Knowledge of the software is lucrative for freelancers. But getting it is the hard part, says Lynne Curry
Some of the fattest wallets around belong to highly skilled freelancers who know their way around the German system SAP, a total business software package covering everything from production, through human resources, to sales and marketing.

IT recruitment agencies are waving offers of weekly earnings up to three times the contractor's average, which is already high. SAP's success has made it the biggest software products company under European ownership, and one of the top five application software providers in the world. Multinationals make great use of it. Royal Insurance, Proctor & Gamble, the Royal Mail, ICI, Siemens, the Post Office, Morgan Grenfell, British Sugar and Zeneca are just a few of the firms using it in Britain.

How does an IT freelancer gain the training to qualify for a slice of this lucrative action? Not easily. SAP's determination to have its product taught the way it wants has led it to refuse to license its software for training purposes to the biggest independent training company in the world, threatening to take legal action if it was defied. The company, Learning Tree International, and SAP have reached an impasse after 18 months of discussions between the US and Germany.

Dr David Collins, Learning Tree's chief executive, says that SAP is virtually alone in the world in taking this stance. In Britain, where Learning Tree has operated for 22 years, the company had to cancel courses, strike entries out of its catalogue and brief its staff with a diplomatic statement to deliver when there were inquiries about SAP training.

SAP has authorised partners, such as Andersen Consulting, which run in- house training and external training for companies, but none of its partners offers courses for freelancers. SAP says they can join its own courses, which take place at its UK headquarters near Heathrow.

Nigel Tucker, SAP's UK training manager, says the training is aimed at project team managers who design bespoke systems for their particular company. "We show project team managers all the available functionality of R/3 to support their businesses. It is crucial that the project team managers gain complete understanding and training has to be provided by someone who understands the business implications of all that functionality.

"Our experience is that third-party trainers do not have a complete understanding. They tend to make early judgements about what the customer is going to need. When that happens, the project can start to have problems. So we take a rather purist approach.''

But Learning Tree says it is a poor principle for a company to exercise such control. Dr Collins says: "I don't think any organisation wants to be dependent on a vendor for education in order to use something that is intrinsic to its business needs. We feel that ideas and help and education should be open to all kinds of people to interpret and develop their own way. We don't have any bias towards any one vendor. Our goal is not using education as a means to sell consulting or hardware. They alluded to the fact they would license us if they could tell us what to teach and control what we did.''

SAP is widely respected. Richard Holway, a leading IT commentator, says that its popularity stems partly from "not treading on people's toes''. "They have developed the software and used partners around the world to do the training and development," he says. "They have chosen partners carefully, and although it surprises me that Learning Tree are not able to provide training, there are quite a number of people registered to do it.''

Gordon Ewan, chief executive of the Information Technology Industry Training Organisation, says the dispute is a clash of cultures. "SAP has a marketing integrity that it protects vigorously; you can do business with them on their terms. But if anyone had turned down Learning Tree on the basis of their approach to the quality of their products and services, I would be surprised.''

Meanwhile, IT people with SAP skills, notably R/3, are keenly sought. Jon Tyler, managing director of the Gatton Consulting Group of Redhill, Surrey, says that with a good technical grounding, weekly rates of up to pounds 3,000 are available.

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