Canonical moves to HR as a service

We got to the point where we could not scale says Steve George, vice-president of operations

Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu open-source operating system, is moving to HR technology as service as it expands its world-wide business.

The company, which has grown from a startup to a 600-strong business in 10 years, is replacing home-grown software and spreadsheets with a single company-wide HR system.

“We got to the point where we could not scale,” said Steve George (pictured), vice-president of operations at Canonical. “We simply could not move forward in what we wanted to achieve with our previous set of systems.”

Limitations of existing HR technology

Canonical began looking for alternative HR technology in November last year after it became clear that the company had outgrown its existing HR systems.

“There was too much manual inputting. And because the data stores were not synchronised correctly, we were not confident that the data was reliable,” he said.

The systems were also difficult for employees to use, requiring them to phone the HR department if they wanted to update their contact details, for example.

Search for replacement system

Canonical evaluated HR technology from a range of IT suppliers, including Microsoft and Oracle.

The priority was to find a HR system that was flexible, could automate workflows and be integrated into other software packages, said George.

Avoiding supplier “lock-in” was another priority.

“We are a mid-sized software company and we are growing rapidly. I don’t want to be locked into a particular package. I need to have flexibility for the business. Something that offered all the capabilities, but the data was inaccessible, was not something I wanted to do,” he said.

Systems trials

The company produced a shortlist of four potential suppliers and tested their technology in a series of trials, using real company data, between January and March 2014.

Canonical chose an HR system from Fairsail, a Reading-based company that provides online HR services to a wide range of IT and technology companies.

“They are one of the new suppliers in this space, and they are still orientated towards innovation, and adding new capabilities, and they were aware of the challenges we were facing as a mid-sized organisation,” said George.

Developing staff

The company plans to use Fairsail’s talent-management capabilities to record and track employees; skills and development plans, and their training preferences.

Many people benefit from formal training, but others learn more effectively from working on special projects, while for some, being assigned a mentor is more effective, said George.

 “Ultimately it is about being able to successfully drive innovation in the business,” he said. “People need to be challenged. We need to understand what they are interested in and how they are motivated.”

Better data

The project has given Canonical confidence that its HR records are accurate and up to date. Employees, many of whom work from home, can access the HR system over the internet, book holidays and keep their personal details up to date.

The system has also saved the IT team time, George revealed: “I have had to put in far less effort to keep systems up and running. I have been able to shut down systems and I have had fewer issues over data quality."

Canonical plans to develop the platform by centralising its payroll reporting across the 20 countries, beginning this year. It also has plans to use the system to track the pensions of its employees.


Cleaning the HR data, which was stored in multiple locations, proved to be the most difficult challenge in rolling out the Fairsail system.

“Making sure the data was clean and correct and output into a format we could use go use, that was the number one issue,” he said.

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