NATS: learnings from a global social HCM roll-out

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan February 16, 2014
NATS is one of the world’s leading providers of air traffic control services, handling 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers in UK airspace as well as working in more than 30 countries around the globe. It needed an integrated, global HCM solution.

NATS is one of the world’s leading providers of air traffic control services, handling 2.2 million flights and 220 million passengers in UK airspace as well as working in more than 30 countries around the globe.

With major expansion ambitions and operating in an increasingly competitive market sector, NATS faces considerable HCM challenges as its relatively small workforce of 4,800 people needs to be optimised to maximum efficiency.

Nigel Crainey, Organisational Design and Development Manager, NATS, explains the vision behind the organization:

“We are all about providing air traffic solutions, but it’s more than just about guiding airplanes in the sky.

“If you join NATS, you very quickly learn about crews, moving crews on the ground ready for take-off. We cover that full spectrum.

“As a business we are heavily regulated. We are as regulated as the NHS in terms of safety. Touch wood, the technology and the people who work in NATS make sure that everyone who is up there in the sky is safe. You can imagine the kind of complexity of our business.”

The challenges

To add to that complexity, NATS management around two years ago sat down to evaluate what exactly the organisation wanted to achieve, resulting in some clear strategic imperatives:

“We have a very simplistic way of looking at it which is our strategic imperative, which is to defend our current contracts. Because we are a commercial organisation and not part of government any longer, we are operating in highly competitive markets, particularly in Germany.

“And we want to grow our markets. Growing our markets is essentially looking at whether we can take over and run more airports in the UK and globally and to enable that through technology transition and through having different skills and making sure that we have the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time.”

Against those operational goals are balanced some powerful competitive challenges:

“We have a lot of competition that’s coming in from the single European sky in Europe. Europe is deciding to integrate everything together so that we have common systems and processes that operate from mid-Atlantic to somewhere over Russia. They’re not quite common yet.

“We have shareholders. We have customers. We have regulators. They have three very different needs. So we have three very different skill sets that we need to grow and develop.

“We are on quite a growth agenda. We just hit a billion pounds turnover. In comparison to some other organisations, that’s not significant but we are one of the most successful NSPs [Navigation Service Provider] in the world.

“As with any business, we have cost pressures, you’ve got increasing globalisation, you’ve got automation of processes, you’ve got the introduction of new technologies.”

Then there are the HR challenges, summarised on two fronts: workforce capability and planning - or as Crainey puts it:

“What we’ve got, where we’ve got it and how we need to deploy it.

“Matching the demand that our customers place upon us and the supply we’ve got within the business and ensuring that we have an agile enough workforce. A lot of businesses are actually going through that at the moment.

“We have a succession planning and talent agenda and that’s a key focus. We need to be building sustainability and resilience in all our employees, not just the leadership crew.”

Critical to the HR strategic decisions is the backdrop of NATS as a global organisation, he adds:

“Yes we’re small but we have people based all over the world. So if we win a contract in Kuala Lumpar to manage an airport, what do we do? Do we ship people from the UK which is incredibly expensive? Or do we build resilience within country?

“Part of the journey we’ve been on has been trying to understand precisely what we’ve got."

The solution

Crainey explains:

“We went out searching for talent management solutions. We settled on the Cornerstone OnDemand product as the key underpinning technology from an HR perspective.

“We are an SAP house. If you are familiar with the complexity that SAP brings, what we needed was something more agile and a lot simpler.”

NATS tackled its revised HR strategy in three distinct phases, beginning with performance management and the need for an integrated process for performance, learning and succession management. Crainey recalls:

“We didn’t have one system. I could count the number of systems on both hands, toes and other bits of body as well on various spreadsheets. We didn’t have anything that was integrated.

“If someone came to me and said what do we have in this part of the world with these sort of skills and this sort of capability going forward, I would say ‘I have no idea’.

“Today we are in position where we do have that information.

“This journey we’ve been on has helped us to win commercial contracts in other countries. We’ve just won a couple of contracts in Sweden based on extracting data out of the integrated systems we’ve got. We can actually forecast demand and forecast the skills needed.”

Learning management made up the core of phase two, which Crainey describes a more challenging as NATS set out to connect what it had in terms of information to the wider talent agenda. This resulted in a slightly longer business case and a longer return period.

The organization is currently in the middle of Phase three: the creation of a global careers center:

“What we recognized is managers and leaders and employees engaging with the system and just sticking stuff in it, a bit like Facebook and Twitter where you just stick stuff in.

“We structure it so that what we put in, we can get out really really simply. What that will enable us to do is to build the capability of our workforce and actually provide different exposures for them in different parts of the world if that’s what they wish to do.”

Succession planning is also a key theme of Phase 3:

“We use the system to drive that. But it is just a system. It doesn’t take away from the conversations. But what the system has allowed us to do is to get away from the noise of the conversation and focus on the outcomes and the outputs that are actually necessary.

“We’re currently looking at the compensation part which is the pay module from Cornerstone. I just need to finish off the business case.”

The learnings

(1) Too much on offer:

“Like any software as a service there is usually a massive amount of product capability. As soon as you get immersed in the product you can get lost really really quickly. You can do that and that and that and that. A lot of implementation starts to stall at that point.

“My advice would be you have to be absolutely crystal clear on what you’re actually trying to achieve. We have a very very clear three year roadmap. Every six months we put a new release of Cornerstone into the business with enhanced functionality.”

(2) Learn to fail really, really fast:

“By learning to fail really fast, what that allowed us to do was to get to a position more quickly where we could bring implementation forward which meant that we were under budget when we actually finally implemented. That’s not without its challenges.

(3) Issues with SAP integration and data loading:

“If anyone tells you that SAP is just a bunch of data on a CSV file, don’t believe them. I had two people working on the project and I was blessed because one of them was a bit of an SAP data person way beyond anything I could understand.

“That was the longest part of the project, making sure that the system from SAP fed the Cornerstone product and that then we could get Cornerstone talking to SAP again. It was actually easier getting it to go back the way than it was getting it to come out. It was really hard.

“My god we failed fast on the SAP side of things, regularly, on a daily basis for about a month. We moved on and we fixed it and we understand it.”

(4) Change management and cultural resistance:

"We were all geared up for a fight in the organisation. We were going to get people to do things that they had never, ever considered doing before, such as set objectives, put development plans in the system, create PDPs, create learning and training plans and things like that.

"We had zero kick back from the business. I was all geared up for a fight. HR people introducing technology into an organisation, you can imagine!

“To this day, I still can’t believe that we had no resistance. We put that down to a couple of things. People could very quickly see the benefits. We socialised the product really quickly. Within a week of signing the contract, we had the product built as more than just a sand box so that we could go out and show individuals.

“We’ve also introduced a thing called Connect, which is an online collaboration tool, a little bit like Sharepoint on steroids. That allows us to have conversations across the world referencing the same data source. It’s more than just screen sharing. It’s actually proper collaboration. We have knowledge communities set up and we’re starting now to get into bite-sized training.”

(5) Don’t do everything everyone wants:

“What we weren’t prepared to do at that point was to accommodate every single nuance and request and configuration. The decisions for system configuration were maintained by the project team.

“Keeping it simple was kind of the mantra that we went through as a project team. If we weren’t able to keep it simple it wouldn’t have been possible to deliver what was expected.”

The next steps

With the basic Cornerstone system up and running within 18 months of the inception of the project, Crainey says NATS is now looking to layer on additional sophistication in a number of ways, such as:

“looking to get into the UI a bit more, get into the APIs underpinning the technology and pulling more stuff through.”

There will also be different flavors of solution:

“We’re deploying this differently now in different areas. We’re beginning to customise it for each of the different areas of the business. The engineers are different to the air traffic controllers who are different to the sales folk who are different to the marketing folk who are different to the bids people who are different to the business process people.

“Customising the product is really simple. It’s about ticking boxes, pressing a button and watching what happens. But make sure you test it, don’t just go straight to production. Cornerstone has a thing called Pilot, a thing called Stage and a thing called Production. We used each of those elements at the right time to make sure we were ready to deploy.”

He would also like to see user engagement with the new systems up from a “disappointing” 92% at present:

“We’ve done lots of surveys across the organization and I’m disappointed that engagement is not about 96%, but you know 92% is pretty good.

"We have people in the organization now engaged with performance and learning who weren’t even engaged 18 months ago because it’s now simple.

“We have turned the corner from push to pull. The business is now pushing on us to create some of this configuration.”


Nigel Crainey was speaking at the HR Business Directors Summit in Birmingham.