Along with many top-flight organisations in the IT industry such as Microsoft and Cisco, business software giant SAP is re-organising its whole approach to education. It is in the process of rolling out a whole new certification programme, as Gary Flood explains.

SAP bestrides the world like a Colossus, forming the backbone of many multi-national companies' attempts to bring rationality to their sometimes massively complex business processes.

The firm now has approaching 50,000 corporate clients in 120 countries, with just over that number on its payroll, supplying solutions to 25 different industries, from its original manufacturing roots to aerospace to pharmaceutical to financial services. For its last full year of trading, it racked up a nine percent increase in revenue, up to £8.1bn, barely pausing in its stride to swoop up rival enterprise software firm Business Objects last year for £3.4bn.

SAP exploded on the back of the late 1990s craze for Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, and programmer mythology suggests that at one time in the City having SAP skills meant you could charge day rates of £1,000 (allegedly).

Since those heady days ERP may have faded from the headlines, but SAP as a central component in large and midsize companies' planning has very much not. It was against all this background that SAP decided in April 2007 to 'shift the paradigm' and inaugurate an entirely fresh global certification programme.

For the first time, SAP has introduced a three-tier qualifications structure, with candidates going becoming either an SAP Certified Associate, Certified Professional and Certified Master.

This basic structure is finessed by the fact that SAP itself is no longer one homogenous technology (as it was from its 1972 creation until roughly the mid-1990s, when the main R / 3 product began to become more differentiated and the company started acquiring other technologies itself).

So candidates become Associate or Master etc with a clutch of exams 'filtered' by the factors of whether or not they want to have credentials in specific applications (for example, expert in 'just' SAP NetWeaver or another main SAP technology pillar), technology (how you are applying your knowledge, for example software development and technology), and your current or desired role (enterprise architect, developer, consultant, and so forth).

In terms of where we are with all this new structure, the Associate qualification is up and running but Professional and Master are still being fleshed out, according to Sue Martin, the software giant's global certification portfolio manager. She said that the first eight Professional exams are now available, projected to rise to ten by mid summer, but the highest and most rigorous level (Master) exams will be piloted in the fourth quarter. Right now there are 7,000 holders of the new certificates, she adds.

If that number doesn't seem so impressive, let's make it clear - there is no question that SAP took education less than seriously prior to 2007.' Indeed, the pre 2007 certification programme eventually racked up 140,000 certified people worldwide.

However, Martin Roche, SAP UK and Ireland's education director, explains: 'We became aware we were a bit of a "sleeping giant" when it came to certification.'

Are SAP-ers struggling to find work? SAP says (gently), in effect, don't be silly. 'The new programme is about us helping customers get the maximum value out of their SAP investment,' says Roche. 'We are helping three groups here; employers, so they can be sure the candidate has the right skills for the job; the individual, to give them both personal satisfaction and an edge in the market; and SAP itself, as it helps us drive skills and excellence.'

Let's break that claim down just a little bit. Are employers rejecting people with years of experience because they are uncertified? That's a mixed story, says Marc Bouteloupt, a senior account manager for a major SAP recruitment agency in the City, Maximus. 'It matters to certain employers and not others. If you have ten years SAP experience, I’d say it really makes no difference. Employers will always look for real world experience.'

Martyn Barrow, MD of Peopleco, another specialist recruitment firm, adds: 'Ten years ago SAP skills were really rare and certification would have given you real differentiation. But now the SAP skills base has widened so much that doesn't apply. Certification isn't the passport to riches it once was.'

We'll get back to the individuals in Roche's target list in a second; but how about SAP itself? Actually, he really means SAP partners, in Bouteloupt's viewpoint: 'The big consultancies really like being able to say their people have SAP certification, it helps them get more credibility. For firms like IBM Global Services and Deloitte, it's a big part of their marketing.'

We didn't exactly put it that way to such a partner, Atos Origin, which has 30,000 SAP consultants - but its global alliances director Nigel Dixon confirmed that the company has a target of getting a massive 70 per cent of those staff to SAP certification status.

'We believe investing in our staff this way is good for our clients and, yes, does help differentiate us from our competitors,' he says.

Note that word 'investing'. Like any good thing, getting SAP certification is hard - and can be costly. Few independent IT training companies offer SAP training, which means companies must work with the company’s SAP Education department directly.

'Getting SAP qualifications costs a lot of money,' claims Maximus' Bouteloupt. 'If you are freelance, if you have experience and are looking to move to your second or third employer, I'd say there is no real need.'

From the point of view of the manager looking to buy education resources and the IT professional assessing his training needs, while the new SAP certification is obviously of importance to the company and its partners, is the time, cost and effort needed to get the new SAP certifications going to be worth it?

The answer seems to be 'most definitely', especially if you are starting out - and maybe even if not. 'Though we prize work experience when we talk to prospective employers, any qualification gives you more credibility in the marketplace and especially if you are a new graduate or early on in your SAP career. It can really open doors,' recommends Bouteloupt.

'I always like to see SAP certification on a candidate's CV as it shows they take their career seriously,' adds Peopleco's Barrow. 'Though there is no substitute for battle scars, this will get you more respect.'

The verdict, then, is that anyone serious about acquiring or using SAP skills needs to take the new three-tier structure seriously - and be prepared to invest in solidifying their expertise in one of the most important software architectures out there.

Let's leave the last word to SAP itself: 'Yes there has always been a string market for SAP skills, but from the hiring manager's point of view if there is more than one person able to fill the post, we think having the qualification will give you the edge,' says Roche. 'In certain areas getting those jobs has always been competitive - that will probably become even more so.'

Useful links

SAP's guide to the new certification programme