As part of my occasional series of thought leader interviews in the area of learning technology, I interviewed Ralf Kirchgaessner, SAP’s manager of global certification, about how the cloud is changing SAP certification.
John: What is your background?
Ralf: I studied psychology and economics at the University of Mannheim, near Walldorf. I focused on organizational change management, people development, statistics and testing theory – including test ethics, fairness and how people learn.
John: What is your role at SAP?
Ralf: I now head up the SAP global certification team, which is responsible for the strategy, design, production and delivery of SAP’s global certification program worldwide.
John: What are the key reasons why SAP has a certification program?
Ralf: The overall mission of the program is that every SAP solution should be implemented and supported ideally by a certified SAP resource. This is to ensure that implementation projects go well for customers, and to increase customer productivity and reduce their operating costs. Customers value certification. In a survey of SAP User Group customers in Germany and the US, 80 percent responded that it was very important to have their employees certified and over 60 percent responded that certification was one of the criteria used to select external consultants for implementation projects. There are of course other relevant criteria like project experience and customer references, but certification definitely makes a difference.
John: What important trends do you see in high tech and IT certification?
Ralf: What comes first to the mind is the move to the cloud. Throughout the technology industry, the cloud drives flexibility and making everything available on demand. One aspect of this is that release cycles are getting quicker and quicker. Cloud software products are updated several times a year, and many vendors are moving away from major releases every two years or so to more minor and frequent enhancements.
For certification, this means that consultants and others have to show that they are always up to date and are certified on the latest release. It’s not enough to become certified once in your lifetime: you have to continually learn and stay up to date. But of course if you are taking certification exams more often, certification costs have to be much lower. In some regions, people have to travel large distances to get to a test centre. With more frequent certification, it’s not practical to travel to a testing centre every time you take a certification. So our aim is to allow certification anytime and anywhere using the cloud.
At SAP as in many other places, learning is changing. SAP’s Learning Hub lets customers and partners learn anytime, anywhere, at their own pace, in collaboration with others but without having to travel to a classroom. And of course if you are learning this way, the logical implication is that you can also be certified this way — without needing to travel to a test centre.
With SAP’s Certification in the Cloud, people do not need to travel to take tests but can take a certification test in their office, in their living room at home or any other quiet environment.
John: How does online proctoring work for the candidate?
Ralf: A remote proctor monitors the candidate via a webcam, and there are a lot of security checks done by the proctor and by the system. For example, a secure browser is used, the candidate has to do a 360 degree check of his or her room to ensure no one else is there, and there are lots of specific controls. For instance, you aren’t allowed to read the questions silently with your lips in case someone is watching or listening.
The great advantage to the candidate is flexibility. If someone says, “I’d like to do my exam in the middle of the night or on weekends because during the week I’m so busy with my project,” they can. They might say that they’d like to do their exam on Saturday afternoon: “After spending two hours playing with my kids, I’m relaxed to do my exam! Or if not, I’ll postpone until after breakfast on Sunday morning.” It’s such a flexible way to get certified and to quickly demonstrate that they have up-to-date knowledge and are allowed to provision customer systems.
John: Are you now offering more frequent exams?
Ralf: Yes, for some parts of the portfolio we are working with the “delta” concept. This means if there are changes we offer delta exams that just contain new content — which has changed in the latest release. When we offer a new delta, we also offer a new core exam that includes the latest release. This means that everyone certified is knowledgeable on the latest software release.
John: Who benefits from certification in the cloud? Candidates, customers, partners or SAP?
Ralf: Of course, I think all benefit! Candidates have flexibility and lower cost. Customers can be sure that partner consultants who work for them are enabled and up to date. For partners, it’s a competitive advantage to show that their consultants are up to date, especially for new technologies like S/4HANA and Simple Finance. A partner is much more likely to be chosen to deploy new technologies if they can demonstrate that they have several consultants already certified in something that’s just been released. And for SAP, our goal is to have engaged consultants, happy partners and lower support costs. So everyone genuinely benefits.
John: What are some of the challenges?
Ralf: One example is that it’s important in cloud certification to get data protection right. SAP have very detailed requirements that we ensure our vendors like Questionmark meet.
Security is also a challenge. You need to prevent cheating and stealing questions. And interfaces and integration need to be right. We have worked out how we get the data from our HR systems, how people book and subscribe to exams and then how they can authenticate with single sign-on into the certification hub to take cloud exams.
The delta concept also gives challenges. You need very precise pre-requisite management logic, where the certification software checks for example that, if you want to take the delta exam, you have already passed the core exam. It also can sometimes be difficult to prepare a good delta exam, particularly if a new release has very specific or detailed features, including some that apply in only some industries.
Lastly, providing seamless support is a challenge when using multiple vendors. The candidate doesn’t care where a problem happened: he or she just wants it fixed.
John: Where do you see the long term future of high-tech certification? Will there still be test centres, or will all certification be done via the cloud?
Ralf: Test centres won’t disappear at once, but there is a trend of moving from classroom-based learning and testing to learning and certification in the cloud. The future will belong to anytime, anywhere testing. The trend is for test centre use to decline, but it won’t happen overnight!
Looking into the long-term future, we’ll also have to think about changed roles and responsibilities. Much certification applies to consultants who implement and customize SAP software at the customer site. But when moving more to cloud systems, tasks and roles change and key customer users have a bigger role in configuring and managing the system, and we may need to encourage more key user certification.
John: If another organization is thinking of moving towards certification in the cloud, what advice would you give them?
Ralf: Ensure that you are aware of the challenges I mentioned and can deal with them. And do some pilots before you try to scale.