Lessons learned from the HR cloud coal face at Standard Life


Standard Life’s People Director Arlene Stokes shares some of the triumphs and challenges of being an early Oracle cloud adopter.

Arlene Stokes
Arlene Stokes

The implementation was a huge piece of work and we’re very proud of it, but it only gets you to the starting line.

Arlene Stokes, people director of Standard Life, is referring to the implementation of Oracle’s Human Capital Management E-Business (EBS) suite and cloud-based Fusion HR solution. While the main implementation phase is completed, the work is far from over, believes Stokes.

Standard Life, a multinational savings and investment company headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland, first began putting together the business case for the move to the Oracle and the cloud back in 2010 and 2011.

The decision to embark on such a massive project was a bold one. The company had just written off a massive £6 million, highly customized PeopleSoft initiative. Stokes points out that to go back to the board and say they wanted more investment in a new system was a “quite a challenging conversation”.

Although a full cloud implementation was the goal, the strategy was not to flick a switch over to cloud all at once, instead the company decided to go with a co-existence strategy with a hybrid of cloud and non-cloud.

Given the troubles with the earlier project, it was set in stone that this implementation would be delivered on time and on budget. But the task was daunting. The payroll system was a relic from the 1970s, while the technology and HR architecture was a “patchwork quilt” of different systems.

This fragmented environment with 100 different interfaces was highly customized, costly to maintain, required heavy manual intervention, had no mobile capabilities and involved a lot of risk

All in all, it was “a pretty bleak picture”, Stokes told delegates at the recent London Oracle Digital Transformation event.

The implementation would erase these problems, with the goal of aligning people, HR and IT, creating a single source of data and moving to a cloud-based system with no customization.

At the end of the main implementation phase, which ran from 2011 to 2014, Stokes sums up:

We massively de-complicated the IT landscape and automation of HR processes.

This included automating back-office systems, which has made administration far more efficient. Above all, there’s now in place a scalable people proposition with global capabilities, and most important of all, notes Stokes:

We have a single platform for all our people data and all or people processes.

Reducing the number of interfaces, the problems with legacy maintenance and the number of HR people is saving the company millions a year. While it’s delivering financially and in the capabilities it gives employees, the drive to bring this in on time and on budget has taken its toll, admits Stokes:

We had an aggressive timetable for delivery and that put a lot of pressure on a small number of people. It put pressure on relationships because it became a question of: ‘are you in the program or out of the program?’ In the end, the program had to take priority and that created some resentment for those not directly involved.

As an early adopter of cloud-based Oracle Fusion, a lack of detailed knowledge about what was to come out of the as then new solution meant that HR oversold what it could do for employees:

We definitely oversold how intuitive it was, so when it went live the expectation of the users was for an Amazon or a Google, so we got a lot of kickback.

Adopting the cloud also needed a big adjustment from the IT department. With on-premise, points out Stokes, IT has control and they can plan when they do an upgrade, but it doesn’t have that luxury with the cloud:

We talk a lot about the benefits of the cloud, about outsourcing risk and cost, but what you lose is control and I would say some of our IT team have struggled with that.

This is more of a partnership than a traditional supplier-customer relationship, which takes some adjustment, notes Stokes:

It’s a tripartite relationship between HR, IT and Oracle and it relies on trust ….if you don’t have that trust it can be difficult to do.

The move to Oracle has also changed the role of IT within the HR department, observes Stokes:

It’s not OK in HR to say ‘I don’t do numbers’, when we have to do numbers and we are starting to say the same with technology – it’s everyone’s job. It’s not an add-on or separate, it’s very much part of everyone’s job and there’s definitely a blurring of the lines between HR and IT.

In my team, we speak on a daily basis to Oracle, so the nature of their relationship is very different and you have to be comfortable with that and IT has to be comfortable with that.

Although adopting the co-existence model was absolutely the right decision at the time, it’s not been without its challenges. One difficulty, observes Stokes is that when users navigate round the system, they can tell when it moves between EBS and the cloud.

It can also be frustrating for Stokes and her team when they see what’s coming ahead in the development roadmap but can’t have because of their co-existence set-up.

At the outset of the project, HR had “very open, honest and robust conversations” with leadership groups, which Stokes stresses was incredibly important to the success of the project. But post-implementation, it’s important to go back and check how people are doing.

Stokes found that there were pockets of lower levels of utilization and satisfaction in some business unit. Without that buy-in, resentment can fester, points out Stokes:

What we find is that technology is often blamed for things… We often heard people say: ‘I don’t like the system’, and it wound me up and then I realized it was not about the technology.

You have to try to understand what’s just noise – which you’re always going to get – versus legitimate problems with the technology.

But if there are problems, Stokes is keen to address them. Oracle was about to fly in some developers to Standard Life’s Edinburgh headquarters to hear some of these issues from employees in person.

Stokes says that it was also key that the technology strategy was built into strategic plans rather than have it has a separate entity divorced from the people plan:

When you’re head of HR in a business unit, with the best will in the world, your priority is not going to be technology. It’s going to be quite high up, but not the number one thing you want to deliver.

So, I wanted to move away from having a technology plan that ran separately from the people plan, so we integrated what we were going to do with technology into the people plan. It sounds obvious but it wasn’t happening organically so we had to force it through.

So while the main phase of the implementation phase is done and dusted, this is not been the end of the story. As Stokes points out:

We really feel we underestimated the work involved in coming out of the program.

My take

There are always bumps along the road in any implementation and the bigger the project, the bigger those bumps. Yet, we don’t always get to hear about them, so it’s great to hear about some of the challenges as well as the benefits of such a large-scale successful initiative.


Disclosure – at time of writing, Oracle is a premier partner of diginomica.

Image credit - via Standard Life

Disclosure - At time of writing, Oracle is a premier partner of diginomica.