Managing the flow of data at Inco

Inco’s IT project manager laughs with relief when asked how the completion of an HRMS implementation seemed possible only five months ago. Kathy-Lynn Holter-Ferguson, known to the project team as K-L, is enjoying some downtime now that the HR/payroll implementation project has reached Phase A at INCO Ltd.’s Manitoba division in Thompson.

The scrapping of Inco’s original Y2K-compliance strategy and switch of plans to an HRMS implementation early this year had K-L counting the precious days before going live. It’s been a steady, hectic pace since she started in April to lead the implementation of D.L.G.L.’s HR/payroll software, called V.I.P., Integrated Personnel, Payroll, Pension, Time Systems.

Timing wasn’t all she was up against. She says, “the biggest challenge was that I hadn’t done anything with payroll before. That, and the vendor (D.L.G.L.) was so remote.”

The people at D.L.G.L. in Blainville, a suburb of Montreal, would say it is Inco that is remote. Handling an HRMS implementation in a Manitoba town almost 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg posed some logistical challenges. People at D.L.G.L. and Inco shuttled between Thompson and Blainville for testing and training. Hardware had to be shipped. Both sides rely on the Internet for communication and support.

Besides that, says Jacques Guenette, co-president of D.L.G.L., “It was the fastest implementation we have ever done. And I am sure it was the industry record for a customized software implementation.”

So how did they accomplish in five months what takes other companies years? Strict planning and scheduling, strong teamwork, a heavy reliance on the vendor’s involvement and, often, 12-hour work days.

Always have a Plan B

The city of Thompson — Manitoba’s “nickel capital” — came into being when Inco started a mining and refinery project there in 1957. The company employs nearly a tenth of the city’s 15,000 residents, 15 in its HR department.

When Inco started to tackle Y2K compliance in 1996, it carried out a thorough examination of software vendors, including D.L.G.L. Ultimately, it chose to make its existing payroll software Y2K compliant, as well as to marry it to Inco’s Sudbury, Ont. division payroll system. But in late 1998, it became clear those two goals were not possible, says John Ellis, superintendent IT services at the Manitoba division.

Currently, the two divisions of Inco run as separate business entities. The Ontario division completed its own Y2K-compliance project on its existing payroll system. “It didn’t make sense to do both divisions at the same time with D.L.G.L. It was a risky strategy,” says Ellis, in regard to stretching resources in the already tight timeframe.

“Once the project manager at the time realized that it would not be completed on time, in November 1998, we immediately went to our contingency plans,” says Ellis.

Those contingency plans consisted of carrying out a full implementation of new payroll/HR software. Guenette says D.L.G.L received an urgent call from Inco with one question: “Can an implementation be done in time?”

D.L.G.L. had stopped accepting Y2K-compliance jobs a year earlier because they did not want to over-commit themselves, “which a lot of companies are doing,” says Guenette. “We made an exception in this case because we wanted to prove there was a different way to do implementations. We wanted to implement V.I.P. using our internal resources more.”

D.L.G.L. agreed to carry out the rapid implementation on one condition: that they handle the conversion, customization and data input — tasks that are usually left to the client. “It’s faster if the vendor does it. We know our system much better. Clients don’t know how to interpret the system. Or they hire a consultant who doesn’t know the system or the data.

“That’s the reason why so many implementations fail, or they take three or four years to achieve,” he adds.

Dates were set and the project was divided into three phases. Phase A included customization and implementation of basic payroll (Feb. 17 to Sept. 1); Phase B includes stabilization and year-end functions (Sept. 1 to Dec. 31); and Phase C includes customization and implementation of the software’s Time Capture and Scheduling module (January to March 2000). Kickoff began last February; the “go-live” date for Phase A’s HR module was set for Aug. 15; and the payroll module, Aug. 30.

A study of Inco’s needs began in March and continued into April, about the same time the project manager, who had been working from Inco’s Sudbury location, fell ill. Besides being the best available choice, K-L was chosen to replace the manager because she was located in Thompson, says Ellis.

K-L’s team, consisting of eight “power users,” was already at work. The power users include two key representatives from HR and benefits, two from payroll, two programmers from IT, a timekeeper and K-L. There are 20 Phase A software users, and once the final phase — Phase C — has been completed, there will be an additional 40 users.

Inco wanted good, basic payroll functionality by the end of Phase A. The core modules of payroll include HR management, payroll, benefits, compensation, and time and attendance. By the end of Phase C, Inco will have implemented Time Capturing and Scheduling and will look at more of the modules, including health and safety, labour relations and training for future development.

Wholly customized

Inco set two goals for the payroll side of the implementation: to ensure the customization met the legal requirements for payroll in Manitoba, and that it met the legal requirements of the collective bargaining agreement, which governs 1,100 of Inco’s 1,400 employees. The complex union contract required a fully customized software implementation at the outset, placing extra pressure on the project.

Guenette doesn’t see full customization as a necessary evil, however. “We didn’t cram a vanilla base system down their throats. The whole (HRMS software) market is trying to convince its clients to take vanilla to save on costs when it doesn’t work.”

In order to easily upgrade to newer versions of a vendor’s software, companies often go with vanilla base systems. However, Guenette says that clients usually “need about 10 per cent of what is contained in a new release. The remaining 90 per cent is there to compete (against other vendors).”

D.L.G.L. does not operate with versions, but establishes contracts that include ongoing maintenance and the choice of newly developed upgrades. “Companies do not have to do entire version updates,” says Guenette.

Ellis says they chose D.L.G.L. partly because the vendor wanted to be deeply involved with the implementation. “D.L.G.L. played the role of our hands, eyes and ears, which freed up the Inco team to focus on the specific needs of our business and not to get bogged down in the labour,” he adds.

Each Phase A deadline was met successfully, though there was a huge hitch going live with payroll on Aug. 29. One hundred employees, worried about the threat of a strike (occurring at press time), asked for advanced payment of more than 900 vacation days in that payroll. Everyone was pulled from his tasks to help out in payroll. “I thought, ‘no!’ We had a lot of extra work,” says K-L. But it was a true test of the payroll system, and it went smoothly despite the long hours.

Logistical nightmare

Done with precedent-setting speed, the implementation may also be one of the first to have been carried out to a large extent online. However, the physical movement of people and hardware was inevitable. At the outset, it had been agreed that D.L.G.L. was responsible for table population and conversion, Inco for specs and testing, and that demanded people and hardware at one site.

In a set of two cycles, the D.L.G.L. team worked in Thompson for two weeks, each team worked from their home base for three weeks, and the Inco team worked in Blainville for three weeks. The cost of the logistics was factored into the budget and accounted for $200,000 of the total project. The cost of Phase A was $1.4 million.

In June and July, when testing began and the teams went into overdrive, Inco sent equipment, including two of its servers, to D.L.G.L. in Blainville. Inco has two identical Sun Microsystems Enterprise Ultra 250 servers, and sent one ahead of the other, just in case something went wrong with the shipment. D.L.G.L. keeps a system in Quebec, in case of catastrophic events.

While at D.L.G.L., the Inco team also received training. “We did testing and training at the same time. And they were at least 12-hour days,” says K-L. Hardware was returned to Inco loaded with V.I.P. to complete testing.

Barbara Beyak, supervisor, compensation at Inco and team member, says the intensive training was advantageous. “With the total immersion, there were no distractions. And we had the group everyone was learning the same thing at the same time.” The team members are responsible for training their staff.

Ongoing database, infrastructure and application management are outsourced to D.L.G.L. and serviced from Blainville via the Internet, on a private network.

The road ahead

Phase B is underway for the rest of the year. This consists of customizing the rest of the system, and giving the teams time to catch up on year-end tasks, including the processing of T4s.

Phase C, set to begin in the new year, includes the implementation of a Time Capturing and Scheduling module. This will permit the elimination of keypunching time cards and batch loads of hourly data. The goal is to eventually have front-line supervisors inputting data in real-time.

The finished implementation will reduce the amount of labour required in HR, says Ellis. The directive of Y2K compliance has been met, and now there are more efficient business processes in HR/payroll,” he says.

“From what we have seen so far, we are really excited,” says Beyak. Already, employees are pleased about the changes to their paycheques. More detailed information is provided on their stubs, including year-to-date summaries. Also, the processing system has improved.

Previously, the payroll office would produce the data and IT would input and process it. Now, payroll does their own inputting. When Phase C is completed, front-line supervisors will be doing the inputting.

Beyak is looking forward to a future in which she can count on having advance knowledge of employee events, such as retirements. “It’s an opportunity to have more information in a more timely fashion. I like to know my department is strong at any given time.”

Ellis laughs when he says the team talks about a Phase D. While it seems a long way off to them, eventually they will be able to look at the value-added components of the software and choose extras, including employee self-service features. Despite the vast uncertainty of HRMS implementations, one thing is certain for the Inco team, they won’t waste any time getting there.

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