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Oxfam America takes to the cloud to break down silos and be more agile

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels November 26, 2021
The not-for-profit humanitarian organization has adopted a cloud-based ERP platform from Unit4 to integrate its people and its data.

Oxfam staff outside Congress for Global Climate Strike 2019 © Oxfam America
(Oxfam America )

Oxfam America, the US arm of the global humanitarian organization with a mission to fight inequality, is using cloud-based ERP from Unit4 to break down corporate silos and create an agile platform for joined-up decision making.

Farah Abbas, director of technology and information management at Oxfam America, says the charity was previously using an internally hosted ERP platform and was keen to move to the cloud. Her team scanned the market to see what technologies might provide a better fit for the way the organization wanted to work in the future.

Abbas explained at Unit4's recent Experience4U event how the charity wanted a quick vendor-selection process. They decided to rely on internal user-based requirements to help frame potential technology solutions. She says the approach was simple and effective:

We focused on, 'What are the gaps, what are the pain points, and what do we love about our current system?' And those were the users' story-based requirements that we brought to the vendors.

I think the harder work was getting the vendors to conform to our style of demoing, so not just selling us and pitching to us what they loved about their system, but really pitching to us about what we wanted to see in the system. But all the vendors came in and did their part and it was a wonderful experience.

Abbas says she was impressed by the level of integration that Unit4 was able to demonstrate across its platform. The organization selected Unit4 as its preferred vendor and worked with systems integrator ITK Solutions to help implement the ERP platform. She says ITK's expert guidance was useful, as was their best-practice knowledge:

They brought in a lot of non-profit experience and so they understood our lingo. We didn't have to explain to them from scratch what we were talking about when it came to funds or grants or restricted funding. So, having a partner that understood our work and where we were trying to get to — and had done it with other clients and could draw on that expertise — was really helpful.

Breaking down silos

The implementation process helped to build cross-department integration. People across the business recognized they wouldn't be able to work in silos if they wanted to implement the platform successfully. Abbas says it was hoped that moving to Unit4 would help break down organizational silos — and that's been the case:

I'll give you an example — we can figure out which budgeted positions in HR have not been recruited for or are getting recruited. All those things help us really leverage the integration in the system and create a reduction in time. All the time we previously had to spend taking batch processes from one module and loading into another module, we don't have to do that anymore.

It was suggested during the session that ‘customization' is often seen as a bad word when it comes to ERP implementations. Experts believe custom-created features can take ERP systems off on a bespoke tangent that makes them harder to maintain and update. Abbas says her team was keen to avoid customization:

We had a mantra that one of our senior enterprise architects came up with: ‘We are not a special snowflake'. And that mantra meant that we are not doing any customized processes. As an organisation, we do what any other non-profit does in terms of HR, finance and fund management. So, why do we need to customize? Why can't we use the best practices that the system brings?

Abbas says Unit4 offered a ‘Value Accelerator', a template of configurations and best-practice techniques for not-for-profit organizations. Oxfam America used this accelerator to 'jumpstart' its implementation process. She says sticking to mainstream configurations simplifies maintenance and means non-IT staff don't having to lean too heavily on IT:

Customization can take us into a direction that is not the roadmap of Unit4. So not going in that direction, keeping it simple, and using tools that are easily configurable by anyone, makes our lives easy and makes our customers' lives easy.

Focus on business outcomes

Abbas says the project was implemented on time and on budget. She says one of the things her team did up front was to have clear business outcomes around increased efficiency, breaking silos, raising transparency, and providing more data access. Having set business outcomes helped keep eyes on the prize, even during the coronavirus pandemic. She explains:

Keeping the team focused on those outcomes really helped us move things forward. The pandemic slowed us down a bit. So, we had to go back and redo all our project plans and use a more agile and flexible approach to the project. We focused our teams on building a strong foundation, and then we can keep building on top of it through a continuous improvement cycle.

Abbas says using a cloud-based ERP system means much of the administrative work that was formerly undertaken by her team is now being fulfilled by Unit4. This approach means the IT team can spend more time on programme deliverables and supporting fundraising as opposed to running day-to-day operations. She says the platform has been widely adopted:

It's being used by IT, HR, finance, our administrative staff who are doing procurement work, our budget managers, our project managers, and our work-order managers. In fact, everybody is using Unit4 right now, including our country staff. The integrated nature of this product, and the fact that we're seeing that platform in the same system in the same instance around the world, is incredibly empowering.

Abbas says moving to an agile approach has created long-term dividends. By working in an iterative manner, her team has learnt more about how the system works and how it can be tweaked through a quarterly improvement cycle. Oxfam America continues to use ITK as a long-term support partner. Now, the charity is focusing on how it will evolve the platform. She concludes:

We are adding new reporting capabilities and dashboards. We know there's mobile apps available. We have already demoed that internally. We have done a pilot and now we are going to move into live with that. So, we are excited — and not only with what we are building. We're also looking forward to seeing Unit4 give us the features and functionality that we would like to see in the system.

To read diginomica stories from Unit4's X4U digital experience visit our Experience4U 2021 event hub. The virtual event ran from November 16-17th and sessions are now available to view on-demand. Click here to see the agenda and register now.

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