Powering a new capital

Time, not the remoteness of Iqaluit, was the biggest stumbling block for the Nunavut Power Corporation’s new payroll system

The minute Damian Burton-Jones stepped off the plane, he knew he was in for a unique experience. Earlier in the day, he’d left the cozy confines of his Burlington, Ont. office to board a plane headed north — way north — to Canada’s newest territory.

It wasn’t the harrowing flight through a blizzard that fazed him. Nor was it the 15-feet of snow he stepped into off the plane. It wasn’t the raw caribou, raw Atlantic char or even the raw beluga whale he would soon eat. For Burton-Jones, it was the daunting task of implementing the Nunavut Power Corporation’s human resource management system (HRMS) software, and ensuring the new utility didn’t have a black-out when it came to payroll.

“The cultural differences, the geographical differences, they were a bit more challenging,” said Burton-Jones, an implementation consultant for Best Software.

In terms of the project itself, what made this implementation different, besides the remote location, was the timeline involved. Most organizations that implement an HRMS already have systems in place to handle things like payroll, and can get by in the meantime if the new one isn’t ready to go. But the Baker Lake-based Nunavut Power Corporation (NPC) was starting from scratch.

Dwight McTaggart, vice-president of finance and CFO for NPC, was charged with finding a new HRMS to handle tasks like payroll, human resources and time and attendance after the company splintered off from its Northwest Territories counterpart following the birth of the new territory.

McTaggart approached Best on a recommendation from the vendor that supplied NPC with its accounting software. He told Best he needed a system that was flexible, Windows-based and had easy-to-use features like drop-down screens. It needed to be powerful enough to handle a complex union contract, yet simple enough for payroll staff to use it effectively in day-to-day operations. And it all had to be done in a very specific time frame, with little room for error.

“We were not dealing with an artificial deadline,” said Burton-Jones. “It was not at all flexible. The payroll had to be running by April 1 because the company would be in existence by April 1.”

The challenges

NPC is a very unique organization, and that put special demands on the software. For example, the creation and distribution of electricity in the Arctic is far different than in the rest of Canada. Rather than having a complicated power grid stretching across the vast open areas of the territory, which would be impractical, NPC uses a system of diesel-powered generators to produce electricity. Twenty-five communities across Nunavut have their own generators, but not every community has its own mechanic to fix them when they break down. Mechanics are sent out, often over great distances, to repair them and the cost is charged back to that community.

The software needed to account for this, to keep track of where staff is sent and how much time is spent working on each job.

It also needed to account for the differences between part- and full-time staff. A lot of the benefits for part-time staff are pro-rated based on the number of hours worked.

Throw in the fact there was no collective agreement in place for the 155 workers at NPC, the majority of whom are unionized, and one gets a taste of how complicated it was.

“The union contract hadn’t even been finalized,” said Burton-Jones. “It was a mad rush to get the software exactly the way it needed to be.”

The high cost of living in Nunavut posed another challenge. Because NPC staff work in different locations across the territory, they get a cost-of-living allowance based on the remoteness of their residence. This means that workers performing the same jobs are given different allowances.

All of this was accomplished without any heavy customization.

“It all fit within the design of the existing software,” said Gary Olynik, vice-president of Best Software. Because there is no customization, it makes the software more economical to maintain and easier to do updates for things like legislative changes.

The implementation

Though McTaggart is pleased with the end result, the road getting there was a bit bumpy.

“I’m not sure the people at Best fully understood what it meant, how much was actually involved,” said McTaggart. “One can’t assume that payroll is payroll, just because they’ve done it 150 times. It’s not the same all the time. But with any system, we would have had the same challenges. I find, and this is not unique (to Best), that when dealing with software companies in general, not a lot happens until they’re on site.”

The NPC implementation took about six months from start to finish, but it was a bit more complex than most. Most organizations should count on a three- to four-month time period, said Olynik. Implementing an HRMS is a mammoth task, and that’s something organizations often forget when in the planning stages.

“They don’t look at it as a distinct project,” said Olynik. “You have to put a fair amount of work into everything that is set up, and don’t forget that you have to do your regular work at the same time.”

It’s critical to dedicate a project leader to the task, he said.

To keep costs down, Best acts only as implementation consultants, he said. Rather than having someone like Burton-Jones sitting with the client the entire time, a costly proposition, Best simply assists in implementing the software.

“We can go in and do everything for them,” said Olynik. “And it’ll be right, and everything is great, but they won’t know how to use it. We go in and do the company setup, but we leave it to them to do the employee setup. If they do it, things will go much smoother.”

Once the employee setup is completed, Best sends an implementation consultant to test the software and make sure the first payroll run goes smoothly. That’s what Burton-Jones did during his visit to Nunavut in April.

The aftertmath

NPC made its April deadline, and the system has been running relatively smooth since it debuted.

“It works nicely,” said McTaggart. “It’s very user-friendly and Best has provided good support.”

Burton-Jones said that support comes in the form of unlimited phone calls and e-mail support as part of a yearly support contract. Because of the remote location, Best does a lot of data transfer with NPC, setting up demos using screen captures or movies, to help troubleshoot problems.

Best made a second visit to Nunavut last June, sending Burton-Jones to followup on the implementation. At the same time, some NPC staff were sent to Burlington, Ont. for training.

“We do try to be as flexible as we can in supporting them,” Olynik said. “It was a bit more challenging, but it fit very well and it was a good experience.”

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