Hearst's modernization journey with Oracle - a conversation with Debra Robinson, SVP and CIO Oracle Technology and Operations, Hearst

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 9, 2020
Hearst is a familiar brand that over the last few years has replaced its ageing back office systems, leap-frogging the client/server era and committing fully to cloud-based technology. This is that story.

hearst building
(via thespaces.com)

When we think of Hearst, we probably think of the iconic Hearst Building in San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle, or Chicago Tribune. Think again.

While Hearst remains a potent force in publishing, it operates across 380 legal entities, 20,000 employees in 150 countries in many businesses, including a venture arm and medical database businesses and many others. These are organized across eight business groups.

In that context, I recently spoke with Debra Robinson, Hearst Senior Vice President, and CIO, Oracle Technology and Operations at Hearst about their replacement of a 25-year-old, highly customized Infinium ERP system for a new Oracle Fusion implementation. 

The Oracle-Hearst story started in 2016. At the time, the IT support team said 'yes' to changes needed, and it was becoming increasingly clear that supporting the applications landscape was going to be problematic in the future. It was hard to bring in new companies. Said Robinson: 

Hearst makes many acquisitions, and they would come with their systems; we skipped a whole generation of HRIS, there wasn't any HR system at all. We were doing our payroll, and on the finance side, there were something like 15 or 20 charts of account. So it was increasingly difficult to get an accurate picture of what was happening across the whole group. It wasn't a good state to be in as we tried to do acquisitions and bring new companies in.

This might sound antediluvian in the 21st century, but Hearst is a privately held company, so gets to plow its own furrow. It is also highly decentralized, with local leaders enjoying a great deal of autonomy. That made any change extremely difficult. To overcome the problem of managing a business-wide transition, Hearst put Robinson into a role that straddled the functional groups and the corporate team. 

While the project was finance-led, Robinson insisted that Hearst opts for an integrated finance and HR system. In her view, the group would see a better outcome in those highly decentralized circumstances if it could implement a single system for back-office finance and HR processes. That didn't mean others were excluded. In the final cut, Oracle was pitched in with Workday and SAP. 

They were all tenths of a point apart, but the integration Oracle offered was what won it. That and the fact they were cloud-first, which was part of our overall strategy. SAP with S/4HANA said they were cloud, but they were not. 

Having made those baseline decisions, how does this work in the implementation phase?

The key to getting this right was governance. So we created a working group that included Steve Miranda (EVP applications and development) and Accenture. I was fortunate that I had moved around the group over 15 years and established credibility as CTO among all the CFOs. I brought in an HR person who also has credibility across the group. We also had strong guiding principles - no customization, only configuration, one chart of accounts, out of the box implementation, which means a simplified implementation - which is the hardest part of all because people think they have something unique, and we wanted standardization across all the business groups. 

That approach might seem straightforward, but it comes with compromises. Robinson explained that early on, they created too many job codes for project work that quickly became unwieldy. 

At first, we had the equivalent of a job code for every two people. That's 8,000 job codes. We streamlined that down to 1,700, and we don't add job codes but find the closest that fits to what a person is doing. The same went for the chart of accounts, but I have to say it's an iterative process. 

Implied in that set of statements are ideas about how you bring people around to new ways of thinking about what they do when those same people have not had to deal with change in a very long time. 

Hearst is an unusual kind of company in the modern age in that it is very much a family. People stay for a long time. Hearst treats its people exceptionally well and so you don't have a lot of people leaving. The other side of that is that they're used to doing the same things over a long period and so making any change, let alone massive changes to the way they work, is understandably difficult even though it's necessary. Overcoming some of the objections was tough at times but we made a point of sitting with process owners to work through what they saw as exceptions. The only flexibility we had was anything to meet local regulatory requirements.

Despite all the challenges, the nine module project was delivered in 18 months but it meant some compromises. For example, modernizing the group's 32 billing systems were out of scope as it was considered they would slow the project down.
Having got this far, I wondered how Hearst adapted to COVID-19. 

We had very little notice but were told that we'd all be working from home. We managed that without interruption. Onboarding continues as does learning because Oracle's HCM and LMS are cloud-based. We're upskilling employees as our business changes. We continue to pay our bills and close our books as usual. We're doing well-being packages for emotional, physical, and financial needs. We're using the Oracle system extensively. 

As we started to close out our conversation, I asked about the relationship between Oracle and Hearst. Those who have read my recent Oracle Fusion case studies will be familiar with Oracle being positioned by its customers as a genuine partner. 

I can't speak highly enough about the relationship we have with Oracle. I have Steve Miranda's phone number, but I think I've only had to call him once. We're getting value from the implementation; it's delivered what we hoped, but I must stress this is a team effort, and the people Oracle brings to the table have a great understanding of what we need. At the same time, though, I think it helps that we've been rigid about keeping to a standard.