HR at her majesty’s pleasure

The business

The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) was established as an executive agency of the Northern Ireland Office in 1995. It is responsible for the custody of more 1,100 inmates in three prisons and one juvenile detention centre. It employs 1,600 prison officers and 600 administraters. Many of the admin staff are based at its headquarters in Belfast.

The challenge

In 1997, an internal report recommended that the organisation integrate its HR and payroll systems. At the time the service was running three payroll software systems, two HR administration software systems, a training system, a rostering system and a sickness monitoring system.

Gareth Herron was recruited in 1998 to lead the project, entitled Compass, which would integrate all of these systems into one. He explains why this had to be done: “We just weren’t able to get a complete picture of our workforce. Given the nature of our work, it’s vital that we maintain proper staffing levels and this was difficult to do if we didn’t know how many staff were in post at any one time.”

The solution

Herron and his team conducted a 10-month tendering process, whittling a shortlist of 13 down to three.

“There were two Oracle products and one from SAP. We needed the system to retrospectively apply pay awards, and I was more convinced that the SAP product could do this.”

The SAP supplier, Pecaso, had also impressed him. “It had a lot of experience implementing HR systems in the public sector. The other two vendors claimed to have this experience, but when we probed a little deeper we discovered it was only individual members of staff who had done it at other companies.”

The contract was awarded in October 2000 and the project began in January 2001. In March 2002, the new integrated system went live for prison officers and one year later it was introduced for civil servants. Herron reports that, technically, the software implementation and data migration was straightforward.

The greatest challenge he encountered during the project was the organisational change. “In the past we had worked in silos, with one person entering data about a new recruit, then another entering the data about that individual’s pay, then another doing it for equal opportunities, and so on.

“The new system meant that one person would enter all the data for one employee. This revolutionised the way we worked and was met with some resistance.”

Furthermore, the project involved the devolution of some responsibilities from head office to branches and prisons. This was intended to empower local managers, but was seen as extra work for branches, and a threat to the role of head office.

Herron explains how he attempted to manage this change: “We held regular change management forums, at which staff could raise these issues and we could address them.

“We sent newsletters from the project team explaining what we were doing and why. We ran presentations and training sessions.

“It all took a long time and I think that even now the new system is only reluctantly accepted by some employees.”

The outcome

NIPS has a single, unified HR and payroll system. The cost, including the salaried time of prison service staff involved, was 4.5m. The cost of the system and consultancy was about half of that.

Herron lists the benefits: “There is less duplication of effort; we can simply and rapidly get an overview of the data; the records are much more secure and so, therefore, are our prison officers.

“We are building up a much more accurate and useful picture of our staffing and skill levels and it has improved the IT skills of the prison officers. They’re beginning to self-serve in areas such as overtime rostering. This, in turn, is freeing up HR staff to focus on higher value activities.”

Learning points for HR

“Appoint someone to look after the change management,” says Gareth Herron, Compass project leader. “I tried to do that as well as implementing the technical solution, and it turned out to be too much for one person.

“Get someone dedicated, full-time, to managing the change. And ensure they are supported by change managers in each part of the business.”

Employee perspective

Bruce Crawford, the customer support service manager in charge of the IT systems that underpin the rostering system, first encountered the new system in 2002.

“In some ways it’s better, and in other ways worse,” he says. “It’s good that everything is all in one place, but two people now can’t be working on the same record at the same time. Quite often I get a phone call from someone saying a record is locked because of this.

“When something went wrong in the past I’d have to go out and fix it, so I was spending a lot of time running between all our different locations. Now, when something goes wrong, we don’t have to do that. But because it’s so much more complex, we have to bring in a consultant to fix it,” Crawford says.

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