‘A big plate of spaghetti’: how Sainsbury’s untangled its HR systems

By |2018-11-15T15:03:45+00:00November 13th, 2018|Categories: Features|Tags: , , |

Introducing an new HR system is a time of trepidation in any organisation. But what about when you have 180,000 staff? At a recent event, Sainsbury’s head of HR operations explained how they rolled out HR self-service in just 10 months

“It frightens me a bit when I think about the scope and scale of what it is that we’re doing. Less now, because we’re towards the end of it,” admitted Elaine Bergen, head of HR operations and technology at Sainsbury’s, to an audience of delegates on the last day of CIPD ACE 2018.

A few numbers explain why Bergen, who oversaw a massive period of HR transformation in 2017-2018, was right to be nervous about the challenge that lay ahead:

  • There are 180,000 people working for the company across not only its supermarkets but Argos, Habitat, Sainsbury’s Bank, Tu, Nectar and Sainsbury’s Home
  • Every year more than half a million people apply to work for Sainsbury’s – many of which work in seasonal roles
  • In a typical year, up to 100,000 employees request personal detail changes. A similar number of contractual changes are processed, too
  • Around 30,000 queries about company discount cards are handled each year

When Bergen joined Sainsbury’s three years ago, all of this administration – and more – was handled by telephone. “It was a very steady process, a very straightforward process, but [it was] very labour intensive, and highly inefficient.”

Sainsbury’s plethora of manual processes will be familiar to many HR professionals: employee data was shared on Excel spreadsheets; tasks were time consuming and often duplicated; and HR was reliant on an old, expensive, Access database that was largely unsupported and had been customised beyond recognition. Attempting to untangle this “big plate of spaghetti” risked unleashing a wave of related problems – but, said Bergen, the risk of service failure wasn’t her main challenge: the structure and culture of the HR team itself was much more of a concern.

“Everything was about the transactions on the telephone,” she said. “One-and-a-half million transactions, involving two people on the telephone, took more time, more energy, more focus and completely trumped talent [management]. We didn’t put the necessary focus, or effort into the other end of what HR could really offer.”

Setting out the stall for change meant drawing up some clear objectives: to have one true, visible source of integrated data across the whole company; to make everyone responsible for inputting accurate data; and to implement technology that was owned by HR.

“We took a decision to invest in the cloud and software as a service,” said Bergen. “Using public cloud technology for us means continuous improvement, with the best business applications, without having to continually customise [software].”

She added: “We had a huge scope: for 180,000 people to be the one true source of data; and to launch a recruitment system and new onboarding, performance, benefit, absence management, pay review and bonus compensation tools, and to integrate our payroll system into our core HR suite as well. In addition, we wanted the opportunity to move towards strategic work and report on the analytics.

“You can’t build anything on SaaS: you’ve got to take it like it is,” said Bergen. “So we had people to fill in data, people to plug it in and build up those integrations, and a change management team to make people use it.”

Entrusting staff with the governance of data meant that most of the core HR data was completed in just 10 months. By January 2018, ‘MyHR’, as the new self-service HR system is known, had been introduced organisation-wide with zero errors. “We just didn’t make a big deal of the changes,” said Bergen. “There were no fanfares or training materials. Instead, we focused on the principle that if we’re going to make the solution self-service, the solution has got to be good enough to be self-service. If the product wasn’t good enough or intuitive enough, we didn’t put it out there. That meant when it was launched, people were comfortable with it.”

She added: “Just go and talk to any of our in-store staff. The word ‘MyHR’ is part of their everyday language, because culturally there wasn’t much of a fundamental change – it was more how [the change] was done.”

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