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Introduction

In recent years the Indian IT landscape has seen the emergence of a new profession, that of the SAP Functional Consultant . In this article I intend to explore issues such as the Origin, Characteristics, Roles and challenges for future professional growth of the SAP Functional Consultant .

It was when ERP systems started gaining popularity in the late- 90's that the ERP companies such as SAP realized that for their  applications to grow they needed people who understood business AND  could also "configure" the package. They did not have to necessarily write code. And thus was created the SAP Functional Consultant.

(A distinction must be made between Functional Consultants and Business Analysts. A Functional Consultant has business process knowledge AND also a good knowledge of the ERP package. They are therefore able to discuss solutions with Clients/ Users and then configure those solutions. A Business Consultant/ Analyst on the other hand has process knowledge but generally does not have a thorough knowledge of the package to carry out configurations.)

Origin, Characteristics and Sources

In India, among various IT professionals, the SAP Functional Consultant is  relatively new. He/ she came into existence not before the mid 90's. The major factors that influenced the origin and growth of the SAP Functional Consultants in India were

  • Rapid growth of SAP usage by the worlds largest and leading corporations
  • The recognition of India as a reliable source for  high quality IT professionals,
  • Major improvement in communication technology and connectivity worldwide   and in India that made offshoring possible.

Combined, these factors meant that SAP work could be outsourced to India with considerable cost advantages, and this contributed to the rapid growth of the Indian SFC community. To the individual aspiring to be an SFC, it meant working in the (Indian) sunrise industry of IT, better working conditions, better remuneration and foreign travel. I estimate that as of now the total number of SAP FC's in India is in the region of 10 to 12 thousand.

SFC's typically have a graduate degree, 3 to 10 years of industry experience and some training/ exposure to SAP when they take up  their first assignment as SP Functionl Consultants. The various channels that professionals have used to become SAP Functional Consultants are

  • Industry professionals, who acquire SAP knowledge through Official (SAP Academy/ Partner) or sometimes informal channels and then join the SFC community. This source is by far the largest. In many cases the SFC starts as a contract resource on the payroll of small sub contractors, and gradually moves to larger Consulting Companies. While SAP / partners make a promise of placement assistance after the training/ certification is over, placement success percentage has never been a high figure.
  • Members of Core teams from companies where SAP has been implemented. While most Client companies have an anti-poaching clause in their contract with the Implementation partner, a significant number of Core Team Members eventually join Consulting Companies.
  • Some Consulting companies run Industry Domain Hiring programs where they hire professionals with rich industry experience, with or without SAP knowledge. These hires are subsequently trained on SAP by the company.
  • Fresh graduates from leading Business schools are sometimes hired by companies and given SAP training.

All the above sources/channels have been used at one time or another by the larger Indian Consulting Companies.  However when requirements are not high, Domain and Fresher Hiring is usually not resorted to.

SAP Functionl Consultants  from each source have their plus and minus points. While Industry professionals come with experience, their Communication and Client facing skills are not very good, when compared to Domain Hires and Freshers.

SAP Functional Consultants Roles

Till just a few years back, it was every SAP FC's dream to be on an implementation project , primarily because it meant that he/she would be working in either US or Europe and with the attendant higher income that working abroad involved. Indeed the profession was so new in India that most people had not looked beyond the immediate attraction of money.

An interesting outcome of this "implementation" fixation was that when Companies advertised for SAP FC's they would invariably mention "at least 3 end-to-end implementations experience required", even when it was known that the resources were being hired mainly for "support" projects!!!

It is important to understand that SAP is now a mature market and most of the large companies (Fortune 500) have implemented SAP at least 5 or more years ago. It has been estimated that 70 percent of global revenue in SAP work is from "support". The Indian situation is no different. In fact the percentage of revenue for India from support would be considerably higher than the global number because India's advantage is primarily in offshore support.

As of now we see SAP FCs in India in the following roles:

  • Working on "support" or "maintenance" projects for Clients located in India or abroad. Most of the SP FC's in such roles are located in India and a small number may be onsite. This role forms a major chunk of the Indian SAP FC population. The growth rate of this segment is expected to be higher than others.
  • Working on Implementation projects. This is the second largest pool and a majority of the SFC's in this role are working on implementations in India. A few may be working abroad.
  • Working in SAP Sales and sales related activities.
  • In support areas like Training and Skill development.

Career Growth and Challenges

As mentioned earlier, the SAP FC is a new community, and the bulk of the population has less than 5 years of SAP experience. So the hard questions about career growth have yet to be faced. Also we don't have a great deal of evidence on what could happen in the long term to SAP FC from a career growth point of view.  The visible career paths are:

  • Project Management: Given that a major part of the community is engaged in offshore support projects, moving upwards into Project management is a logical progression. This is the most visible career growth path in India and will continue to remain so for a long time.  It is worthwhile to note that , in the early days, while SFC were deployed in India, Project management activity itself was not outsourced  and Project management was done by foreign Clients/ Implementation partners. As of now Project Management by Indian Consulting Companies and Indian PM professionals is clearly established. This is a clear move up on the value chain.
  • Sales and Related activities. The Indian SFC's participation in Sales/ related is mainly for domestic customers, although we nowadays see some of the pre- and post-sales activity for foreign clients being done in India.
  • Consulting. This is career track which has very high earning potential but has been neglected by both the Indian companies as well as the Indian SAP FC community. Even today there are significant opportunities in US/ Europe for this role, but one does not see many Indian SFCs moving in that direction.

There are also a number of areas of skill-gap that need to be addressed by the SFC community. While package/ configuration knowledge among the Indian SFC is usually high, the challenges are mainly in managerial skills.

  • Communication/ Language skills (In English). This is the most serious skill-gap and the number one reason for slow growth for any of the career paths. What the SFC community has not fully understood and absorbed is that in any senior position, communication in English becomes vital for 2 reason
  1. For communicating with Clients globally
  2. For communicating internally, because even in an all-Indian group, the only language which everyone understands is English (strange but true!!).

Most large companies arrange a 1 or 2 day communications skills trainings but this is wholly inadequate. What the SFC community must realize is that improving Communication/ language skills require sustained long term effort and as such unless there is a high level of personal commitment and ownership, nothing much would be gained. So my advice to all SFC who want to see career growth, is to invest time AND money in improving Communication/ language skills. Fortunately in India a number of English training institutes are available to help solve the problem.

  • Client facing / Selling skills: Only a handful of SAP FC enter the SAP world with Client skills. (Usually SD consultants). For the rest, they have to learn them. The trend has been that in most companies, people learn "on the job", and there is very little formal/ class-room training that is made available by employers. Also such training is not easily available in the market. This will continue to be a challenge for some time.
  • Consulting skills: These are necessary in Consulting roles, and the situation is even worse than for Client facing skills.

In summary, the Indian SAP FC is a growing community which offers an attractive and stable career in the IT Industry to those industry professionals who are not directly involved in programming and hardware. There are attractive career and growth paths available, but there are also associated challenges in terms of skills. While the world recognises the Indian SFC for quality work in support and Project management, we have not yet established a strong image for Consulting. The SAP FC community, along with Consulting companies and SAP itself, needs to make concerted efforts for the Indian SFC to move up on the value chain.

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