"Automation is key," says Jaime Everard, Business Systems Manager at engineering consultancy Buro Happold. With 1,900 employees and 26 global locations, the 40-year-old company has delivered prestige projects such as the iconic Millenium Dome in London, the Atlanta Falcons Mercedes-Benz Stadium with its distinctive retractable roof, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and many others. Continued evolution of its IT systems is a key part of its ongoing growth. Everard says:
We don't want our engineers spending loads of time filling in data into the system. We'd like the system to be able to automate that as much as possible. Because ultimately, we prefer our people to be out there working with our customers.
I spoke to Everard in the run-up to this week's Experience4U virtual event, organized by Unit4, where he'll chat to Constellation Research analyst Holger Mueller about automation in professional services. Buro Happold has been a Unit4 customer since 2004 and our conversation touched on the various ways in which its use of the platform has expanded in recent years to streamline processes and reporting. One notable aspect of this is that the London-based firm has been able to pursue these innovations while still keeping its ERP instance on-prem, rather than having to upgrade to a version that runs in the cloud. Everard doesn't rule out going to the cloud in the future, but it's not a priority right now. He explains:
It's not that we're not going to adopt a Unit4 cloud solution going forwards. It's just getting the timing right for that. At the moment, we do have rack space in a data center, so we are able to sufficiently service all of our global people, in terms of getting access to the system. We've got a great internal infrastructure team that enables that. We use tools such as Citrix, etc, but obviously moving towards a more web-based architecture, which Unit4 provides.
We're almost providing our own cloud, because we just access our services through the data center, and we operate a global WAN to make sure that all of our offices are connected [to each other], and connected to our data center.
Instead of upgrading the back-end, the focus has been on adding new ways to access it. A big part of the automation story has been a move towards 'headless' ERP. This means accessing the back-end system via a conversational layer — in Buro Happold's case, the Microsoft Teams messaging app — rather than going directly to the ERP application (the 'head') to see data or use functions. This was made possible with Unit4's Wanda chatbot technology, which the firm became the first on-prem customer to start using. It allows users to get information or complete actions directly from the Teams message stream, while the AI technology behind Wanda takes care of communicating with the back-end system. Everard elaborates:
People engaging with the systems — having to go around different systems to do different tasks — is quite time-consuming, especially when you're an engineer out there on the customer side. The great thing that Teams gives us, and being able to use Wanda through Teams, is a commonality of interface. They didn't even know necessarily what ERP system they're connected to. All they know is, it's doing what they need it to do on a daily basis, whether that's entering your absence, whether it's approving a task, approving an invoice. It can all be done through a common interface, and we do so much now within Teams.
The team has automated a range of different tasks using Wanda across HR and finance tasks, even including setting up and filling in timesheets. Teams is also useful for tracking collaboration around documents in SharePoint. Actions are much less likely to get missed when Wanda sends an alert than when a user receives an email reminder. Everard explains:
If Wanda is prompting you and saying, you've got an invoice to approve, it comes up as what they call a card. You can see the information in Teams, and you just simply click approve, reject, or update later. [Unit4 has] also built in quite a clever web app, which takes you to a very simplified version of the Unit4 tool, so that you can see the invoice, the receipt, all of those things, within there. Again, that's all linked up through Wanda and Teams.
All of these workflows have been built by Everard's team using Unit4's visual workflow builder, making sure that each workflow conforms to the company's internal authorization matrix. The visualization means that users can also track the status of outstanding actions in the workflow at any given time. He explains:
You build it as a diagram, and then you apply the rules into the steps in the diagram. So you can see, as you're building it, where it's going to go, who it's going to go to, how it's going to work. That also benefits the user, because it translates into a nice diagram or map, so they can see who it's with at any point in time.
Workflow flexibility was also useful when implementing Unit4's mobile-first travel and expense app. This had to accommodate very strict regional exchange rate rules in countries such as Poland, where the team implemented a connector to import the correct rates. Automating expense claims has made a big impact, especially with the advent of COVID and the switch to remote working. He explains:
Previously, it was just a matter of taking pictures [of receipts], and then when you got back in the office, you had to complete it within the system. But now you can do everything through the app, including taking pictures of receipts. We even have receipt recognition switched on, so in many cases, it will detect on receipt, what type of expense it is ...
We get the information in terms of approvals to the right people, they can see the receipt, they can say yes, I approve it's within policy, etc. So that's definitely been a big plus for us, adopting expenses. Good job we did do it before COVID. We finished it about three or four months before COVID. We've adopted that globally.
Curated data models
The team is now rolling out Unit4 Procure-to-Pay (P2P), which has just gone live in India and will roll out elsewhere over the coming months. This too will bring much-needed automation, as he explains:
That will bring a great deal of automation, and also will mean a lot of manual process will hopefully go the way of the dinosaur ... At the moment we have an invoice comes in the door, and our AP team have to code that in. With P2P, they won't have to do that anymore. The invoice will come in the door, and we'll be able to match it and then pay our suppliers off the back of that.
There's plenty else going on across the firm's business systems. It recently implemented a new image library, and has just adopted the Cornerstone learning management system. Meanwhile, there's a big project in hand to transition the Deltek project management platform to a new version.
Data analytics is another area where Buro Happold has made big strides in recent years. A dedicated internal team of three PowerBI experts have developed the internal data warehouse to provide curated data models to various parts of the organization, which allows people to generate their own reports. Doing this internally rather than relying on outside consultants "means we're delivering, first time, what the stakeholder wants," says Everard. It's proven its worth, particularly when navigating the uncertainties of the pandemic, as he explains:
That has given our leadership real visibility into what's happening. During the pandemic, frankly, if we didn't have those tools, our decision making would have been impacted.
It's really helped our decision making, so we're continually growing our offering. It's probably our most in-demand area.
To read diginomica stories from Unit4's X4U digital experience visit our Experience4U 2021 event hub. The virtual event runs from November 16-17th and sessions will be available afterwards to view on-demand. Click here to see the agenda and register now.