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Falling back in love with financials at Forest Research

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 13, 2020
Modernizing an ageing ERP landscape is never fun, but the rewards are worthwhile when the project plan is well executed.

nature forest unit4
(Image by My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: from Pixabay)

Hands up all those who truly love their financial accounting system? No takers? I'm not surprised. Financials have been the backbone of ERP systems since forever and you'd be hard-pressed to persuade me that your system represents a special kind of snowflake. Not so for Meirion Nelson, finance director at Forest Research, the UK central government body responsible for forestry and tree-related research. With an annual budget of some £19 million, it is a relatively small unit but one that conducts vital research both for public purposes and on behalf of private organizations.

Spaghetti junction

During a phone conversation in advance of this week's Unit4 Experience4U event, he described the project which enabled his organization to not only fast track its public audit but, more importantly, improve the speed at which it settled supplier accounts. The background is one that is becoming all too familiar as more organizations realize that their IT estates are not only showing their age but also siloed.

It was a mix of a variety of systems. There was a separate HR system, a separate finance system, a separate sort of operation system, and a separate time recording system. So there were at least four components operated through different providers so not only did we not have a single source of truth, we didn't have control over what we did have. It was really a historical artefect of our being a small part of the overall Forestry Commission with little real say in our IT. 

This manifested in practical issues around how the time recording system the researchers need for billing wasn't well integrated to the main financial system. Inevitably, that meant the use of manual uploads, spreadsheets and the like with the attendant potential for error. Implementing a system like Unit4 is not a trivial undertaking, even when the benefits of seamless integration across modules is self evident. In that context, I wondered how the scientists working in the field responded to what was a significant change in the way they recorded time for billing allocation purposes. Nelson's response won't surprise but is worth repeating:

It was huge because there was a culture change required within the organisation. And colleagues were used to historically filling in bits of paper for a variety of different tasks and invoicing requisitioning an order. And then we moved to a completely new workflow process where we automated all our business processes overnight, but we had to take the rest of the business with us. We tried to do that with a series of education and training meetings. We didn't quite get around to exactly where we needed to be because time ran out in what was a very tight implementation schedule. 

Workflow and change management

Nelson says that the overnight change was largely successful and once people saw how their lives were made easier then the benefits for the operational staff automatically flowed. 

Before Forest Research got to that point, it needed significant help in understanding what the workflows would look like for different tasks within the operational side of the business. That in turn meant that training on the system could not take place too early but was inserted into the project once configurations had been worked out. Instead, the team leaders ran extensive user acceptance testing and then went into formal training.

Our systems were being retired so there was no option to fail and that definitely focuses people's attention. Hindsight is something from which you benefit and I'd say that you can never do enough training but there was enough to get us running. Put another way, our internal audit people were happy that the controls we put in place were more than satisfactory. That matters for any financial professional and especially for us as a public body where we are accountable. 

Achieving that level of success at the first pass from go live is always gratifying but I wondered how that happened beyond the training, configuration and UAT elements. Nelson explained that during the technical selection process, they actively involved the scientists since they are central to economic activity and therefore meeting their needs was paramount. This is a welcome approach. Too often we see vague business requirements handed off to IT who are expected to magically imagine what the business actually needs. Project leaders then wonder why they end up with something that doesn't work or which, in the worst case, doesn't reflect business needs. My sense is that business leaders do understand the importance of bringing those who use technology together with those who have ti deal with the technical bits and bytes. The question is how well that understanding forms the bedrock for project execution.

Differentiated value delivered

The Forest Research project leaders went one step further by providing the shortlisted providers with specifications and then requesting that vendors demonstrate how well they understood needs. Those sessions are fraught with risk because buyer communication has to be pristine. There was one element where the scientists could truly test vendors. This relates to the bidding process when undertaking commercial work. 

They wanted to manage and monitor their projects more effectively and develop bids more effectively They wanted assistance from a system rather than a continuation of a manual process They were really interested in one of the modules called research cost and pricing. They were they were really keen on that. And they, they were really keen not to be sort of overly burdened.

So no pressure there!

The system has delivered benefits beyond operational efficiencies. Procurement approval processes have been streamlined so that there is automated routing to the point where the finance function does not needed to check (for example) goods received since that has been managed by the approver rather than through the manual back and forth of GRNs and the like.

Those kind of efficiencies meant that we were able to report 99.1% of suppliers being paid within 10 days of invoice receipt.

Nelson is rightly proud of that achievement. It is the sort of thing that enhances reputation and keeps the best suppliers on board. Similarly, he is delighted that following the implementation, the annual audit was one of the first to be completed among public bodies that are subject to audit by the National Audit Office. 

I think the importance of of getting that account certification done in a timely manner during a pandemic, as well as just not just to tick the box that we met the original deadline, is important, Getting that sign off from the external auditors after the first full year of operation of the new Unit4 ERP in our business meant the world to the team. So yes, we love this system. 

My take

Sometimes when I hear about project success, there is sense of palpable relief that the team got across the line without their world falling apart. Making the right buying decision clearly plays an important part of the overall process but when you're thinking of something commodity like a GL, AR or AP then it needs something special to tip a decision in favor of one vendor or another. The fact that operational people were intimately involved in that process early on made a difference. How else might they have discovered a specific piece of functionality, integrated to the wider ERP that adds value and which served as a differentiator? Similarly, keeping those people engaged over any extended period of time is a challenge. This Forest Research story demonstrates that it is not only possible but eminently achievable. But as always, it comes down to the change management element and how well that is performed. 

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