works with independent SAP consultants. SophLogic has more than 40,000 people in a database of consultants that it uses for internal purposes, Bovaird said, adding that the database "allows us to be very granular in finding the right people" for jobs.

Meanwhile, Doug Tracy, executive vice president of IT at Rolls-Royce North America and global chief technology officer at parent company Rolls-Royce PLC, said that corporate users have a certain responsibility for their own fate on SAP projects. "The key to this, just like any other sort of project, is doing the fundamentals in project planning," Tracy said.

Rolls-Royce, a major SAP user, has a long-standing contract with integrator Electronic Data Systems Corp. Tracy said the aerospace and energy company is currently studying the ramifications of an ERP upgrade that's planned in the next 18 to 24 months, including the help that would be needed from EDS.

"You've got to do your resource forecast well in advance," Tracy said. "EDS or anybody else can't have good people available at the drop of a hat. They have to go through their own process."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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