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Strategies for Improving Continuous Education

Insights from Mark Chalfen of Bluefin Solutions on How to Successfully
Develop Talent

insiderPROFILES, Volume 5, Issue 4

September 22, 2014

The skills required to be a successful SAP developer or consultant are changing dramatically. Whether it’s new technologies such as cloud, mobile, and SAP HANA coming into your SAP landscapes or the soft skills required to execute projects successfully, the message is clear: SAP professionals must continue to develop their skills.
But, even with this in mind, many IT organizations are not emphasizing continuous learning enough today. Are you, the SAP professionals, getting the skills and support you need to thrive and excel in the ever-changing SAP environments?
To answer this question, insiderPROFILES recently spoke with Mark Chalfen, a Director at Bluefin Solutions. In addition to being an experienced SAP consultant and SAP mentor, Chalfen is a strong proponent of continuous growth and education for SAP professionals. He is also a contributing author for SAP Experts, the premium online library of deep-dive SAP expertise, also from the publisher of SAPinsider. You can view his latest financials-focused article at


Mark Chalfen

Mark Chalfen
Bluefin Solutions

Q: How high is continuous learning and education on a typical IT organization’s priority scale, overall?

I think the importance of education is undervalued by most individuals and companies. Many entry-level people assume that the education required to get them that first position will suffice for a while. When they start out, they feel they have achieved their goals educationally, and they don’t refocus their lens to work out what the next goal should be. They think because they are now qualified to do their role, they are done learning. But once they do that, they are missing out on a number of other levels of education.

Q: For those working in the SAP space, how should they approach their own learning and education?

For starters, they need to decide if they want to be generalists or specialists. A generalist would have a high-level knowledge of end-to-end processes, whereas a specialist needs to understand a chosen area in a great deal of detail. That means being keenly aware of new SAP functionality, what has been recently released, the areas of investment SAP is focused on, and aligning their skills so they can continue to have relevant knowledge. 

You have to educate yourself on new technologies, and much of this can’t be learned in a classroom but rather from conferences, webinars, articles, and networking. With all the information available, it’s an area that anyone can improve on.

There’s no point in learning how to develop something custom today that will be addressed by an SAP solution in six months. The list of SAP Fiori apps is a good example. Understanding what options are available, how they might help your organization, and what you’ll need to do to leverage those apps might save you a lot of time and money in the long run.
There are some people who think that taking a certification course is the end-all of SAP education. Certifications are important, but you have to educate yourself on these new technologies to be a specialist. And much of this can’t be learned in a classroom; it’s learned from conferences, webinars, articles, and networking. The good news is with all the information available, it’s an area that anyone can improve on. But gaining that knowledge requires a lot of research and learning that you can’t do while working day-to-day on routine tasks. You have to dedicate time to it.
Q: How does one decide to be a specialist or generalist?

Well, you will always do better at what you are most interested in. For example, if you come into the SAP space with a particular background or interest, like a specific programming language or a certain industry, then you are probably well-suited to be a specialist. But keep in mind, there’s only so much work out there if you are too specialized.

Generalists are not something to be sniffed at either. They have the overarching view, and often these individuals move into areas such as program management and solution architecture because they can envision the full process from start to finish.
You need to recognize that you can’t know everything about everything, so you need to work out if you are a person who needs to know the details or you are a person who wants to add value by joining up pieces together at a much higher level.

Q: So where does education on something like SAP HANA fit into this? It started out as something a specialist might focus on, but because it’s now a platform, would that be the realm of a generalist?

Well, it’s both. You’ll need specialized consultants to work with SAP HANA, but the folks at the top of the food chain need to see the benefit and understand what it actually means to them. Without both of those components, adoption of SAP HANA will suffer.

But if you are an SAP professional of any kind and you think you will progress without knowing SAP HANA, then you’re burying your head in the sand. You’ll find that your skills will be out of date soon. I’m not sure how quickly. There is still some need for skills around older technologies and processes, and some individuals may find that their core skills won’t change.
The challenge with educating yourself on a new technology like SAP HANA is that it’s constantly evolving so you can’t just go take a course and be done. You actually need to keep refreshing that information at a much faster pace than you would for another technology. The volume of support packs and updates for SAP HANA is exceptionally high, and you need to invest a fair amount of time to understand what those latest changes mean for your organization.

Q: Are there other SAP-related areas that will drive the need for more education?

SAPUI5 skills are the most in demand at the moment, especially in light of SAP Fiori. This is an area people are focusing on in terms of building skillsets because it’s a different area and the volume of work there seems pretty strong. 
But on the flip side, organizations have to think about retaining those upskilled employees because demand for those skills will be strong. So whether it’s a consulting firm or a customer, if you develop people with those skills in-house, you need to be sure to keep them challenged and motivated.

Q: Beyond the technical skills, how can organizations motivate IT staff to develop more business-focused and “soft” skills?

Well, at some point, it’s a question of having pride in your work and wanting to understand what you are doing. So rather than just moving data from A to B, there are benefits to knowing how that data is used. That knowledge will help you write better code, perform more detailed testing, and understand the business requirements more quickly. It streamlines the development and testing process significantly. A technical consultant who codes in an area where he or she understands the business process will likely write that code more quickly, more efficiently, and with fewer errors.

Q: For a more technical SAP professional, what is a good first step toward better understanding the business issues?

The first step is to work more closely with the functional consultants — whether they are internal or at a customer site — and understand what that business organization does. That means asking questions. What does the business sell or produce? What are its objectives as a company? Is the focus on reducing working capital or on improving quality?
When developers understand that, their work will align back to those key business objectives much more clearly. If the business is focused on cutting costs, it could mean the developer helps automate processes.
And as a technical resource, you become more valuable. If you are the type of person who does what you are told to do to the letter, you will only ever go so far in your SAP journey. The next step in a technical person’s growth is providing a strategic design and advice based on the business goals.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring SAP professionals looking to expand their education and learning opportunities?

I’ve always been a strong proponent of mentoring and coaching because I was lucky enough to have individuals who gave me the time and let me engage with them in my career. That doesn’t mean telling people what to do, but teaching them how to look at things in a different way. While working your day job, you need to be aware of everyone around you and understand how to effectively engage them. Mentoring or coaching is an effective way to learn that.
You also need to know your own strengths and focus on those areas, while also acknowledging where your skillset may be weaker. You might not be able to change those weaknesses, but recognizing them will help mitigate any issues that might result from them.
One of the most common weaknesses is communication. A lot of technical people think working with SAP software is about banging on a keyboard, but I spend most of my day talking and communicating with people. For example, I might spend 15% of my time on a computer and the rest of the time speaking and listening.
And my last piece of advice would be if you are in an organization today where continuous learning and growth are not encouraged, you have two choices: try to change that organization or leave it. If you want to change the organization, it can’t be done overnight, but you can start with small steps, including talking with the HR department.
If there is a focus on talent in other departments, but not in IT, it’s a matter of finding out what processes are being used and replicating them. For instance, one strategy is to implement a rule that states everyone must have a certain number of hours of training per year.
But if it’s something you’re passionate about and it’s not a strong part of your organization’s talent management strategy, you might gain more in the long run by prioritizing your own professional development.

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