The secrets of self-service success

As more organisations explore self-service IT systems, we look at what it takes to use the technology effectively

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For organisations large and small, private and public, the concept of self-service IT is gaining in popularity.

With a well planned and well executed implementation strategy, a good, user-friendly employee self-service (ESS) system can not only help an organisation streamline its internal process, reduce administrative burdens and increase employee efficiency and productivity, it can also improve staff satisfaction and engagement.

But get it wrong, and systems will remain underused, efficiency gains will be minimal and employees may feel less empowered and more like the victims of cost-cutting.

Here, three organisations that have implemented the technology share their experiences and insights into how to ensure deployments are successful.

Sevenoaks District Council: Softly, softly

Like most local authorities, Sevenoaks District Council faces shrinking budgets. Payroll manager Debbie Hoadley says this prompted the council to look at ESS in a bid to bring down its administrative and IT costs and modernise its previously paper-based processes. As the most common and mature area for ESS, payroll and HR seemed an ideal starting point.

In September 2014, Sevenoaks’ head of IT paid a visit to a neighbouring council that had implemented Midland HR’s iTrent cloud-based ESS system for payroll, HR and talent management.

“It seemed ideal. It’s very user-friendly and we felt even employees that didn’t really like computers would be able to take advantage of its features without difficulty,” says Hoadley.

Hoadley managed the implementation herself, pulling all the data from the council’s old Selima HR system on Excel spreadsheets, and then formatting and inputting it manually into iTrent.

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Clearly, that wouldn’t be practical for larger organisations but, with around 400 employees, Sevenoaks managed the transition in six months, doing parallel runs on the old and new systems in February and March before switching over in April.

Although a handful of council employees such as refuse collectors don’t have access to computers, Sevenoaks has seen 85% take-up of self-service and electronic payslips. It’s also seeing efficiency savings of about two hours a week per employee, as well as cost savings of around £10,000 a year on paper, plus a further £6,000 through the switch to e-payslips. Hoadley – who previously spent most of her time on administrative work – has now been freed up to focus on higher-level, value-adding projects, as has Sevenoaks’ IT department, which no longer has the burden of supporting an in-house system.

The biggest challenge, she says, was handling the culture shock. “You can’t skimp on the fluffy stuff. This is a massive change for people, so we had to make sure we took a ‘softly, softly’ approach,” she says. “Before the switch, we sent lots of emails to staff explaining what was coming. We produced our own in-house manual on the intranet and the IT department put up video clips showing exactly how to do different tasks.”

Hoadley is bringing the system’s features on stream gradually, to avoid overloading staff with too many changes at once. “We started with the basic self-service functionality of changing details and applying for holidays. Last month we added the ability for staff to share calendars among teams, and the next step will be to link recruitment and jobs to the system.”

Beyond this, she says it’s also important to ensure you choose a system that enables you to get your data out easily, so you have the option to change cloud providers in future. “Our budgets are still shrinking so if, at the end of this contract, we find a cheaper option that works as well, we’ll be able to switch,” she says.

Graydon: Don’t skimp on prep

As data volumes and the number of sources of useful information keep growing, cloud-based business intelligence (BI) providers are growing in popularity, with self-service a common component of their offerings.

Graydon offers credit reference, debt collection and business information services across the UK, Netherlands and Belgium and employs around 500 people. Last year the company began a project to implement a self-service cloud BI system, Birst. This came about after the company’s marketing and finance teams began to collaborate on how their departments could better visualise and make use of their data.

The Birst project was initiated by the finance department, which was looking for a good reporting tool for SAP. Soon, however, marketing began to take the lead. Bart Redder, Graydon’s group customer relationship management (CRM) and intelligence manager, says: “We were attracted by Birst’s strong self-service elements and wanted a complete overview of all our customer data, that could be understood by different departments and would help to give us a more entrepreneurial, customer-centric focus,” he says.

That meant integrating a variety of information sources into Birst’s cloud-based data warehouse – not just data from the company’s SAP system, but also from core company systems, CRM systems, Google Analytics and more. It has since been expanded for use by HR and some of Graydon’s subsidiary companies.

Using Birst, Graydon has designed easy-to-read dashboards that give all departments accurate data on how they’re doing from a strategic, company-wide perspective. The system also gives people the ability to generate their own analyses on the fly, for example salespeople can check monthly progress and targets; users can play around, slicing and dicing data as they see fit, uncovering fresh insights to help the business.

Upholding data quality

Getting to this point has already involved over a year of complex work. “The biggest challenges were data governance and making sure all the stakeholders were working towards the same group goals. It’s quite easy to import data, but when you start thinking about deduplicating data, integrating different information sources, using lots of application programming interfaces (APIs) and ensuring you’ve covered all the angles, you realise you’re in for the long haul,” says Redder.

He has several pieces of advice for others embarking on similar projects. “First, align all the stakeholders while you’re building the system – every department needs to know what it’s working towards,” he says. Second, he advocates a firm focus on data governance, particularly where you’re using data from multiple sources. “There’s a lot of potential for mess, so you need to ensure data is properly monitored, from source to the data warehouse, and that data quality is strictly upheld. You only have one chance to make a good impression with employees,” he says.

Finally, he recommends putting in place feedback loops throughout the project (and beyond) to ensure you deliver tools employees want and will use. “For example, we hold weekly meetings with key stakeholders. If they’re doing analyses on their own and can’t find what they want in a few seconds, you need to address that and create confidence in the system quickly,” he says.

Thomson Reuters: No quick fixes

The multibillion-dollar global information services firm Thomson Reuters is a much larger organisation than Graydon or Sevenoaks council, and the most mature in its use of ESS. “We use all sorts of self-service systems, including Jive for blogs and communications, Workday for HR, Salesforce, FieldGlass for supplier management and service procurement, and more,” says Christine Ashton, the company’s senior vice-president of technology.

But large organisations should not expect ESS to be a “quick fix”, she cautions. You need to understand what your business model is going to be, focus on your processes and strike the right balance between the changes you’d ideally like to see and the level of changes your organisation and employees will bear. “The trick is seeing how far you can take it without creating absolute chaos,” Ashton says. To implement and embed a self-service system effectively across an organisation of Thomson Reuters’ size generally takes about two years, she says, for technical aspects – such as ensuring data quality and integrating the system with the rest of your architecture – and gaining cultural buy-in.

Selecting suppliers can be tricky. “Don’t forget a lot of these companies start off as one man and a box and then grow very rapidly. Big corporations generally expect to do business with firms whose products are as mature as theirs in terms of disaster recovery, service-level agreements (SLAs) and so on. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do business with a growing firm that has a compelling self-service offering, but it is vital to be clear what’s important to you and how flexible you’re prepared to be in terms of SLAs and so on,” she says. “I’d also recommend doing what you might describe as ‘dynamic due diligence’ – factoring in potential growth scenarios for the companies you’re considering using, for example.”

As with all shapes and sizes of organisations using ESS, she stresses the importance of training and support to ensure people understand how the system benefits them, and know how to use it. Otherwise, it will just seem like a cost-cutting exercise that leaves users in the lurch. “One of the worst examples is self-service checkouts at supermarkets. People hate them with a vengeance. You can’t just say ‘you’re all on Workday, now fend for yourselves’. The company that does this best put in place learning circles and treats it as part of a process with plenty of feedback, backed up with things like how-to videos and online support,” she says.

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