It’s often the case that an organisation – especially one in the public sector, facing ever-tightening purse strings – needs a sharp jolt to invest in a major technology project. This was the case for Northumberland County Council when it came to finally moving off of Oracle E-Business Suite.
Northumberland had been using Oracle E-Business Suite since 2004, taking the organisation through the upgrade paths from 11i before moving to R12 in 2014. At the same time as the R12 upgrade, the local authority moved from hosting the suite on-premise to hosting it via an external supplier under a three-year deal, which took it up until September 2017.
At that point, the council was looking forward to being offered a reduction in hosting costs with their hosting supplier. But that wasn’t the case, and instead the council was told they would face an increase in cost.
That proved the nudge the organisation needed to start looking at Oracle Cloud enterprise applications instead of hosting R12 E-Business Suite elsewhere. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Solutions Architect Manager at Northumberland County Council, explained:
Some of the drivers were because of the limitations on the current product, that was the starting point. The cost of the hosted solution; the functionality within the R12 instances was becoming dated; the reporting within that system – there was a reliance on Discover, which had been unsupported; the overhead of patching we had to do within that environment; there was no external access, so that didn’t fit in with the movement as an organisation we’d been gradually moving to more agile working. So that was a driver, to have a system that could be accessible outside of the network.
There had also been a heavy reliance on customisation within the old product. As part of the potential move to cloud applications, the IT team was also planning to look at aligning with the business processes within those apps, as opposed to implementing another heavily customised system. Fitzpatrick said:
One of the things that came up quite early was, the mantra has to be configuration over customisation. Because we’d had E-Business Suite for such a long time, there’d been more and more customisation as we went along and that then needed more and more support and then would cause issues when you had patching.
There tends not to be a big drive to actually make that change when you’re just continuing on the same product. We needed to use a bit more of a radical change to help get the focus on those business processes.
A phased approach
When the council signed the contract to move to the Oracle cloud applications, it had less than six months left on the hosted contract, which it knew wasn’t going to be enough time for the whole project. To buy it the extra time needed, Northumberland signed a two-year contract to host its R12 instance on Oracle’s hosted infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS). The R12 hosting switchover was done within three months - one of the most successful projects Fitzpatrick has been involved in at the council – which then gave the opportunity to plan and carry out the deployment of the cloud applications.
The financials/ERP side of the project was completed within the timeframe, going live in November 2018. However, the HR and payroll side started to lag behind, due to a lack of support for areas like multiple assignments and different pension schemes and sickness policies within the new applications. Fitzpatrick explained:
We’re actually still not quite live with Oracle Cloud Payroll. We’ve had to extend the IaaS contract, which has incurred more cost. The payroll cloud offering wasn’t fit for purpose for local government. There are some elements of the system that had been produced in R12, but it wasn’t a like for like. We had assistance from our implementation partner to be able to produce some of those.
It’s less of a problem now. There’s been a roadmap from Oracle. The quarterly releases are obviously addressing some of those payroll issues. Oracle might tell you different, but I would expect that some of those issues specific to local government may still exist. Within a local authority we have lots of staff who might have one, two, three, four or five different roles. They’ve always been things that we’ve had challenges with in R12, and they haven’t all been addressed in the cloud product.
Oracle Cloud Payroll is expected to be completed no later than June. Once it’s live, the council plans to concentrate on the HCM side of the system, including the use of self-service and manager self-service. Fitzpatrick noted there were elements of this available in R12, but it was very limited in what Northumberland used.
A change in mindset
Despite the new applications having potential benefits across the entire organisation, covering core areas like financials, payroll and HR, the main drive for the cloud project was from the IT team rather than users themselves. However, the transition to cloud means there is now more involvement from end users.
Whilst we got business leads for each of the [E-Business Suite] modules, they only came together when we wanted to do a big upgrade process. Once it was live, they would go back into their day job and it would come back to IT to implement any enhancements. The nature of the cloud applications means everything has to be with the business service users, they have to take a bit more ownership, even if it’s just on the involvement with the quarterly releases. They’ve got to be looking at what new functionality is coming out.
We’re only just coming to terms with this and it’s still a big challenge but that’s the way that they would get benefits out of the move to cloud applications. If they’re thinking they would like to see some new functionality in my area, they should get first sight of it. It’s not the IT section imposing that on them and they’ve got to look to see how they can make that work.
One of the expected benefits of the move to cloud didn’t exactly turn out as planned. The council thought that moving to a modern, user-friendly interface as opposed to the dated forms seen in E-Business Suite would be heartily welcomed by users.
We didn’t get that message initially. It was, ‘I’ve now got to do three or four clicks, where I used to just be able to type all my data’. For areas where it was more input based, that was something that was voiced in the early stages. That was something we probably should have been highlighting earlier.
It came across that they were getting a new system, but it was slower. It wasn’t the system was performing slower than the previous E-Business Suite, but it gave the impression that it was taking them longer to do because it’s new and different.
While the council hasn’t carried out a user satisfaction survey on the cloud applications to check if they’re now fully accepted, Fitzpatrick noted that there is now less feedback on them, which can only be a good thing with the HR side due to go live in summer.