As companies prepare to upgrade their ERP systems, a host of new technical and functional skills are necessary to ensure that the project is successful.
Developing the technical skills needed in-house, pulling in business subject-matter experts, and looking to consultants to fill in the blanks will help in assembling an all-star ERP upgrade team, according to analysts.
"Make sure your best people are on the upgrade," said Jon Reed, a consultant with JonERP.com. "It's easier said than done."
Business experts are a must
Upgrades are driven by business needs. That's why bringing in the business end from the beginning is critical for ERP upgrade success.
Lockheed Martin's SAP ERP upgrade team included all its Basis experts and its ABAP programmers, but it also included two key end users.
"You can never have enough business people," said Ray Wang, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "I would love to see the business side run it and lead it."
Finding those people depends on where the company is "turning the lights on," Reed said. Teams need not only key users of the overall system, such as SAP ERP or the Oracle E-Business Suite, but the people who use systems that will need to integrate with the new ERP environment, such as shop floor. The business experts in those areas will have the industry know-how that will help the IT side better connect that functionality, he said.
"You've got to start with the business rationale," Wang said. "Here are the processes we're impacting. Does it make sense?"
Business users can look at those processes, he said, and they must commit to testing to make sure the upgrade is going in the right direction.
Focus on developing IT talent in-house
With the current SAP skills shortage, technical expertise in ERP is going to be tougher to find, so upgrades will become harder and more costly to manage, according to recent research by David Foote of Foote Partners, a Vero Beach, Fla.-based IT consultancy and market research company that specializes in skills research.
"There is a risk attached to upgrades because of the gap in the availability of skills and people, and the expense if you find them," Foote said.
It's one of the reasons developing in-house talent is so important.
"A lot of times, it is cheaper to send two of your team members out to a brush-up class, versus paying a consultant to come in and do that," Reed said.
For example, classes are good for learning what's new in SAP's ERP 6.0 release, such as new areas of the general ledger.
But making a bigger investment may also be worthwhile. For instance, many aspects of SAP's NetWeaver platform support development with the ABAP programming language. But some aspects require Java programming skills, like the SAP Portal, and a mix of Java and ABAP skills is ideal.
Think about pulling non-SAP Java or XML or Web developer types into the SAP world, Reed suggests.
A big part of ERP upgrades is figuring out how much custom development was done in the previous release and how that's going to be moved along in composite applications.
A service-oriented architecture (SOA) should make development and customization easier in the future, but as companies are still moving toward that type of architecture, it's going to be an issue in current upgrades.
"The whole point of the SOA kind of architecture is they're using it to take the edge off that in the future -- allow people to customize on top of the core," Reed said. "But for this round of upgrades, it's an issue."
An upgrade team should also include enterprise architects, Wang said. They'll be able to identify where things can be reused and how you can construct and create composite applications.
In addition, IT professionals with business intelligence, business warehouse exposure and some knowledge of portals are good to have on the team, Reed said. A driver for many ERP upgrades is increasing the buy-in from end users by making the software easier to use. Creating portals and implementing some business intelligence products is aimed at making end users happier by making their jobs easier.
And for any ERP upgrade project, business process experts are a key component. These are people who understand service-oriented architecture (SOA) and have business process management skills, such as measuring whether an implementation is successful, but they also have the softer skills needed to make end users adopt new technologies.
"You want to be able to take your business processes, transform them, optimize them, and then reuse them across the entire organization," Wang said. "To get there, you need someone with the expertise to qualify and quantify what is commoditized or innovative, core or extraneous, and shared or unique."
But don't be afraid to ask for help from a consultant
There are some technologies for which a company won't want to depend on a consultant. For instance, SAP Solution Manager, an application management and administration tool, has become central to how SAP customers manage their upgrades and the additional systems enhancements they receive, Reed said.
"The skills that I want to have in-house in the long term are the ones that I want to foster on my team," he said. "That barometer is: Am I going to need this skill on my project for the long term?"
Reed said, however, that there are certain areas -- such as implementing a proven upgrade methodology or helping with new documentation -- where it may be OK, or better, to bring in outside consultants because even though they leave, they're leaving the documentation with you.
When looking to consultants, try to figure out areas where they could add value by leaving their expertise behind.
In turn, having a subject-matter expert on the team is absolutely essential, analysts agree. And if you can't find, or spare, that person, look to hiring outside help.
"That's where hiring some subject-matter experts can really pay off," Reed said. "The most powerful consultant is that subject-matter expert."