Steve Strout is a former CIO and CTO. He spent more than 25 years leading IT organizations and operations divisions at companies such as Thomson Learning and The New York Times Co.\n\n\n MORE ON CIO.com\n \n SAP Skills Shortage Costs SAP's Customers, Partners and, Ultimately, SAP AG\n \n Can SAP's Global Reach Help It Weather the U.S. Economic Storm?\n \n Five Things About SAP's Strategy That You Need to Know\n \n\nAnd since he joined the board of directors of the Americas' SAP Users' Group, or ASUG, and subsequently became its first CEO in August 2007, Strout has come to know a lot about SAP and its ecosystem\u2014the myriad technology and implementation consultants, independent software providers and systems integrators all looking to grab their share of the business in SAP's channel. \n\nHe's also aware of the difficulties associated with finding, hiring and relying on those players in the SAP ecosystem, and the fact that it "changes so much," Strout says. (For more on the SAP staffing skills problem, see "SAP Skills Shortage Costs SAP's Customers, Partners and, Ultimately, SAP AG.") \n\nSo to help its 60,000-plus membership, ASUG formally released a new Web-based product in mid-July, called Edge, that is a searchable online directory of consulting firms and independent consultants who offer SAP services. Edge also provides customer-input reviews on those consultants and other service providers in the North American SAP community. The annual cost for the access to the Edge product is $995 for ASUG members and $1,495 for nonmembers. \n\nOn one level, Edge is not a technology solution looking for a problem; this is a serious problem in need of a solution because there are (depending on estimates) anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 SAP specialists needed worldwide. Steve Strout, ASUG CEOBut will the user group's offering be enough? Not everyone, including David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at staffing researcher Foote Partners, thinks so. Edge doesn't solve the core problem, Foote told the IDG News Service, which is the need to quickly get more workers with SAP skills into play at systems integrators and software consulting firms. \n\nCIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum talked with Strout about the Edge tool, what it aims to fix in the SAP ecosystem, and the unique relationship between ASUG and SAP. \n\nCIO: Why did ASUG develop Edge? \n\nSteve Strout: It's an outgrowth of some research we did about a year and a half ago. We went to the members and said: What is it you'd like to see from us? What aren't we providing that we should be providing? The members and partners both came back and said: "We really need to have a really good understanding of who it is we are hiring." So we set about building this product to allow people to do peer reviews, rate people and organizations. \n\nCan this help with the SAP skills gap that currently exists? \n\nStrout: There is a skills gap, but it is a very defined skills gap. The generic "R\/3 people from yesterday" requirements are pretty much done. We now need very select skills. Being able to have a way to review who has demonstrated them well and who has succeeded is an important thing. \n\nWhat were particular pain-point skill sets that you were hearing about from the ASUG membership? \n\nStrout: It's definitely the newer stuff. Getting coders is not that difficult, but there is always a skills shortage of really good Basis [Administration] people. I'm not real sure why that is; it's just history within the business. When I was a CIO, it was always tough to find really good, talented Basis people, though you can find lots of mediocre ones. [The skills gap] is definitely on the NetWeaver stack and the newer stuff. I wouldn't say cutting edge, necessarily, but cutting edge in the SAP environment. The whole Java world is different for most SAP environments. Unless [the customer has] got a large Web presence, they don't have a Java skillset.... I think there is a skillset area that can be addressed, and certainly this tool allows a member to identify the consultant companies that actually have the best skills and then match their particular requirements. \n\nHow will someone use this tool? \n\nStrout: There are a couple of different scenarios. One is actually putting in a review. The ability for a member that has gone through a project to add that\u2014whether it's an implementation, upgrade or turning on new feature functions. Whatever. Edge allows them to go in to rate the company as well as an individual consultant. If that vendor isn't in the database, it allows them to add that person and company to the database. It is designed so that a company can't necessarily opt out: Everybody gets to rate. \n\nThe second scenario is when a customer or member might be looking for augmentation of their skills sets to help them with a project. So being able to go in and identify who has the skills necessary for their individual project, whether it's an industry-specific solution, like media. [They can see] who has those skills? And from that: who has highest rating? And then be able to read through and understand what other people have said about other projects, and then also be able to link out and ask for more information on the submitter or that review. \n\nAnd the third one is our partners, the vendors, being able to go in and understand how they rank amongst their competitors\u2014how they can use that in the marketing of their skill set. For example, the fact that they've got an A rating from 50 different customers and on 50 different projects\u2014that's a huge, huge thing to say. You know, [because] very few projects go so exorbitantly well that everybody comes out OK. \n\nDoes Edge allow members to look at how much each Edge user paid these consultants? \n\nStrout: No. Actually we've kind of stayed away from that at the moment. There's a slippery slope there. We don't want to get into the area of putting the financials out there or even ballparks. We might do things similar to that in the future, but right at the moment the intent is to give people really good information and maybe those people are worth spending extra dollars for because you have actually to use less time. Because, when looking at "rate per hour," in most cases, that's a really bad determinant of whether a project is going to be successful. \n\nWhat's been the ASUG reaction so far? \n\nStrout: We turned it on in beta in a very limited scope back in January, and we have 400 companies rated already from people who have gone through projects and wanted to get out there and rate their vendors. It's been a positive experience so far. \n\nDo you have any goals on ASUG member use or how many companies in the SAP ecosystem you want rated? \n\nStrout: I don't have those particular types of goals to identify its success. [What matters] to me is if it's actually helped a business do their business better, and gotten a better deal because they've gotten a better vendor. I don't know how to rate that yet. I'd love to have 80 percent of the ecosystem in there at some point and time. \n\nWhat do those consultants and companies who are being rated think? \n\nStrout: I've had two different responses: One has been, "Oh crap. I don't want you to have my best consultants' [names] out there because then everyone will know who to go and poach." And my retort is: "Take care of them, and they'll take care of you." That's a management issue not a technology issue. \n\nThe other response has been very positive and understanding in how they can do better and get a really good feedback. Especially small and midsize companies who don't have a good, true feedback system within their own companies and don't have customer service surveys that really address this, especially the smaller guys. This gives them a tool to actually see how well they fare against the bigger guys. And it gives them a marketing advantage [in that they can] take a look at Edge and they can go see how they rate relative to everybody else. \n\nWhat would happen if ASUG did not address these SAP industry issues with something like Edge? \n\nStrout: I think transparency in any industry is an important thing. I think that having peer reviews available for just about everything is important. We've been able to put this into the market because there wasn't one out there and because there was a gap and because people did ask for it. So my assumption was: If it wasn't there [now], it had to have been addressed by somebody, at some point and time. \n\n What's SAP's take on Edge? \n\nStrout: I really don't know. We went to their consulting organization, and [said that] people are going to rate you, so get your best customers to make sure they're putting stuff in there too. We don't want it all one-sided, all the time. Their retort was: "Cool." It gives them an opportunity to understand what the customer market looks like.... But I know that being able to see how customers view [SAP] and their individual partners is important to them. \n\nWhat is the SAP-ASUG relationship? \n\nStrout: We are an independent organization, and we take no money from them. Unless they buy services from us, just like everybody else. We obviously support the [SAP] ecosystem, so we're trying to take all users and partners and make sure they have a voice, and we help that voice get back into SAP and vice versa. If there are things that SAP is wanting to convey, sometimes they talk to us and get feedback for what are our customers going to say. There is not a defined relationship, yet their success is dependent on our success and vice versa.