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SThree to rein in IT budget by moving to cloud

Recruitment group plans to expand by 10% a year, but moving to the cloud will allow it to do more with the same IT budget

Recruitment group SThree aims to rein in its IT budget at £17m a year – despite plans to grow by more than 10% annually – by moving its on-premise IT systems to cloud-based software as service. 

The group, with revenue of £700m a year, has begun a series of IT upgrades that will see it replace older Oracle, Siebel and SAP-based technology with cloud services that will manage sales, HR and employee bonuses.

SThree, which runs recruitment brands Computer Futures, Huxley Associates, Progessive Recruitment and Real, has increased its number of consultants from 1,500 to 2,700 in five years and expects further growth.

“I have committed to the business that I will carry on running IT at £17m a year,” CIO Lance Fisher told Computer Weekly. 

Fisher plans to replace software systems running on legacy technology, including SAP, Oracle, PHP and a Siebel – which is nearing the end of its life – with cloud-based alternatives that will cost less to maintain. 

“I am becoming more efficient in how I run my day-to-day IT because I am requiring less people, more efficient processes that are less manually intensive – and those efficiencies I can use to pay for cloud,” he said.

The company made a strategic decision to move its IT to the cloud nearly two years ago.

The first step was to replace its desktops, which used Windows XP which was no longer supported by Microsoft, with Windows 8 machines. 

Windows move

Fisher would have preferred to move to Windows 7, and then go directly to Windows 10, but that was not an option at the time.

“We had end-of-life XP and virus checkers, and we were running old kit on wired terminals,” he said.

The company took three months to go through its 42 offices, remove the old PCs and replace them with modern machines running Windows 8 and the latest version of Microsoft Office.

While this project was under way, the IT team began looking for alternative technology that could grow as the company grew, and handle large quantities of data.

Until then, SThree had relied on SAP to run its HR and finance systems. 

The team shortlisted Microsoft Dynamics and Salesforce as potential suppliers.

The company chose Salesforce after a formal request for proposals from competing suppliers in June 2014.

A pilot programme followed in November that year, and SThree signed a contract with Salesforce in January 2015. It brought in consultants Tquila UK, now part of Accenture, as an implementation partner.

SThree is using a team of 15 people, including seven from Tquila, seven from SThree and a project manager to build the system, which is expected to take a year to complete. 

Fisher plans a full roll-out this month or in January 2016, depending on the results of the pilot. It plans to deploy Salesforce to each of the company’s six brands, at a rate of one brand a month. The project will require multiple trips to the company’s offices around the world, said Fisher.

Business benefits

Salesforce will make it easier for recruitment consultants to manage their contacts and carry out mass mailings to the 11 million candidates on SThree’s database.

“If I was a recruitment consultant and I wanted to do a mailshot, in the Siebel world you would have a highly customised dropdown,” said Fisher. “In the Salesforce world, there would be just one list that you could go in and select.”

Salesforce will also enable hiring managers to keep track of all email correspondence with candidates, simply by typing in their name – something that is more difficult with the current software.

The third pillar of the programme is a project to move the company’s HR systems into the cloud.

SThree runs HR on its SAP system, and wanted a more sophisticated performance management system to reduce staff turnover, which is notoriously high in the recruitment industry.

It also needed a talent management system to help it recruit new consultants as the company expands.

It considered using SAP, but opted for a cloud service from Fairsail which specialises in HR services for medium-sized companies.

“One of the things that makes Fairsail stand out from a user perspective is that it has a good look and feel,” said Fisher. “SAP traditionally is very functionally rich, but it doesn’t have a great look and feel. It looks clunky.”

Implementation partner

SThree hired a consulting firm as an implementation partner for Fairsail, which is built on Salesforce technology.

Fairsail is a more straightforward project than Salesforce, said Fisher. Specialists from Fairsail will implement the software, and the implementation partner will be responsible for specifying the project and giving it final approval. 

SThree plans to use Fairsail to introduce formal six-monthly objective reviews across the company.

The firm had previously relied on manual filing systems, which made it difficult to find information to give an overview of the organisation.

“HR will be able to say there is a vacancy in Peru for someone who can speak that native language, and we can go on our database and find out,” said Fisher.

Reducing ‘staff churn’

SThree believes that by introducing better performance management and talent acquisition tools, it can reduce ‘churn’ – the rate at which employees leave the company – to below 30% a year.

“I think it will mean we can recruit people quicker and the right type of people, because it is more consistent,” said Fisher. “And if we get the right type, the right fit at the start, they should stay longer that that should reduce the churn.”

Moving company systems into the cloud also makes it easier for employees to move around the organisation.

“If I have got someone in London and there is an opportunity to go and do ICT in San Francisco, we can offer people that sort of career progression, and grow organically,” he said.

Future plans

SThree plans to start rolling out Office 365 in early 2016, and aims to complete the work by early July, when all documents will be held on the cloud.

Fisher is talking with the company’s marketing director about introducing a cloud-based marketing system that will integrate with Salesforce. The company also plans to deploy a cloud-based order management system.

At the same time, SThree is experimenting with outsourcing recruitment processes while the in-house consultants focus on closing deals, which will mean more IT changes in 2016.

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“From an IT perspective, there has been a lot going on this year, but we have put a lot of the building blocks in place,” said Fisher. “So I don’t need to do another big Salesforce. I don’t need to do a whole Office PC roll-out. They are done. So it should be a lot easier.”

Fisher told Computer Weekly he has been able to run several projects simultaneously because there are few dependencies between each project.

“We are taking a lot on, but we have always taken a lot on, so we are well honed in running multiple projects,” he said. “The key is there are different streams. The reality is that if Fairsail hit an issue and took an extra month or two, it’s not going to affect any of the others.”

Managing security

One of the biggest challenges was managing security. When data was held on-premise, SThree had control over access to it, but the cloud offers less direct control.

“Now you are moving to a world where data is on Salesforce, hidden in the cloud somewhere, so how do I know my data is secure ?” said Fisher. “What happens if the internet goes down? What happens if Salesforce goes down?”

Then there is the problem of maintaining security when data is held across multiple clouds and can transfer between them.

“The answer is, you need a good cyber security officer, and you need go through the technology in minute detail, how it is run, and look at all the data,” he said.

Back-up plans

Fisher advises anyone considering moving data to the cloud to consider how to back it up.

If there is an incident, it is possible to lose up to four hours of data on Fairsail, but a bigger danger is accidentally deleting HR records.

Fisher advises organisations to invest in third-party products that will periodically back up data from cloud services.

Data protection is another consideration, with new European data protection laws about to come into force.

SThree decided to set its data protection standards at the levels used by Germany, which has some of the strictest data protection laws, and apply the standards across all its offices.

Read more on Data protection, backup and archiving