HR software and video conferencing

There was a time when, if a consultancy had a human resources systems project on the books, there was a good chance that it was simply tinkering with payroll. But the HR function has become more complex and more strategic and, as a result, is now big business for consultants. The sector also embraces ERP technology, which is still the driving force behind much of the consultants’ workload. As organisations strive for global influence and employees are no longer riveted to their desks, the task of managing staff has become an industry in itself. HR departments must find some way of tying together training, career development, competencies and tracking using a cohesive software/hardware solution. Consultants have always been at home advising on such strategic matters, but now it seems that technology will be the real facilitator of change. It’s the perfect combination of the consultants’ skills. The ability to drive forward change, integrate technology and add value.

In the following case studies, we examine two recent projects. In a glimpse behind the scenes, Deloitte Consulting reveals how it implemented an HR solution across its entire organisation. In contrast, Superdrug called upon consultants Infinium in order to keep tabs on wage systems through its 1,000 stores.

Deloitte Consulting
Deloitte Consulting required the implementation of an HR management ERP system across its European practice, which includes Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. “Deloitte is essentially an integrated global organisation and whilst we have sophisticated common systems operating globally for career management, competency management, succession planning, and for providing training in core skills, we inevitably had a number of localised personnel administration systems operating within the countries,” says Katherine McDermott-Darley, senior manager within Deloitte Consulting’s financial services industry group, who assisted on scoping, planning and quality assurance for the project.

The scope of the project encompassed HR processes across administering the workforce, hiring employees, the administration of local and global training across the firm, budgeting for training, integration of the firm’s managed competencies and career planning systems, the tracking of global assignments for expatriate staff working outside their local offices, administration of company cars and workflow.

“It was a very broad swathe of functionality,” says McDermott-Darley. “Clearly the HR system needed to be designed for both strategic and daily operational HR activities. This was particularly important because HR policies are increasingly devised and administered on a generic basis. We saw the implementation of the HR ERP across Europe also being able to affect some downstream business systems, for example, in the areas of time registration, internal billing and payroll, so enabling economies of scale and efficiencies in processes and people that support those back office systems.”

Deloitte Consulting opted for PeopleSoft’s HR management ERP solution. Planning took place in 1998 with the implementation going ahead in the spring of 1999. The solution rolled out across the European region following a pilot in the Benelux countries and the system went live in November and December 1999.The project was located in Brussels, Deloitte’s European Headquarters and home to its servers and core networking hub. “We already had in our Brussels head office a database containing information on all current partners and practitioners working in Deloitte Consulting across continental Europe,” says McDermott-Darley. “That system was controlled and maintained by HR staff in the Brussels office. However, the database was fed by a number of paper-based processes or electronic downloads from local systems. So the implementation of common ERP was designed to replace paper and manual downloads.”Staff involved in scoping, planning and implementation were drawn from across the European region and included HR directors from outside Europe to ensure that global as well as local requirements of the consulting group were reflected in the implementation. The European implementation team was also able to capitalise on the experiences gained in other regions of the firm which had already implemented a human resources ERP environment.

“Because we are a global firm, we resource project teams cross-border,” says McDermott-Darley. “That implies the need for cross border exchange of personnel data on a daily basis. That kind of exchange is subject to privacy legislation within the national authorities and across the EEC, and there are data protection differences between Europe, the USA and other parts of the global practice. So one of the key areas of review for this project was the data protection ramifications.”

Change management was also given high priority during the implementation. “A project of this kind involves a considerable amount of change within the area of HR policies, procedures and work activities, and successful projects show that well-planned and executed change leadership activities are absolutely critical to success,” says McDermott-Darley. “We placed a strong emphasis on communications directly with key players across the different aspects of the project and in terms of the global and local HR practitioners. Our client teams were effectively internal managers and HR staff within the European operations and we involved representatives from each country because they could take responsibility for representing the local requirements and needs and identifying data conversion interfaces for local operational systems.” The critical success factors identified at the start of the project have been met. These included the ability to capture HR data on a single database across Europe, improve HR data integrity, capture and validation, enable point-in-time analysis and reinforce the firm’s global standards by driving down consistency of HR policy guidelines and training across Europe. It also improved the integration between local and corporate systems, provided standardised headcount reports across Europe and improved management information. “It was incredibly successful,” says McDermott-Darley.

Growth in store numbers during the 1990s put increasing pressure on the HR system at Superdrug, the UK’s second largest health and beauty retailer, and the HR department became concerned that it would not be able to cope adequately as the store tally moved towards 1,000.

Superdrug’s payroll and information teams manage 12,500 staff, including many part-timers with variable working hours. Most of the workforce are paid weekly through a positive entry rather than a default payment system, increasing the pressure on payroll staff. Also, Superdrug’s existing HR system had been in place since 1990, and despite many upgrades and modifications, it was proving unable to cope with the growing number of stores. “The payroll department has incredibly tight deadlines,” says John Corfield, head of HR information. “Every week the pay details have to be updated, which requires a lot of input time. It became clear that we had neither the time nor the systems to actually make use of the information we held on our staff.”

Superdrug mapped out its requirements for the replacement HR system and ultimately chose a solution from Infinium, provider of enterprise business solutions including HR. “From the moment we engage with the customer our whole approach is very consultative,” says Mike Hewison, sales manager at Infinium. “We survey people’s requirements and try to engage at all levels of the organisation. We try to understand the strategic goals of the organisation and then they translate down into tactical and business issues that need to be addressed. We identified very early on with Superdrug that the system simply couldn’t cope with the massive data-processing requirements they had, and also that they couldn’t get any information out of it. They had also set a long-term goal of a paperless environment for HR processes, but we advised them to get their core systems in order to start with.”

Superdrug was particularly attracted by that way the Infinium offering allowed personnel data to be position-based rather than employee-based, removing the requirement for all information associated with a specific job to be input next to the relevant employee. Infinium’s business partner, Showcase Corp, was chosen to supply a reporting tool that allowed Superdrug’s HR department to play a more strategic role within the organisation. The decision to implement a new system was taken in late 1996, and by October 1997 the Infinium payroll solution had gone live at Superdrug’s head office in Croydon, which was chosen as a trial site due to its small monthly payroll. After a two month parallel run, Superdrug felt confident enough to roll out the Infinium solution across the entire enterprise.

Superdrug continues to work with Infinium to review its HR and payroll requirements. One of the next big challenges is to upgrade the means of collecting payroll information. Currently a weekly attendance form is pre-printed with employee data from the Infinium database and sent to stores by post. The forms are completed in store and posted back to payroll, which then keys the data into the Infinium system. The payroll team runs the system and reports are produced for management.

However, because the payroll team needs to have all attendance information input by Monday afternoon, stores have to estimate attendance for Friday and Saturday, so Superdrug is trialling a company-wide Intranet with a screen at each store. The system uses a simple browser interface and can be supported centrally without the need for field engineers. The company hopes for increased accuracy and an improved relationship between payroll and stores, and also anticipates savings on the cost of printing, distributing and archiving forms. The project relies upon the AS/400 relational database from Infinium, the AS/400 Java toolkit from IBM, plus consultancy from both parties.

“We have relied on support from Infinium and IBM throughout the trial,” says Ruth Gurney of Superdrug. “The final phase of the trial takes place from April to June 2000 and we look forward to analysing the results.” If the project proves to be a success, Superdrug is planning to take its relationship with Infinium one step further by investigating new strategic solutions for recruitment, starters and leavers, employee records, absence reporting, and training.

It used to be the case that if an organisation invested in a videoconferencing suite, visitors would regard it as ‘showpiece’ technology, rather than anything practical. Partly this was because executives using videoconferencing had to sit in a darkened room and watch a fuzzy face on a snowy screen – while they struggled to hear what was said. But the industry has since undergone a sea change, and reliable hardware and increasing bandwidth have resulted in a rush for the technology. Two companies that have benefited are the Royal Bank of Scotland and Cambridge Discovery Technology. They tell us of their experiences.Royal Bank of Scotland
High levels of executive travel between Scotland and London prompted Royal Bank of Scotland to adopt videoconferencing technology in the early 1990s. Since then the service has been developed and refined.

“Corporate legend has it that about ten years ago the then chairman was at Edinburgh airport waiting to fly to London and realised he was surrounded by other Royal Bank people in the departure lounge,” says George Clarke, senior manager in telecommunications at the bank. “When the in-coming flight from London landed and people got off, there was a load of Royal Bank people coming up to Edinburgh. So the chairman made the decision that we would have videoconferencing.” Since then the service has been updated and RBS now predominantly uses PictureTel equipment, selected during an upgrade around three years ago. “We went back to BT who had helped us with [a previous] project to move the studios on to digital telephone extensions,” says Clarke. “We took their portfolio, which was PictureTel. A lot of their engineers are familiar with the service. It seemed like a risk to go to another product.” Mike Duff of BT Conferencing, which looks after video, audio and data conferencing, explains that BT are probably the biggest supplier of PictureTel kit in the UK. “We have chosen for historic reasons to always supply PictureTel, but we do wear a consulting hat and if we felt that somebody else’s kit would be better in a particular application, we would tell them,” he says. “In individual areas other people’s kit can be better but nobody has the package of good kit from top to bottom and worldwide distribution.” RBS has its own private telephone network and runs the private video network on the back of that. “They run their own video server, which is a conferencing bridge that allows multi-point conferences to be set up and taken down,” says Duff. The system proved particularly cost-effective during the recent year 2000 testing. “The PABX network, the head office telephone network, is justified by the number of people that need to phone each other and the videoconferencing effectively rides on the back for free,” says Clarke. “We don’t pay an ISDN cost per call. This came into its own during the year 2000 testing. We started on the day after Boxing Day and went through from there. We set up a video call between three or four points around the UK for 168 hours so that all the checking could be done. Had we been paying an ISDN charge, it would have cost a fortune, but because it was running over our own network, effectively it was free.”

RBS has 13 videoconferencing studios supplemented by six further facilities situated in individual directors’ offices and another 30 desktop devices. “We do about 16 or 17 videoconferences a day between the studios,” says Clarke. “People have described our studios as being like squash courts because every half hour, or whenever the [booked period for the] video finishes, there’s a knock on the door and the next person is waiting to come in. In the popular studios the conferences can be back-to-back for eight hours a day. The user population ranges right across the bank. The statistics show that everyone uses it – HR, property and facilities people, year 2000 people. The executives use it a lot and have done more so recently with the bid on the table for NatWest. There’s been a lot of dialogue between our execs in Edinburgh and the corporate office in London. Given the amount of time the execs have spent on the video discussing the bid for NatWest, it would have been very draining to get the necessary number of people on a plane up and down for face-to-face meetings.” Clarke estimates that the videoconferencing service saves the bank around £60,000 a month in travel costs.

Clarke says the service has become an integral part of people’s lives at RBS. He refers to one particular committee which makes regular use of video conferences. “People up and down the country present potential business opportunities to this group,” Clarke explains. “The committee chairman was very keen to tell me that that nothing other than video would do because he likes to look at the whites of people’s eyes. He likes to see just how much commitment they have got in their body language, to see how realistic the proposal is.”

Cambridge Discovery Chemistry
The need for regular contact with customers and colleagues abroad and in the UK triggered Cambridge Discovery Chemistry to look into videoconferencing as a way to cut down on travel and make more efficient use of time.

Cambridge Discovery Chemistry provides world-class, innovative chemistry services to accelerate discovery and process research, servicing the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and biotechnology industries. “The company is involved in a number of different markets, mainly Europe, America and Japan,” says Charlie Drew, head of information technology at Cambridge Discovery Chemistry. “We are part of a group of companies which have a number of US sites and we generally travelled over to Japan to meet with our Japanese clients on a monthly basis. That meant a lot of expense.”

Drew investigated a number of videoconferencing solutions before choosing a VCON system last summer. “We made the choice partly because of its portability and ease of use,” says Drew. “We can move it around and plug it in. There are three ISDN cables that we plug into our structured cabling and away we go. It’s fairly straightforward for anyone to use.”

The trickiest aspect of using the equipment is ensuring that the camera is positioned correctly, Drew says, but adds that the company has had few problems. The VCON video operates at 30 frames per second and Drew says that when making his choice he was impressed by the picture quality. This has been confirmed by real life experience using the system over the past six months. “The real issue is whether you realise you are using it, and by and large you don’t,” Drew says. “You don’t get to the end of a half hour meeting with a headache or find you’ve been shouting to make yourself heard.”

“Our management team use it because we are a wholly-owned subsidiary of Oxford Molecular Group and they have board meetings across the Oxford and Cambridge sites,” says Drew. “We don’t feel we can’t use it because it’s expensive. It means six phone calls rather than one. If you are contacting Japan that’s six calls to Japan, but you don’t have to go over there.”

Drew finds the system useful himself when contacting staff he manages in the USA. “It’s much better to look at people and motivate them than it is to send an email or talk down the phone,” he says. “I have also recently used videoconferencing to have general planning and strategy meetings, and the company benefits because we talk directly to our customers and my experience is that it really helps you be personable to someone you might be trying to work closely with on a project.”

Richard Fella, a director of the Frog Group, IT and telecommunications specialists, advised Cambridge Discovery Chemistry on the VCON solution. “They could have put in a larger system, but it wasn’t necessary,” says Fella. “They seem very happy with the outcome. They get nigh on TV quality. They dial up and have meetings between their Oxford and Cambridge sites. The videoconferencing cuts out a lot of travel and the time saving is the big benefit. Instead of spending two hours driving to Oxford from Cambridge they can agree to make the call, have the meeting for an hour, and walk out again. If you are sitting in a car for two hours there and back just for an hour-long meeting that’s virtually the whole day gone.”

Sarah Perrin is a freelance journalist.

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