Northern Gas Networks moves all its SAP to the cloud

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright June 25, 2017
UK gas pipeline operator Northern Gas Networks is moving all its SAP to the cloud, implementing S/4HANA on AWS, SuccessFactors, and more

Northern Gas Networks engineers at work 370px
Gas pipeline operator Northern Gas Networks is in the throes of migrating all its core SAP applications to the cloud — a huge digital transformation project that will see the company implement S/4HANA and SAP BW hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), while going cloud-native with SuccessFactors, Ariba and Concur.

It's a big leap of faith for a relatively traditional business, which runs the pipeline network that delivers gas for cooking and heating to 6.7 million homes and businesses in northern England. But with its pricing set every eight years by a regulator that carefully scrutinizes costs, the company has to keep its operations as lean as possible.

Having reassured colleagues who had expressed security concerns about data and infrastructure in the cloud, most are looking forward to the improvements it will bring, says Tom Pollock, Head of Information Management.

Even the people who have concerns see the potential for what we're doing ... the benefits that we could achieve are fantastic.

First clear view

For example, moving off the current "mish-mash" of spreadsheets, local databases and diaries that are used to plan for absences will give the organization its first clear view of its readiness for peak periods.

If you asked, could we cover the winter period for example — with the resources that we have, it would be almost impossible for us to tell. But with SuccessFactors we'll be able to have centralized systems that will be able to say, 'Yeah, we have enough resources. Or no, we're going to have a gap.'

With more than half its 1500 employees being field-based, having mobile access to applications will make a big difference.

Being able to do it mobile is key to us because we can't have people having to come into the office to do something when they should be out on the patch actually doing their work.

Implementation of S/4HANA started in March and is set to go live in April next year. Implementation is about to start for SuccessFactors EmployeeCentral and LMS, taking over from an on-premise SAP HR system, with go-live planned for December. Concur and Ariba will follow once S/4 is in place.

The AWS infrastructure is already up and running, although it took a little longer than planned to get it just right, as Pollock explains.

Just to make sure that it's completely secure, all the support's there, the maintenance is there, so it's not going to fall over and we wouldn't know it. That just took more time than I thought it would, but it was the right thing to do.

Control of data

Getting control of data will be one of the big wins of the current project, says Pollock.

The great thing about what we're doing with S/4 is, it's giving us the opportunity to completely go through all our data. Clean it up and get it all ready for migration, but crucially get governance in place so that it doesn't get into a state going forward as well. We'll have clean data, and continuously clean data ...

[In SuccessFactors], we'll have full end-to-end control of all our data, including our personal data, from it being input, to where it's being stored, to where it's being visualized by the subject. So we'll be able to do a full end-to-end life cycle. How our colleagues are performing, how our colleagues are feeling, what their aspirations and ambitions are.

With the workforce facing so much change in the applications they'll be using, managing the introduction of that change will be crucial, says Pollock.

Change management is the most important aspect of what we're doing. Without being glib, you can turn technology on and it will work, oftener than not, especially these days. But you can have the best, most fanciest technology in the world — if nobody's using it what's the good of having it?

So, that's key to us. SuccessFactors won't work without our colleagues, but our colleagues could, potentially, work without SuccessFactors. We need to make them not only know how to use SuccessFactors, but to want to use it. And that goes for S/4 and BusinessObjects cloud, and Concur, and everything.

As long as there's Excel, there's always a way around using an enterprise system. So we need to make sure that that business pull is there, so they're actually wanting to use this.

Keeping it standard

An influx of millennials over the past few years has cut the average age of employees from mid-50s to early 40s. But Pollock doesn't see age as an obstacle to using the latest technology.

I know this is controversial, but I think there's actually not much difference between the needs of millennials and the needs of older people these days. If you look at the home experience, everybody has the internet, most people have a smart phone, most people know how to use an iPad. Being able to log on and do whatever they need to do, it's all very intuitive.

And yet I come to work and I have to try to find some information about an asset that we own in our geographical area, more often than not it's an absolute nightmare to do that. What we need to do is bring the Google experience into work. It's almost counter-intuitive that we spend so much money at work, and yet we have a much better service at home.

Communication, training and user testing have already started to ensure that the change goes smoothly, he says.

The great thing about the cloud is, you get what you're given. There's not that much configuration or customization that you can do. It is literally that, so we can start it, say to people, 'This isn't on our network. It's not live yet, but this is what it looks like and this is how you can use it.'

This applies both to SuccessFactors and to S/4, where the business has adopted a "revert to standard" approach, he explains:

Rather than trying to bend our ERP around our existing business processes, we will adopt SAP best practice processes.

One great thing about that is that also allows us, during the very early stages, to get a sandbox environment with an S/4 instance in there that's vanilla, and allow people to play with it, because if we stick to the revert-to-standard process that's pretty much what they'll get at the end anyway. That really covers both the training and the testing side of things. Then we'll obviously have more formal training towards the end as go-live looms.

Cloud innovation

Any custom needs around the core systems will be met by using SAP Cloud Platform as a "system of innovation" says Pollock.

We don't really want to touch our core systems. They need to be as vanilla as possible. So upgrading and for maintenance, it's just easier to keep with vanilla. But we wrap SAP [Cloud Platform] around that and [we're] using that to fill any gaps that we might have in S/4 and SuccessFactors.

Coupled with this, a decision has been taken to bring application support in-house, moving away from reliance on external systems integrators. This not only makes sense economically but will also be more sustainable, says Pollock.

Now that the AWS infrastructure is in place, adoption by the business is the main thing that keeps him awake at night — and he knows that SuccessFactors will be the biggest test.

Everybody will use SuccessFactors and everybody will know that they're using it. From a purely business process, business user point of view, S/4 excites me the most because that's where the big changes are going to be.

But SuccessFactors is probably going to be the biggest business transformational change we've had for a long time, because everybody will touch it.

My take

An interesting example of a traditional business that's moving to the cloud to modernize its operations while keeping costs under control. All of the old objections to cloud computing — security, lack of customization — have now become benefits, while advantages such as mobile access, better data governance and continuous innovation add further reasons to make the move.