The global roll-out of a new HR system poses some unusual challenges for a business with far-flung operations on the scale of British American Tobacco (BAT). One of the world’s leading tobacco companies, BAT has more than 55,000 employees and operations scattered across 180 countries around the world. I recently sat down with Andy Straw, the company’s Global IT Programme Manager for HR Transformation, to find out more about the learnings from the three-year project.
Like every other industry today, tobacco is facing transformative pressures. People’s habits are changing; new, technology-enabled products are entering the market; and product lifecycles that used to be a decade or more are now shortened to 18-24 months. To respond to these pressures, senior leaders want BAT to apply the ‘fail fast’ mantra of agile software development to its own product development, says Straw:
[That] is now becoming a paradigm for how we’re looking at managing the business, particularly with newer products. We want to be able to try things out, we want to have a control point, and if it works, we want to be able to scale that quickly. And that means the senior leaders need HR to be right there alongside them.
Equipping HR to provide that support, and to attract and retain the caliber of staff this new environment demands, provided the impetus for upgrading the way the function operates:
As an organization we need to attract a totally different set of talent, a different set of skills, experience, a different mindset, to the ones we have traditionally tended to attract and retain. Part of that is through internal transformation, but part of that, for a sustainable business, is about making sure our talent pipeline and the way that we develop our people is up to scratch.
Venturing into the cloud
The implementation of the cloud-based SAP SuccessFactors HR system started in 2016 with compensation management and the EmployeeCentral core HR platform. Replacing a hodge-podge of legacy systems, the team wanted to show quick wins in its key goal of standardizing processes in order to automate a lot of the administrative tasks that were burdening HR operations. The roll-out went in waves across different markets, continuing into 2017, when talent management modules started to roll out, and then reaching completion in 2018 with the addition of analytics.
SuccessFactors was BAT’s first venture into the cloud for a core business application – the only previous cloud migration had been Microsoft Office. There had been some nervousness about managing new functional releases on a quarterly basis, but in fact this has been easier to digest than expected, says Straw. A case in point was the introduction of GDPR functionality last year:
It came pretty much at the last moment, I think in the March release, ready for GDPR to actually become law in May last year. But we actually found that that gave us exactly what we needed.
So that kind of just-in-time delivery of new compliance functionality has worked very well for us. That’s one of the benefits – we don’t have to plan [and] manage the upgrades. We just know that there’s a downtime period, and we can check out our systems after that, Make sure everything’s as expected.
Localizing for a truly global organization
One of the challenges was matching the capabilities of the new software with BAT’s highly distributed operations. As a cloud application, SuccessFactors was still relatively youthful and that meant that in 2016 it didn’t have the localization in place that BAT needed. To support a truly global organization on the scale of BAT, the pace at which the vendor adds new functionality has to be balanced with geographic availability of the software, says Straw.
One of the things that is definitely a challenge with cloud software is where that product is on the maturity curve – and making sure that it still provides a good fit for the application you have, and the organization you’re trying to land that in.
BAT’s footprint across 180 countries was far more than SuccessFactors was localized for when the global roll-out began. From the vendor’s point of view, being certified in around 55 countries seemed impressive. But for BAT, it was more a question of, “What about the other 130?” says Straw.
The ability to configure fields, validation and datasets for those other countries meant it was possible to get round the localization issue, but it does run the risk that you’re putting 80% of the effort into 20% of the user population, he explains.
I think it’s a certain element of making sure you time your implementation so that you have the functionality, the capabilities that you need already reasonably mature in that project …
Buy something that is fit for purpose now. But obviously have a view on how that company is going to enhance and grow their own product over a period of time.
Kiosks and interpreters
A good example of the localization challenges comes from BAT’s use of kiosks in some of its more remote locations to serve groups of workers who don’t own smartphones. In parts of Brazil, for example, the company employs significant numbers of contingent workers who go out to tobacco farms during the leaf picking season. They now access the HR system from kiosks installed in the leaf stations.
In Indonesia, factory workers often don’t own an app-capable mobile phone and typically don’t have access to IT in their day-to-day job. So BAT has put kiosk devices in the rest area of that factory, along with a multifunction printer and scanner. This has increased engagement levels in that segment of the workforce, says Straw.
In some of these locations, BAT has also made sure there’s someone on hand with HR skills who can assist workers with using the SuccessFactors system, particularly if a local language isn’t supported:
We found that was very useful where there were languages that we simply couldn’t cater for, either on the system level, or a service desk level. That was a very effective way of making sure that those employees stayed connected.
When you’re dealing with a global enterprise that’s operating in so many different contexts, you have to look at what the solutions are that you can put in to enable everybody to be as much as possible on a level playing field, in terms of their interaction with BAT as an employer.
Managing change for line managers
One of the most important learnings was around change management. While the HR teams were most heavily impacted by all the changes, they typically saw this as positive and something they were involved in driving. What required more care was how the change was presented to line managers. They had been used to their HR partners preparing personalized information for them, rather than having data presented by the HR system. It’s important to explain why this is happening, says Straw:
If the perception for the reason to change is, you’re cutting costs and you’re cutting service levels, then immediately they start to look at it through that lens.
Whereas if you can manage the change experience as, we’re actually providing everybody with a single source of truth, so we don’t need to do this slicing and dicing the data anymore and you can actually access this immediately, then it lands I think a lot more quickly and it’s embraced a lot more by the line manager community.
At the same time, there are some activities that shouldn’t be rolled out as self-service because they require HR expertise, such as creating and managing positions, he adds:
Even if those positions are people in their team, you’re asking people to enter a lot of information, a lot of data – cost centers, reporting structures – all of those kinds of things that a lot of the time a typical line manager wouldn’t know.
So we recognized through rolling that out and getting the feedback that … this was a genuine area where you’re asking people to do something that wasn’t going to be straightforward, wasn’t going to be intuitive.
We’ve really needed to look again at where the ownership for that particular part of the data management belonged. We changed that so that it’s much more driven by HR VPs and HR shared services, rather than asking the line managers to manage the positions.
I always say that digital transformation always ends up being about the people rather than the technology. BAT’s learnings around bringing everyone on board, from factory floor workers to senior line managers, is all about thinking through how to make the technology work for people.
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