Main content

Booz Allen Hamilton's journey to the future

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 8, 2019
When a highly self-critical professional services business comes to make a significant change in its technology landscape you just know there will be important issues that crop up again and again. Booz Allen is the poster child for how this works and the lessons it learned along the path of this Workday implementation.

Sarah St clair Booz Allen
Sarah St Clair - VP Booz Allen Hamilton

Booz Allen Hamilton hardly needs an introduction. Now in its 105th year, the storied consulting and advisory firm always had the mantra of 'people before products.' That translates into a workforce north of 24,000 people providing professional services to both government agencies like the US Homeland Security while also servicing companies around the world from its 80 global offices.

In common with other firms, as Booz Allen grew and became global, they picked up tools and technologies that allow them to operate effectively inside their local geographies. Over time this leads to the proverbial spaghetti soup of software that, while working, doesn't provide a platform for the future. It is in that context that Booz Allen embarked on an HR technology refresh, starting with systems that impact its workforce. Sarah St. Clair, vice president at Booz Allen who led the project described it in these terms:

The system we used was quite old, going back to 1998. Over time we'd made so many changes that it was almost unrecognizable from what was originally put in and we had numerous manual systems that were prone to error. To give you a clue but also a sense of the complexity of our landscape, in the Workday project we undertook, which didn't include payroll, we had 103 integrations. People had supplemented what went before with their own databases and some of that had to go but when you think about benefits, for example, there really is no way for a global company to get past those services without integration. Benefts alone accounts for 50 percent of the essential integrations.

To make matters more 'interesting' Booz Allen's finance people had given the go-ahead for a payroll upgrade. However, the HR implementation team recognized early on that attempting to manage both an HR and third party (ADP) upgrade in the same technical project cycle would be risky. That, in turn, meant that Booz Allen had to put the ADP upgrade on hold while the Workday implementation and go-live phases were completed.

I'm always fascinated to understand how projects reach a degree of measurable success in cases where the functional requirements are kind of, but not necessarily all there. In this case, Booz Allen pushed Workday on the recruiting element since this was deemed to be project critical. At the time, Workday Recruitment was not fully formed but the centrality of recruiting as a core requirement for Booz Allen provided the opportunity to develop a close co-development relationship with the vendor. Was it a perfect marriage? Yes and no. With the benefit of hindsight, Ms. St. Clair says that Booz Allen would not have gone live in the order in which they did but acknowledges the outcome is fine, in part measure because the company allocated plenty of resource to helping staff understand the capabilities and limitations of the time.

We have a very high level of inbound applicants and at the time, the Workday system really wasn't designed to handle them as efficiently as we'd like. They will be the first to tell you that while we were something like the eleven hundredth customer, they'd never seen the levels we were pushing. But then our relationship with them ensured we both got past that.

As we discussed the implementation Ms. St. Clair acknowledged that as a consulting organization, Booz Allen tends to be highly self-critical:

It's the nature of who we are and what we do but we learn quickly. As with all projects of this kind, nothing ever runs exactly as you'd planned. So for instance, I wish we had devoted more time to getting feedback from across the company. But then this is a business which operates on billable hours so the ability to get everyone's attention at the time the project demands is that much more challenged. Quite naturally, people pay attention when things impact them.

Given those challenges, what steps did Booz Allen take to mitigate or eliminate negative impacts?

We had a 'village' of 50 people who are lead advocates for the system as one group and who were communicating regularly with the business. We also stood up a systems review board of practitioners who understand these systems but which also included the company's leadership. They were focused on time to value and ensuring we follow the right processes. The combination worked really well. From my side, we had every incentive to get this done right and knew that if the leadership was behind us then we'd be fine. That element worked really well as they were among our most enthusiastic advocates. That has an important positive impact in these large projects. They had instant credibility because in many cases, they had direct client experience that could be brought back to the project.

Credibility has other benefits and specifically in the area of focus. Large scale projects always run the risk of going sideways or worse still backward when priorities shift. As an example, the project included a piece where reports were to be part of the initial rollout. Reporting is never a static function and when presented with information, people will naturally ask for more. Restricting report building until after go-live ensured that having a working talent system for all employees was prioritized because, without that, the project would not have delivered essential functionality scoped into the design. Change management is inevitable and again, the project team made certain that the person leading that element was someone with whom the business could identify as a credible, experienced leader.

You can imagine that in a self-critical organization like Booz Allen you must have people who can stand up to scrutiny. Our attention to that point, ensuring the right person led change, made all the difference.

Once the system was implemented, Booz Allen hit an unexpected problem. Workday data is real-time and it can change in the blink of an eye. This is not a problem during implementation but became a change issue in the post-go-live period. Senior managers were used to making comparisons based on static reports. That led to cognitive dissonance about what managers were seeing on an ongoing basis.

This is a great example of how you experience a real-time system in operational circumstances. It took about six months for managers to understand how the real-time content helps operationally while of course we gave them the snapshot data they need anyway at month end.

Despite the apparent headaches, most of which would have arisen anyway, Ms. St. Clair believes the project has been an outstanding success. Having all the talent related data in a single place is a huge win because managers and staff have visibility across a common platform. And that opens the door to the future with Workday promising advances in predictive analytics and machine learning driven insights.

We are excited about those possibilities. We have so many questions we'd like to ask of the system around how we optimize the use and development of talent, how we match talent to client projects because in professional services, we always want to get the best people mix. We can see where Workday is going and while we know it's easy to get swept up into the 'cool' factor, we'e got enough experience to understand that there really is much more that can be achieved.

A grey colored placeholder image