Retailer John Lewis Partnership has revealed how it has transformed its shared service function, enabling self-service through a web portal and paved the way for its Oracle E-Business Suite to coexist with Fusion modules.

Jude Carney and Lucy Powell, functional analysts in John Lewis' Oracle development team, were at the UK Oracle User Group's Apps 13 conference in London to share the ups and downs of their journey to providing a self-service HR platform for its 85,000 staff, known as partners.

John Lewis set up a shared services function, Partnership Services, five years ago, which aimed to provide support services in IT, procurement, HR and finance. In HR, this meant replacing individual on-site personnel structures that existed in each store.

“Historically, every John Lewis branch had its own complete personnel structure on-site to give staff support .There was no consistency in a division, let alone across the Partnership,” said Carney.

“Added to that, round-the-clock working means that some partners were cut off from personnel altogether.”

Power to the people

Thus the Personnel Transformation Project at John Lewis was born. A key part of the project was to implement a new operating model, which involved a redesign of processes to support the shared service operation, which would be supported by self-service.

“This is a really significant change for John Lewis. In the past there was a paternalistic attitude, where partners would go to someone else and ask them to do something,” said Carney.

“[Now], we're giving partners responsibility for their own personnel transactions.”

Making sure that all staff could access the service from wherever they are was a number one priority. John Lewis increased the number of terminals in branches to boost access to things like training materials, and was keen to incorporate a text reminders function to keep in touch with staff who did not regularly log on to the HR system.

It also had a very wide-ranging demographic to deal with – from the mobile-savvy 16-year-old part-time worker, to the 65-year-old distribution worker who rarely uses a computer. This meant that making the system easy to access was crucial.

Carney added: “One of the commitments of the project was it wouldn't put any more demand on line managers' time.”

Therefore John Lewis had to create a service that was easy to use, and provide answers to basic HR questions that staff could access by themselves, so that line managers would be freed up to provide “value-added”, face-to-face personnel support.

Implementing Oracle WebCenter portal

John Lewis began work on creating the Oracle WebCenter portal, which would be the single place for staff to log on, to access the HR services, in the second half of 2010.

“We’ve created portal pages overlaid on top of E-Business applications,” said Carney.

The retailer released the first version in September 2011, where it upgraded its Oracle E-Business Suite system from version 11.5.10 to R12, giving it a new look and feel, as well as updating the hardware.

A smaller improvement, release 1.5 in September 2012, supported the company’s appraisals scheme, MyPerformance.

It then carried out the main release 2 in August 2013, which involved the move from the personnel function to the shared service operations.

End-user buy-in

To create a truly self-service solution, John Lewis knew that it had to create a user-friendly portal that staff would be able and want to use.

It therefore carried out a great deal of usability testing to understand end-user habits.

“It saves time and cost. You get the feedback at the early stage and feed that in,” said Powell.

However, it also tested a finalised design that could not be changed, which highlighted some issues that the company resolved by addressing them in the extensive communications and engagements materials about the portal it produced and disseminated across the business.

“We got some real insights we wouldn’t have got at any other testing phase,” Powell said.

“[For example] explaining the layout of the page, that the right-hand side is read-only, and the action menu is where you go to complete a transaction. These are just some insights we got.”

Lessons learnt

The rollout of the web portal was far from smooth however, and John Lewis learned a few lessons along the way.

One of the biggest challenges it had was to coordinate the work of numerous third-party implementers. There were 13, including Accenture and Hitachi, just in the technology space.

“Don’t underestimate the effort involved in combining so many new Oracle technologies and integrating so many third-party systems,” said Carney.

She also recommended keeping as close to the ‘vanilla’ system as possible when defining requirements - which John Lewis did not do, and struggled to rein in the "blue-sky" thinking to fit with what the actual technology could deliver.

Furthermore, the length of the project meant that the company was “always playing catch-up” - by the time one thing was patched, another part of the technology needed patching. Carney admitted she did not know what the answer would be to this, except to do the work more quickly.

An ongoing issue is a lack of resources.

“Parallel developments means multiple environments and conflicting resource priorities,” said Carney.

“We had different releases going on at different times, [including] all the different testing phases. The number of environments we needed just grew exponentially.”

She added: “If we did it again, we may look at the cloud, or getting an environment manager way, way earlier. [This is] still dogging us.”

Nonetheless, Carney said that John Lewis benefited from a strong business sponsorship and governance, through a dedicated steering group, which understood if there was a technical need to delay a release, for example.

The future

John Lewis hopes to carry out release three of its system in May 2014, which will involve the implementation of R3 of Oracle Learning Management and bring more than 40 learning management systems into one.

The new system also provides many opportunities for continuous improvement.

“WebCentre provides a platform for continuous development, [such as] new functional areas, new BI components. It’s relatively easy to set up a new component and add a tab,” said Carney.

At some point, end users will also be able to customise their own pages.

From an Oracle product upgrade point of view, having a WebCenter portal “really paves the way for a coexistence model with Fusion modules,” Carney said.

“[Because] to the end user, it’s a common interface.”