My first job when I graduated with my master’s degree was with one of the big system integrators. I was a Big 5 SAP consultant focused primarily on organizational change management at some very large, multi-national organizations.
Though colleagues and I have written about being Accentured and the dark side of the digital transformation, I have to admit that I was once part of this same machine. I am in some ways glad that I had this early experience, but it was in some ways a disappointing way for a naïve 25-year-old to start his career.
After being certified in SAP configuration and shadowing a project as part of my initial training, my first project assignment was to lead the reengineering of the returns process for a large, complex telecommunications manufacturing company in Denver. I worked with this client for over a year. It was a fun first project, working with a great client peer and some very good SAP consultants.
I enjoyed learning about the inner-workings of SAP and ERP systems in general. Even more so, I enjoyed learning about how supply chains, manufacturing, and distribution operations worked. I worked for a demanding partner that taught me a ton about the finesse and polish required to be a good ERP consultant. I also made some long-lasting friendships and work relationships that continue to this day.
But some things really bothered me about my experience – both on this first project and others I was involved with while working for the Big 5. We were expected to be at the client site billing from 7:45am until no earlier than 7pm every day. As a 20-something with an active social life, there were a few times I had plans that required me to leave by 6pm, which was highly frowned upon.
It wasn’t the long hours themselves that bothered me – it was that I didn’t feel like I needed to be billing the client 12-13 hours per day. I probably had about 3-4 hours of actual work on any given day, so I spent a lot of time finding other work to do. Since I was working with a team of about 40 consultants on this one client project, there wasn’t enough work to go around – yet I was still expected to bill the client as much as possible.
The Big 5 bias toward SAP was also in conflict with my personal values. For example, my first ERP software evaluation process was rigged to point to an SAP recommendation from day 1. I remember being excited to really dig into this particular client’s operations and business needs to find the best technology solution, only to be told that it wasn’t a matter of what we were going to recommend – it was a matter of how we were going to justify SAP.
The bias didn’t stop during the evaluation phase. Even during implementation, the focus was on how we could get more modules of SAP into our scope and more users on the system as quickly as possible. This in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but it can be when the software isn’t a good fit, or the client isn’t ready to absorb that specific technology. There were times that simple business process improvements could have sufficed, without necessarily needing to complicate things with a big, complex system.
Long story short, the biases and lack of focus on client needs didn’t feel right. I enjoyed the learning experience – and may not have otherwise eventually started the independent ERP consulting firms as I had – but it wasn’t a good long-term fit for me. I eventually left to go work for a smaller ERP consulting firm in the utilities and energy industry.
Unfortunately, my career path continued to expose similar biases in the consulting and system integrator industry. Most of my future employers and peer ERP consultants were also in some ways biased, either directly through financial kickbacks from software vendors and/or indirectly through myopic focus on specific technologies. Companies such as Deloitte, Accenture, Capgemini, and other SAP system integrators may be good at what they do, but they sometimes need to be reined in and managed better.
My main lesson from this experience – and my reason for starting Third Stage Consulting – is that independence is critical throughout the entire cycle of any SAP S/4HANA or ERP digital transformation. This technology-agnostic focus is more clearly obvious during the software evaluation stage of your project, but it is just as (if not even more) important throughout the transformation.
An outside, independent voice is the only way to get your SAP system integrator under control and to manage your transformation in a way that makes the most sense for your organization. Feel free to contact me to brainstorm ideas on how you might do this for your organization!