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The role of higher education in SAP: A wide-ranging Q&A with Art Worster of Central Michigan University (transcript)

by Dave Hannon

December 29, 2010

 p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;"> 

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">The Insider Learning Network recently sat down with Art Worster, adjunct faculty member at Central Michigan University, to discuss the role of higher education in SAP and a range of other topics. What follows is a transcript of that interview:

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave Hannon:  Hello, this is Dave Hannon with SAPinsider. I'm speaking with Art Worster, who is currently an adjunct faculty member at Central Michigan University's MBA program. Thank you for speaking with us, Art.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art Worster:  You're welcome, Dave. I'm glad to be here.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave:  I wanted to get your thought on the role of higher education in helping businesses achieve success with their SAP implementation and ERP. I know you've got a lot of thoughts on these topics. Why don't we start our conversation there?

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art:  I'd be happy to. Over the years - and of course SAP R/3 and its successors have  been around a few decades  - these programs have been supported by a tremendous need to technically train consultants and client employees to 1) design, 2) implement, and 3) to operate in an ERP environment. And almost all the effort has gone in that direction.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">If you look at the marketplace out there, you'll find places where they've been successful in having the SAP software implemented, but they didn't achieve the business benefits they were looking for. In other words, the company is operating very successfully on SAP, but they're not achieving the business benefits that the return on investment case was based upon.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">And we tend to say, “Well, we need to technically train our people better. We need to add this training or that training, that training.” In my perception, this really goes to the fact that we have not incorporated the knowledge of how SAP systems work effectively enough into our graduate programs in the business schools.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Now, the University Alliance Program at SAP has done, I think, an outstanding job in enlisting more and more universities to teach more programs, both undergraduate and postgraduate.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">There are an awful lot of programs around the country that incorporate one or more courses in Introduction to ERP, Introduction to SAP, or perhaps ABAP programming or perhaps things like CRM or supply chain management, depending on the individual business school's focus and approach.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">However, we've not gone to the point where we offer business executives   an opportunity to spend a significant amount of time and a significant amount of coursework studying and understanding how an IT application, SAP in this case, are utilized  to create the business benefits that it's capable of achieving.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">That, I think, is an oversight, and that is something that I believe is being addressed slowly but progressively.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave:  Do you see companies expressing this kind of interest? Obviously there's an opportunity in an academic context, but do you see companies coming to universities more, expressing interesting in these areas?

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art:  I think it's a two-edged sword.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">First of all, if you talk to people about what their needs are, they need consultants as well as employees who understand better how to design, implement, and utilize SAP in order to achieve business benefits. Universally you'll find people who bemoan the fact that they don't have people who really understand how to get the business benefits.  

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">If you then look at what that really means, that really means looking for educational programs --  all the way from seminar level to SAP education to broader certification programs to our higher learning institutions -- for ways we can incorporate training  to design and support a business process that, after all, equals the business results you will achieve.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">So the first university in the United States to have a full SAP concentration is Central Michigan University. It's the university that I'm associated with as an adjunct faculty. There's also a second program that just started up at University of Scranton this last September. These programs are one way to meet the needs of corporations seeking better utilization of their SAP systems.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave:  Do you see these programs targeted at existing business folks at companies using or evaluating SAP? Or are they also targeted at the undergraduates who are pursuing their master's?

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art:  The answer to that is an unequivocal yes -  I see it all levels. The most effective graduate programs, MBA programs, are those that are comprised primarily of those who had work history and backgrounds. It's always better to understand a significant amount about business before you embark on an MBA program like this. I'm not saying people who don't have that should not go into MBA programs -- particularly with the lack of jobs and students coming out of undergraduate school and going on to take MBA programs. I do highly support that.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">But companies that are looking to improve the overall competency of their workforce understand the organizational change aspects. So that's a very heavy need.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">And then on top of that, consultants who would like to go out and just sit in a cubicle and configure one particular function, let's say inventory management, it's not so critical for those people.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">But consultants who really want to be business consultants -- which in my opinion they should want to be -- and really want to understand how business processes are supported by SAP systems, and how those deliver business results, those people are also there.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">So our courses at Central Michigan are, in almost equal proportion, comprised of business people, IT people who don't have a lot of specific business knowledge, consultants who are trying to expand their knowledge of business processes, and undergraduates who are going on and using this time of low employment to advance their academic careers.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 16.5pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave:  There is a lot of talk lately about what factors lead to a successful ERP implementation, what sort of pitfalls to avoid. But do you see improvements in the solutions’ design so that they're geared more towards gaining more business benefit, rather than just being loaded with a lot of bells and whistles? Now are they designing solutions that really help pull business benefits, make it a little easier on the implementation side of things?

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art:  Since, the early 1990s in the R/3 world, SAP has produced a set of software solutions first in a more narrow area and then more broadly as the business suite was evolved, has always had the ability to be implemented in such a way that it could straighten out your business processes. It could resolve the handoffs and the tradeoffs between pieces of the organization that manage different parts of a business process. It's always had the ability to do that. The key to effectively utilizing this program has always been overall program governance that goes up to and includes the senior executive levels where a lot of the change has to occur, as well as organizational change management.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">I know that everybody throws this word out. But I'm talking about organizational change management that effectively identifies and deals with issues that need to be resolved – and  how the workforce, from executives to the floor, are going to actually utilize the systems to achieve the business results they're looking for.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">SAP has always been able to do that. Now let’s talk about the expansion of the software -- as you call it, “the bells and the whistles,” the fancier, trickier business processes. I would describe these as addressing more complex issues on the front-end of the process, things like variant configurators in the CRM system, or some of the multidivisional supply chain management issues that APO addresses. A lot of those pieces give you more tools to achieve an effective business process.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">But in 1995, 15 years ago, even as far back as 3.0, you were able to take and develop business processes within the ERP system, which after all is the back office integration, and you were able to achieve tremendous business benefits.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Many, many companies, perhaps even most companies, didn't achieve those business benefits. This did not have to do with the software nearly as so much as it had to do with the inability to change the organizations.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Dave:  We've been seeing a trend towards a new role emerging between the business user and the IT organization and it's sort of a continuing process. But do you see any trends in that area, the internal consultants that are more focused on bridging the gap between the business user and the IT organization?

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Art:  That's exactly the area that I work within. And that's, quite frankly, that's the way I look at it: as the gulf, or the chasm, if you will, that exists between IT organizations and business organizations within an individual enterprise. And it’s crossing that divide between when business people say, "I need to have some changes here. I can't achieve the business benefits that I'm supposed to achieve because the IT systems are a mess. I'll just throw this over the wall to the IT people and let them design a better system for me."

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Well, clearly that doesn't work. You're not throwing the work to somebody who has the background, knowledge, and experience to do that effectively in most cases.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">On the other side, the IT people say, "Well, you know, we designed the new business processes, but those business people don't get it, so they don't implement it. They don't make the changes necessary. The people do all their work now on spreadsheets, and they just feed the system the way the system has to be fed, but they really haven't changed their business process."

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">Well, that's true, too. So if you look at that, where can these two sides meet?  I believe they can meet at the university, and in MBA programs.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">We need to have business schools that focus on the interaction between IT and business people within an enterprise as a key critical area.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">MBA programs teach strategic planning. We teach economic analysis. We teach cultural transformation. We teach all kinds of different business functions and how they relate to each other to help our MBA students understand how to better operate a business.

p class="MsoNormal" style="margin: 0in 0in 11pt; mso-pagination: widow-orphan;">We have not done a good job, in my opinion, of teaching business people -- and the hybrid group of part IT/part business and perhaps part consultants -- how to bridge that gulf and how to be a competent business advisor to an organization that's seeking to improve their business results. The MBA programs with SAP concentrations are designed to fill this need.

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COMMENTS

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Scott Wallask

9/25/2013 8:51:05 PM

Art's views play a lot into Dave's prior posts about how companies will have a hard time keeping quality workers in house as the U.S. market opens up for IT jobs. The idea of MBA level courses teaching students and professionals about SAP ERP seems to indicate that HR professionals have yet another aspect to consider as they strive to keep their workforce intact.


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