Sunday, 22 August 2010

Call me certifiable

There is no question that the advent of the PC has made a huge difference to businesses. Over the last 20 plus years, we have seen the introduction of systems that are designed to improve the way that we operate. The PC promised more accurate information processing, better analysis, greater efficiencies, and faster communication. However, this came with a slight downside - unfortunately, there were not enough people that knew how the computers worked.

My youngest daughter has a book, and one of the quotes in it is "when she was good, she was very, very good; when she was bad, she was horrid!". There are a lot of people that work with PCs that could say the same of their systems - when they work well, everyone can operate them. But when things go wrong, you need to have someone that understands what is going on behind the scenes and rectify any problems.

However, a lot of people of that time that called themselves "IT staff" were just people that had turned a hobby into a job. Far too many of them knew enough to make it sound as if they were experts, but in reality, they relied upon the lack of knowledge of other people so that they could just BS the way thru a problem. Companies needed to have someone available to help fix problems, but they didn't know if a particular person actually had the right skills or not.

Over a decade ago, Microsoft introduced their MCSE certification. The idea was simple - produce a formal training and examination process that could offer organizations a way to see if a potential hire actually had the relevant skills. Others were doing the same - they all saw the value to their business model by offering customers a means of being more comfortable with their purchase, by knowing that people they employed had a minimum level of skills.

The problem was that the certifications then meant that some people could command higher salaries - and that then lead to the "brain dump" sites that offered people the chance to learn answers to specific questions, without necessarily knowing the product that well. These were followed by "boot camps" - places that could allow you to undertake intensive training for a week or two just to pass the exam. These lead to what became known as "paper MCSEs" - people that had the certification, but not the experience to go with it.

Since starting our SAP project, I've obviously taken more note of a lot of things that I see out on the Internet to do with SAP. Like a lot of people, I've seen the posts from people asking how they can get into SAP consultancy. I suspect that in most cases, they've heard that they earn a whole bunch of money from this and are hoping that they can a course or two, get a certification, then sit back and watch the dollars roll in. I don't know if there is such a phrase as "paper SAP consultant", but I think that such people are out there in abundance.

What worries me a bit is that I think this is more common than most realize - and as a result, we get consultancy firms charging their customers $1500 a day, but they then employ the newly qualified people on maybe half that. We were given the resumes of the consultants that we were to get which were satisfactory - but when we didn't get the experienced people that we were promised, we should have done something about it, certainly asked for more info on the people we did get.

As it happens, I have taken a couple of courses at an SAP Training center and I think that the quality of training there is very good. I have made a couple of my staff take courses and they have learned a lot - and there is no question that this will help us do our jobs better. But it worries me a little that one of my staff now has an SAP certification - although he has taken the courses and done a little bit of work on the product, I would question if he is really sufficiently experienced for him to be at that level. He could in fact leave to go somewhere else with that paper - but I wouldn't yet suggest that he is actually ready to become a consultant.

I've also noticed that this is an issue that concerns a lot of people within the SAP consultancy world - they see the poorly trained, barely certified people screwing up and giving them a bad rep. I can actually understand their concern over this and I think that it is good that is recognized as an issue. I think that SAP could do themselves a big favor by monitoring just what a lot of people with their certifications are doing out there - I think that they might not be too happy with what they find.

Now I don't pretend to have a complete answer to this problem - but I think that it would have to start with listening to some of the more experienced independent people. They are the ones that suffer the most from other people's poor performance, and they generally have less to gain by covering up problems.

I have a qualification on the wall behind my desk - it shows that I have undertaken a considerable amount of work over many years to achive a high standard in my work that hs been recognized by a prestigious institution. And yes, I am quite proud of that qualification as I am of the many others that I have obtained. I wouldn't mind adding an SAP certification into my collection - but only if I feel that it means something of real value, and not that it is just there to allow me to ask for an extra five hundred bucks a year.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Meet me in St Louis

We had a team meeting the other day, and it got me to thinking about some of the project meetings we have had in the past.

A lot of people don't like team / project meetings - all too often, you can see them drifting into their own little worlds, trying to hide their yawns, doodling on pads, apparantly fascinated by their socks, desperate to be anywhere but where they are. But meetings are important - you have to keep people informed, get them to agree on what is going to happen and make sure that what is planned doesn't cause too much disruption or interfere in other peoples planned work.

For that reason, I like to have shorter meetings, with a clear agenda - preferably one that has been sent out before hand, so that everyone can prepare. (There is nothing worse than someone going to a meeting and suddenly being asked about something, and they have to speak off the cuff - too often, they forget important points.) There should always be notes taken and someone should type these up and circulate them so that everyone has access to a record of the details.

I also like to see clear action points at the end of meetings - with responsibilities and timetables or deadlines agreed. I also have no issue if someone fails to meet a deadline - we all have other work to do, sometimes this has to take precedence. But a meeting without an agenda or an agreed plan of action at the end, is just a talking shop, with no benefit to the business.

When the consultants organised the first launch meeting, they did actually have an agenda - but it wasn't circulated before hand, they just had it as part of a PowerPoint presentation which they referred to during the meeting. Unfortunately, the points listed were pretty brief - mostly just the names of the key stages within the process to be followed. They talked a lot about the stages, but again, mostly in fairly bland details.

The meeting dragged on for over 5 hours, not including the 40 minute break in the middle or the two coffee breaks. I still have my notes from the meeting and in the corner I have written "they could have covered all this in under an hour". I believe that I may have shown the note to one of my colleagues during the meeting.

For me tho', the biggest issue was that at the end of the meeting, no-one had a clear idea of what anyone was supposed to do, when the work was to be done by, what the next steps were or pretty much anything else. I remember a few days later, I spoke to a manager from the production area and asked about a particular issue related to assembling data on the products list - he replied that he thought that was for those of us in IT to do. When I pointed out that it was necessary to make sure the information was correct, and that only his people could do that, he was astonished - he had no idea of what I was talking about. I also had similar discussions with virtually every other department head, all of whom had been at the same meeting!

I did actually speak to the project leader from the consultants about making sure that information from meetings was properly circulated - his response was that it was our project and therefore it was our responsibility to manage all of these details. I can agree on things such as notes, action lists, and circulating details etc. but they were the ones actually planning and running the meetings, and therefore putting the agenda together. I felt that as we were paying for their experience in the project, it would not have been unreasonable to expect them to provide details of agendas and when their people would have been on site, and what they were there to do - but clearly, he didn't agree with this.

As it happens, shortly after that first meeting, I organised a structure for the notes to be taken and posted on an intranet site as a resource for people to refer to. I also tried to get a regular action list agreed, altho' that proved a bit problematic, particularly if I wasn't at the particular meeting. Many of the presentations were supplied by the consultants and were also posted, but I don't think anyone actually bothered to refer to these as they contained so little of any benefit. I also setup a snag list and that very quickly became a very lengthy file.

Looking back on it now, I think that if we had been able to get a bit more disciplined from the start over the way that meetings were planned and organised, and there had been a more structured approach to getting notes, actions lists etc out after meetings, this would have made sure that we stayed a bit more on track. Certainly I feel that there was an amount of time wasted due to lack of adequate control.

It would be unfair to blame all of this on the consultants - partly it has to come down to company culture and the individuals concerned. But I think that the consultants could have given some better guidance - they are supposed to have seen many projects, so should know the importance of getting organised and making sure that everyone knows and understand what is required.

If you start off in a particular manner, people generally continue in that way - unfortunately, if you don't get the right type of disciplined structure in at the beginning, people will just do their own thing, and instead of everyone working together, you get a more haphazard approach. As it happens, we overcame that, primarily by sheer hard work on the part of everyone on the team. But I think that it could have been made much more effective from the beginning and getting the organisation of meetings correct is a first step to a better project.