London Heathrow Airport has migrated away from its on premise Oracle E-Business Suite R12 implementation and has set off to the cloud with Oracle Fusion HCM and ERP applications. The project is part of the airport’s plan to be 100 percent cloud-based in its back-office, adopting out of the box processes in order to take advantage of quarterly releases.
We got the chance to speak with Caroline Knight, Heathrow’s Head of Technology, who explained that this journey to the cloud started back in 2019. The move was prompted by the UK’s Competition Commission forcing BAA - a conglomerate of airports that included Heathrow - to split due to market dominance concerns. Heathrow decided to go at it alone, which forced it to assess its systems and processes. Knight said:
We had Oracle E-Business Suite R12 and several other systems that were designed for a seven airport business. Of course we are now a completely different business to that and so our business processes were all focused around the seven airports, they didn’t fit, and we were in a whole heap of Excel chaos.
Data was all over the place, we didn’t know if what we were looking at was a single source of truth, and of course our IT estate was ageing.
As a result, Heathrow decided to move to Oracle Fusion SaaS applications for ERP and HCM, seeing it as an opportunity to simplify its IT estate and adopt cloud-based systems out of the box.
However, Heathrow couldn’t have known back in 2019 when it kicked off this project that a pandemic was just around the corner, which would grind things to a halt for a time. Knight said:
When we started the whole journey we were running design workshops, we were almost at the end of those, and then the pandemic struck. So we paused for a little bit and thought about what we were going to do.
But it didn’t take long for the implementation team to realize that once people had shifted to working from home, that there was an opportunity to speed up the development. Knight added:
We decided that we needed to carry on, because it was going to cost us just as much to keep our old stuff going, as it would to keep the old stuff going. But that was a brave decision in the middle of the pandemic.
Our business was restructuring anyway as a result of everything that was going on with the pandemic. Also the fact that we had everybody at home working actually accelerated the delivery. I could get hold of people very, very quickly if I needed to. And I think going through the pandemic really focused minds and we made decisions a lot faster than I think we would have done if it was business as usual.
Given that the airport wasn’t operating for large chunks of the pandemic, Heathrow decided to change its approach from a phased implementation to a Big Bang approach. Knight said that this was ‘frightening’, but added that it was going to be too costly, so slow and too complicated to go with the phased approach. She added:
We needed to get this thing in and transform the business. It was an ideal opportunity to change the way we work - so we did Big Bang with HR, finance, procurement.
The go live date was delayed slightly because of some issues that were identified during user acceptance testing, but these were quickly ironed out. Knight said:
We just wanted to make sure that we had things absolutely right, particularly with areas like payroll, you just can’t afford to get that wrong. So once we got that sorted and we were confident, we went live and it was pretty smooth. We took control of it from day one. There were bugs, but not many, and it stabilized pretty quickly.
Heathrow completed the project and went live approximately a year ago. It now has a DevOps team that manages the quarterly releases from Oracle, assessing how the business can constantly adapt and change. Knight said:
We went from a world where we had E-Business Suite R12, which we implemented and it sat still and we didn’t touch it. Then maybe five years later we’d do an upgrade, it would cost a fortune, and no one was really happy about doing it.
Whereas now, every fortnight we are continually evolving the system with the DevOps team and it’s working very well.
This ability to adapt and change regularly with the DevOps team has proven useful as Heathrow has had to navigate returning to large passenger numbers travelling through the airport, particularly as it relates to recruitment and finding staff. Knight said:
We are now going through a big recruitment drive at Heathrow, as are many of our partners and the airlines. We’ve got a big recruitment task force at the moment and we’ve put quite a few changes into the system to make our recruitment process more efficient, to try and speed it up.
And that’s the beauty of the solution we’ve got now. We’re able to change it and change it ourselves, because it’s all just configuration change. That’s just something that we couldn’t have done in our previous world, we’d still be sitting here now trying to write the contracts to change the system. Whereas, we’ve just got on and made the changes ourselves.
Focusing on what matters
As already noted, Heathrow now has a strategy in its back-office to be 100 percent cloud-based. Knight said that it is approximately 90 percent of the way there, bar a few SAP systems that it is looking to migrate to Oracle too. The key thing it is focusing on now is that it doesn’t want to be thinking about managing servers and infrastructure, but rather its core business objectives. Knight added:
For back office tech, the cloud works absolutely fine. We run an airport, we aren’t the experts in running data centers, we just want the back office to be simple and seamless, and just let people get on with running the airport.
And lessons have been learned from its on-premise days too. Mainly that a commitment to out of the box adoption is critical if you want to remain agile and take advantage of cloud-based innovation. This is something that Knight and her team have been dogmatic about. She said:
We are not special. We pay people, we pay suppliers, we have all those standard processes. We didn’t need to change it and make it unique for Heathrow. That’s a very easy thing to say but not an easy thing to do.
We had a design authority and if any of our business users wanted to change anything they had to come through that authority - and that answer was always no. Go back, go have another look and find a way of making this work.
I think if we hadn't done that we would have found it very difficult to manage the quarterly release upgrades. I think we would have lost a lot of the benefit with the system being so integrated with the data flows, you start to devalue that if you customize.
We had all that with our previous system and we knew how painful it was. Taking it out of the box was completely the right thing to do. Why would we know better?
Knight explained that there is still a relatively large group that are ‘turning the handle’ and dealing with the transactional piece in the back-office, but that these processes are much more automated now. An additional benefit has been the teams’ access to data. She said:
From an end user point of view, I can get data at my fingertips. It’s so easy to use. It’s a one stop shop. And it’s very intuitive. As a line manager, if I’m doing something like annual salary reviews, the system will tell me I’ve got these people in my team, this is how their performance was rated, this is how their salaries compare to the market range, and it gives you a recommendation. That sort of thing is empowering and we couldn’t have done that in the past.
In terms of advice, Knight said that organizations shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it can be to bring business users along on the technology journey. She recommends prioritizing this from day one and said:
You need some really strong exec sponsorship. Take change management seriously. This is not an IT change, it’s a business transformation. The business needs to be involved. We took people out of the business and their day jobs were working on the programme.
They were involved in that whole design process the whole way through, they were empowered to make decisions. Getting the business owners involved was important.