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How Open University went from bespoke IT to vanilla SAP

It’s hard convincing users their business processes are a dud. But this is what Chris Youles, chief information officer of the Open University, needed to do to transform the organisation

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During a presentation at the #itelli2019 for the SAP Community annual conference in London, Chris Youles, chief information officer (CIO) of Open University (OU), described how SAP consultant Itelligence helped the Open University to replace 20-year-old legacy systems with new SAP cloud products.

The OU also used resources from Infosys, its offshore IT provider, to free up in-house IT staff, so they could work on an SAP business transformation initiative.

There were several business drivers behind the project. The university needed to modernise the way it operated, its business processes and the system it used. From an IT perspective, he said: “Some of the tech was going end-of-life and we had to upgrade. I used fear to frighten the board so they had to agree do something.”

Since the OU was established half a century ago, the world of distance learning has changed. It used to deliver courses on audio cassettes, then CDs, then DVDs, and now online to any student, globally.

From a business perspective, he said: “The OU has a huge amount at stake.” For instance, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn are all pushing hard to provide distance learning.

“The OU has to keep a close eye at what the market wants,” said Youles. “But we have more agile competitors. The OU needs to regain its position as a world leader in distance learning. Digital transformation is core.”

For him, the OU needs to understand what digital transformation meant to its business. “It is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Youles. “We wanted to get data-driven student stuff, so we needed to get new back-ends. My users don’t care if there are boxes in our server room. They care about the services they can deliver to students.”

Keeping SAP vanilla

Youles decided to standardise on a new cloud-hosted SAP system, implemented with help from Itelligence. Infosys was also asked to give a second opinion on the project. “I am delivering SAP ERP as a minimal viable product,” he says, “For instance, the features users ask for may not be included in the vanilla SAP implementation.

“This is not often palatable to the users who want to transform their work. If we don’t have resolve, we won’t do this. We needed to keep the folks cajoled. It’s like herding cows.”

As an example of the type of conversations he needed to have, he described how the OU’s HR director wanted a talent management module. “We can live without that for a while. It’s more important to ensure people are getting paid than having the ability to recruit people.”

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In late 2017, Youles spoke to the OU board about why it was essential to stay on vanilla SAP. He explained how it had taken six months to make a change the OU’s old, heavily customised Siebel CRM.

“We have spent last 15 years making our old bespoke Siebel product,” said Youles. “Suggesting we go to a new SAP CRM is quite scary. This is a product that comes out of the box and remains vanilla, and won’t be customised. It is a hard journey. I used the Siebel update to illustrate how complex custom systems are. The board needed to understand that we had to keep the product as simple as possible.”

In Youles’ experience, customisation does not make sense. “It is not the technology, but the business process that is flawed. You don’t want to install a new digital system and keep analogue processes.”

According to Youles, this simply replaces a paper process with digital versions of the paper process. “In the mid-1990s, all paper processes were computerised,” he said.

From an OU perspective, he says this meant it was not possible to use data to power the student journey, as the data held in these legacy IT systems was inconsistent. The business processes were broken. “When we deliver a new student system, it will have no bearing on the past.”

Best practices

For Youles, the tech change, involving the implementation of the new SAP system represents a small part of the overall digital transformation project. “About 80% of the work is business change,” he said. “People may realise their jobs are at risk due to improved efficiencies in the new ERP. The work of two people becomes one.”

In Youles’ experience, people tend to get bored and forget the original mandate when IT projects take more than a year. Instead, he said he wanted to have a demo suite of the new system available quickly so users could understand how it worked. Another goal was to land the core ERP quickly.

“We can demonstrate what ‘good’ looks like and what business changes are required,” said Youles.

He said the university is now in the process of moving a student administration system over to SAP, and that he has told the board that the full ERP system will be delivered on 28 March 2020.

In terms of best practices, board-level buy-in, approval and sign-off for the SAP project were key. Describing the scope of the project, he said: “This is massive and will turn the OU world upside down. I have a very supportive vice-chancellor. Having sponsorship is key.”

Another best practice is project priorities. “About 18 months ago, I told the board we had to go through a prioritisation process,” said Youles. “You can’t ask people to do more work. There is new stuff like regulatory things that we need, but we need to focus on ensuring we prioritise the ERP project.

“We knew we had to pull IT staff. I used Infosys to maintain the existing legacy systems, and it helped us document the legacy systems and improved their availability.”

But for Youles, the main benefit of using Infosys to support the legacy IT was that it allowed product experts to move from the legacy system to the new SAP system – and bring their expertise to the SAP implementation.

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