Southampton City Council decided to migrate its ERP to the cloud, a decision that resulted in a series of challenges and learnings en route to the desired benefits.
The council is a unitary authority in the south of England, employing 3,500 staff across a huge range of disciplines. That has implications for its ERP needs, according to Head of IT Gavin Muncaster:
In relation to ERP, that means a very complex payroll, different job structures different pay structures and so on as well as a huge amount of suppliers that we deal with in terms of purchasing services, providing services and buying commodities. Expenditure for the council in 2021 is projected to be £515 million.
The council has some key corporate objectives, the first of which being a shift towards a digital first culture of service delivery. Muncaster explains:
Digital has been the first choice for most of our customers. It won't be right for everybody, but if we can get it right for the most of the people, we can really focus our resources on those that really need an alternative way to contact us.
Data security is a priority, of course, and there’s also an emphasis on collaboration, accentuated in recent months by the COVID crisis, he adds:
Across Southampton and the region there are a whole host of public services. COVID has really highlighted the need for us to all work together, more so than ever, so making sure we can join up our services and processes digitally is really key to us in terms of our corporate objectives.
There's been a lot of change in recent years in terms of how services are delivered within the council, notes Muncaster:
Large amounts of the service were outsourced to Capita back in 2008, and these were all bought back in house during July 2019. That included a number of key services including IT, benefits, council tax, HR and procurement. So a huge amount of upheaval was happening organization-wide alongside our move to ERP in the cloud.
The council has been a Unit4 customer since 2001 when it signed up for financial, procurement and project modules within Aggresso as well as a second contact to implement payroll. There was a phased roll out in 2002 of what was an on -premises deployment, managed in house by the IT department. The council operated a three year upgrade cycle with each upgrade timed to coincide with new functionality introduced by Unit4. But the biggest change has clearly come with the decision to migrate to ERP in the cloud, notes Helen Baker, Business World & Related Systems Manager at the council:
Like most authorities, the money situation is very tight and in 2017, we decided to review all our IT systems. We identified that there was a need to streamline. One way of doing this was to amalgamate a number of our systems together, including our finance, HR, payroll and income management systems and actually move to an ERP system, which would encompass them all. Another reason we were excited to move to ERP was so that we had all our data in one place and then that ensured that when we were reporting, we only have one version of the truth, rather than lots of different variations.
The council did look around the ERP market at a range of potential suppliers, but ultimately decided to stick with Unit4 and Business World. Baker says:
They were able to demonstrate that the additional functionality required was there for us to use. In addition to this, there was the familiarity factor, as staff were already using the software for the financial modules, and it was felt it would make it easier when we were training to introduce them to new modules.
As to the shift to the cloud, this was a pragmatic move, adds Muncaster:
We have a fairly traditional IT set up, with our own data center. As we review each of our systems and our contracts, cloud first is a consideration all the times we do that. It's not always right for us, but we know as we get to parts of the journey where we need to either replace hardware or do significant upgrades, actually that's a perfect time to move to cloud and give us some of the benefits, such as cost avoidance on more equipment for the data center, greater resilience and more flexible access to users.
That said, making the decision to go to the cloud did have an impact on the wider re-implementation plan, says Baker:
All the initial work and decisions had been made based on the fact we were going on premises. This had a major bearing, especially on the interfaces for the income manager modules, which were designed as on premises, rather than on the cloud, so we had to do some substantial re-working.
There were further complications arising from decisions to roll out a new Chart of Accounts and to amend the account rules, she adds:
[This] meant that we had to design and build an in-house conversion process to allow our feeder systems to integrate into Business World, as they were using our own Chart of Accounts. We found this quite a challenging piece of work. However, we got there because we went down the value accelerated route.
Some of the functionality we required and had used in our previous versions of Business World wasn't included. This meant that in order for us to meet our business needs, we required additional configuration to be done, not only by Unit4 consultants, but by ourselves as well. This had an impact on the time scales, as well as incurring additional costs for us as an authority as we didn't have a complete set of business process maps ready in advance. It was quite a major flaw on our part. It hampered us to a certain degree when we were doing the build, but it also caused more issues in the early period after we went live, where we had to review and re-design a few of the processes to work smoother for some specific areas.
As for the move to the cloud, this too triggered some challenges, admits Baker:
We were really concerned about the loss of control we would have [over] being able to manage the system ourselves and how this could impact on our ability to support our users. We were used to being able to go in and make changes to the databases, use the management center to make all the necessary changes as and when was required without having to wait for anyone else. We were concerned that moving to the cloud is would be a problem However, this wasn't to be the case.
It wasn’t entirely without issue however:
We had challenges when processing interfaces from third parties, especially the way we loaded them, so we had to re-visit all our processes and re-design the way these worked, using web services etc. Moving to the cloud also posed a number of security issues for us and we had to spend time identifying the best way of allowing our external users to access Business World. We use whitelisting significantly and in the future we're intending to make more of the active directories.
We had concerns about how we were going to upload mass data. I have to say when we were actually implementing the Business World itself, this didn't turn out to be an issue, because we had consultants on site who were able to do all of that work for us. The last challenge we had around going to the cloud was the limitation on the Income Management functionality. The income manager had been implemented many times, but on premises and it hadn't been done on the cloud, so we did have some issues around the chip-and-pin and the refunding with MasterCard. Because of this, we made the decision that actually certain parts of the income manager module, we weren't going to go live with and we would do that as a second stage implementation.
A final hurdle was that a number of other major projects were underway at the authority at the same time as all this was going on which limited the use of certain resources. In the event, the go live date was six months behind schedule, but delaying was the right thing to do, attests Baker:
Although it did cause us some additional work regarding migration of data, by going on arbitrary timescales we just wouldn't have been ready. Once we did go live, we did have a few early teething problems, like you would expect with most IT projects. Some of the more memorable ones were around the initial performance. We realized very early on that the initial sizing of the system wasn't quite enough for us and we needed to increase it. Within a week or so of going live this had been increased and was sorted out. Since then we've done continuous monitoring with Unit4, which has allowed us to check the performance and when it has started to slip again, we've been able to take action to actually rectify the performance issue.
With those glitches overcome, the benefits of the cloud shift have come to be realised, says Baker, beginning with full built-in disaster recovery which eliminated the need to buy costly additional servers and processors to provide this capability. The cloud ERP system also provides the elusive one version of the truth that had been a project objective, explains Baker:
We don't have to worry about multiple systems being in sync. We have all our information held within Unit4's ERP system, and that allows us to do all the reporting we're required to do. Being on the cloud, also means that we have been able to keep our environments up to date with upgrades.
For the future, there’s also a continued push towards further streamlining of procurement processes, she adds:
This will allow us to be able to get rid of one of our other IT systems. We're going to be reviewing all the interfaces and we're going to be looking at all the new functionality that's available for us and see where we can make changes to make the process a lot slicker.
From Muncaster's perspective, a key benefit is that the council now has a platform to drive further improvements and efficiencies:
We have a strategy to consolidate applications. We've made a first step with the move to ERP. We'll continue this as we bring more applications and functionality into the ERP system. The more we understand it and get our heads around what it can do for us, the more we can make use of it.