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NHS Blood and Transplant gets an HR transfusion to cure Excel ailments

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne October 6, 2014
Junking Excel and opaque working practices for a centralized HR system transforms HR case management and cuts costs - and the users like it too.

We didn’t really have a system for managing cases; we had Excel spreadsheets.

That's the all-too-familiar refrain from HR business partner Shane White about the chief system behind the NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) authority’s HR department.

Like so many before it, NHSBT was using Excel to shoulder far more responsibility than it was designed to do. But time was finally called on Excel in 2013, when the service decided on a total rethink not only of HR technology, but equally the people and processes of the HR department.

The NHSBT supplies blood and other services to hospitals in England and Wales, and organ donations to hospitals across the UK, including Northern Ireland.

This wide geographical spread is a key challenge for the authority. Up to 2,500 of its 6,000 staff are involved in going out to the local community.

A restructuring a few years ago had left HR staff dotted around the country to support the dispersed workforce, but instead of providing a more personal and local service to employees as intended, all too often, the thinly spread staff weren’t available when needed.

Communication with management was also a problem. White sums up the situation:

The main problems stemmed from geography and old-style, traditional HR that was basically policy and handholding processes not untypical of many other HR.

When we did a benchmarking of the service, we came out quite poorly in comparison in terms of the HR staff to number of staff supported and the average cost of HR per employee. We had far more lower level HR staff than you would expect doing mainly transactional activities.

The authority began by tackling the ‘people’ problem, opting to centralize HR support and create a national helpdesk as a first point of contact for employees.

This would reduce the number of HR staff needed, although some local support were on hand to handle more complex HR issues.

Turning next to processes, it wasn’t a question of just automating a manual process, but identifying those processes in the first place, as White admits:

We didn’t have a clear understanding of our process: we clearly had one, but if you asked me how it worked, I wouldn’t know. It worked but it wasn’t physically mapped.

Now for the tech

With the case management process duly understood and mapped, only then did White consider the technology required to support the vision for the HR department. He explains:

What was wanted was query handling and case management mainly. By chance, we found out that IT was looking to upgrade its service desk too, and realized there was synergy between the two: both raised queries needed to know where and when were queries made and who from as well as offering guidance. We speak separate languages but the functionality is the same.

White had found little on the market to meet the authority’s specific case and query management requirements. Other organizations White had spoken to either had very old systems or had built their own in-house solution.

The collaboration with IT led them to a ServiceNow, which provided a Software as a Service (SaaS) solution which fitted many of the service’s requirements, but still needed work to make it fit for purpose. For example, it didn’t handle attachments, and an HR case could have multiple attachments associated with it.

NHSBT also had a tight implementation deadline: the technology needed to be ready for the launch of the national helpdesk, called HR Direct. White recalls:

There was a line in the sand and were committed to launch the new service.

Hitting that deadline was only possible with the help of their implementation partner, Fruition Partners UK (formerly Partners in IT).

Shane White
Shane White

A month’s contingency was built into the implementation time, but everything was up and running within the six week deadline, so the users were able to use that contingency time to play with the system and get used to the protocols.

The help desk handles telephone calls and emails on a range of HR issues, from sickness policy and attendance issues, as well as low-volume issues such as grievances.

Since the launch in November 2013, the authority has added functionality, including a knowledge based hosted on the intranet site, but run by ServiceNow. This provides answers to frequently asked questions, as well access to HR forms and processes, such as requests for flexible working, maternity entitlements or simple holiday forms. White says:

It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but previously people would be told there was a 20 page policy document on maternity entitlements, and the answer would be somewhere in there.

White says this is the first step towards self-service, though he is reluctant to call it that internally. The body wants to take things slowly and gently nudge employees to do things themselves, rather than risk them feeling this is just an excuse to add to their workload. As he explains:

We were very clear that culturally we didn’t want to be seen to just dump work on people.

The benefits

The move to ServiceNow has shaved 10% from HR service costs and headcount, but the greater benefit by far according to White, is the improved customer experience. In fact, White maintains that things have gone surprisingly smoothly:

One challenge we thought we’d face, is people saying that they like going to see the local HR team and that’s what other organizations we’d spoken to had said, but a year in, and there’s not been one complaint about it and the satisfaction rate is high.

HR employees are able to handle cases far faster now. Initial benchmarking had revealed a resolution rate of 50-55% within two days. NHSBT set its own target of 80% case resolution within two days, but it has far exceeded its own estimations.

Currently, 79% of cases are resolved the first day, rising to 83% by day two – a rate White is happy with, as some cases are always going to need to longer resolution times. He says:

We anticipated sending 0-5% up to second level support, but we’re only escalating about 6% of cases.

Its implementation partner was not only vital for hitting the deadline, but also for ensuring that the functionality was included. Working with a partner took getting used to – on both sides, and White emphasizes flexibility was key:

We allowed ourselves to be open to challenges by our implementation partners. We thought we understood on day one what our requirements were, but if you look at what we ended up with it’s very different. There was a process of discovery, which was really useful and important to us – but it wasn’t a one-way street.

White is happy with the way the project has worked out: it’s been an internal success and confidence booster for the service. But, significantly, it’s also been perceived as a success by those outside the service, at a time when the public sector “doesn’t have a glorious track record” for success.

My take

It’s amazing how many successful organizations are run on Excel.

The experience of the NHSBT service clearly demonstrates, of course, that there are far better platforms out there than Excel, but more importantly, that sorting out the people and process aspects of a project are just as, if not more, important.

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