B2B tech skills as the Cinderella of public policy

When government ministers or their policy wonks think of technology and the economy, you can virtually guarantee they are thinking of consumer tech companies, mostly from the west coast of the US. And when they ask themselves: “how can we put an end to the tech skills deficit?”, again you can almost certainly wager they will be thinking: “teach students more AI”.

And yet, that is not really what CIOs working for companies in the real economy need. They need people who can manage ERP or CRM or HCM projects. Who can convey the importance of technology and explain tech jargon to business people. Who can manage commercial relationships with suppliers. And so on.

As Julian Bond, CIO at Nottingham-based Hillarys Blinds and a long-time contributor to the deliberations of the UK’s SAP user community, told me at the UKISUG conference last year: “The people I need who I find hardest to find are business analysts. A lot of the specialist digital degrees are focused on front end, everything on the web, the customer experience side. We could do with people who understand how to work with modern ERP systems.

“That’s where universities are out of touch with what people like me and my peers at Boots (also with a Nottingham heritage) need. We are crying out for graduates with those industrial-weight systems skills. We need some AI and data science people, too, and I am happy for vendors like SAP signpost where things are going. But we need to spend enough time on what and where things are today”.

Paul Cooper, Chairman of the UK&I SAP User Group made a similar comment in another interview at the same conference and highlighted the skills crisis looming with the upcoming retirement of IT professionals who cut their teeth on the ERP implementations of the 1990s and 2000s. “There is a demographic issue coming. We have [CIO-level] executive forum members who have a significant proportion of their staff who fit that profile. There are the time-served people who were on the Y2K projects for whom retirement is on the horizon. So, are there the right apprenticeships out there to get people in? How do you get people excited in the SAP environment when they’d rather be doing things associated with the likes of Google that sound and feel more exotic? There is a big job to be done on the customer side of the IT industry, and I suspect SAP and the partners are seeing the same thing”.

SAP’s Simon Carpenter, tasked with “go to market” and strategy for Rise with SAP, for the supplier’s EMEA North region made some remarks germane to the B2B tech skills topic, too, at the same event. A veteran at SAP, having joined in 1994 and spent much of his career in his native South Africa, Carpenter said: “if I think back over my career at SAP in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a real excitement around business process re-engineering and ERP, and lots of consultants and customers piled in. But what has happened over the years is a greying of the workforce around ERP, and there is not enough new talent coming in. Also, when it does come in, it tends to go into the areas of AI and machine learning and augmented reality. Or into a start-up or a fintech.

“It is a challenge for our customers and for SAP to attract those sorts of people with the prospect of solving complex business problems. We need to find ways to get people to understand that you can have a really good career working with business applications in areas like supply chain, customer experience and finance. I started my career in supply chain, and most people would have no idea of how a bottle of water ends up on a table”.

Michiel Verhoeven, MD, SAP UK&I also made, at the same conference, an interesting observation about a certain lack of MBA or strategy firm-type expertise in enterprise software firms today, as opposed to a decade or two ago.

“Today we don’t do a whole lot of hiring of MBAs and I wish we did because they do have good business skills, they can do hypothesis analysis, they can bring data approaches business problem. Those skills are missing. I try to get our sales people to think more like a business person rather than just selling software, which is not what a customer wants at all, they want to solve a business problem”.

For what it is worth, I think it would be a progressive step for SAP and Oracle – and Infor, Unit4, IFS, and the rest – to team up with the CIOs at their leading UK companies and communicate with government ministers, and their opposition numbers, in the ways of business-to-business technology, and the education and skills it requires. Otherwise, they will continue to take their tune from the usual consumer technology suspects.

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