Centrica’s VP of HR Systems on Solving Complexity in a Fast-Moving World

International energy and services company Centrica has more than 40,000 employees and over 23,000 contingent workers. In other words, HR must support a large number of workers across a number of regions—workers who are dedicated to satisfying the changing needs of some 28.4 million customers. The organisation,  headquartered in Windsor, UK, was originally founded in 1812 as the Gas Light and Coke Company and has developed into a truly global operation, featuring brands such as British Gas, Hive, Dyno, and Direct Energy.

We talked with Rob Cook, vice president of HR Tech, about the company’s need for HR transformation and the journey to get there.

Given Centrica’s heritage, did the company’s need for HR transformation come from business complexity accrued over many years?

Rob Cook Centrica
Rob Cook

I think that’s fair, yes. As a global business, we had five HR and seven separate payroll systems. Those tools alone required 126 interfaces to connect systems in the UK and North America. To break that down even further, Centrica had 175 employment contract templates, 180 job offer templates, seven different expense processes in six different regions and seven different ways of distributing pay slips. You then add to the mix the challenges of managing employee data across 340 work locations, with 220 employee groupings in the UK alone and almost 8,000 earning and deduction codes, and you can see how that complexity builds.

“The catalyst for change was the realisation that we had a system landscape that was essentially disparate, and that was very costly to support.”

From a day-to-day HR perspective, only six percent of all requests in our North American business came via self-service, which meant the remainder of requests required significant triage. In a nutshell, we had challenges across our systems, processes, data, and HR operations.

As many of those challenges were accrued through business growth and global expansion, they almost became an accepted norm, didn’t they? What were the real catalysts to drive change for Centrica?

They certainly became elements that the business had to reluctantly learn to deal with on an ongoing basis. But the catalyst for change was the realisation that we had a system landscape that was essentially disparate, and that was very costly to support. We had large numbers of employees unconnected, some of whom were in remote locations. When you have that many systems it creates a confusing user experience and there is very little standardisation, which leads to uncontrolled processes. We also had an HR technology environment that was highly customised, which proved very complex to maintain.

“Workday makes it possible to configure the system to our requirements rather than through product customisation—that’s an important distinction.”

You conducted a thorough market review before deciding on Workday. What were the factors that shaped the decision for Centrica?

We had to move away from multiple systems, and the chance to move to a single, truly unified platform made that possible. Things change fast in business, so we wanted a forward-thinking and highly agile system. We didn’t want a tool that was customised for us, and Workday makes it possible to configure the system to our requirements rather than through product customisation—that’s an important distinction. Given the spread of our workforce, user engagement with the capability to increase employee self-service was also key, and the Workday user interface is, in my opinion, the best in the market.

Given the scale of the deployment, can you tell us about the project and how you approached that as a business?

The first thing to say is that the Workday deployment was the largest global transformation project in Centrica’s history. It was also the first-ever truly Centrica-wide system and the first one deployed on personal devices. We worked on a 13-month deployment programme, which included the configuration of Workday Human Capital Management, including Benefits, Talent, Absence, Compensation, Recruiting, and Time Tracking. During that time, our programme team of circa 25 people developed and deployed 65 integrations in and out of Workday. We successfully deployed Workday across eight countries and all our employees and contingents simultaneously. It was a big-bang approach that all-in-all worked very well.

Can you tell us about some of the benefits that you are seeing from your HR transformation project so far?

We’ve experienced a mixture of directly achievable benefits and also wider organisational savings, which are more behavioural in their nature. The obvious examples are IT cost savings, i.e. removing redundant systems, retention of company assets, and increased visibility on contingent worker costs overtime and expenses. When you put them all them together, it’s a fairly significant series of benefits across the entire business. 

Can you tell us about the post-deployment story so far, and from an HR perspective what plans Centrica has moving forward?

We’re averaging over 10,000 transactions per day, and we’ve managed to make over 600 changes to Workday live and in production. Interestingly, more Centrica people access Workday via mobile than they do desktop, and the business has run over 500,000 reports since go-live. Another interesting stat is the 99.8 percent success rate we have running integrations since deployment was completed. That gives everybody a lot of confidence in our data.

We are on the fast follower programme to deliver Workday Learning, which is really exciting. We’ve also developed plans to roll out scorecards that will improve the level of insight our managers have on the workforce. Next up, we’re planning for Workday Payroll, which is another important piece of the jigsaw as we continue the move to one single HR system of truth. 

Do you have any lessons learned that other organisations should consider when changing their HR systems?

I’d say stick ruthlessly to simple, standard processes. Making sure you have senior leaders bought into the project and supportive of its aims are also critical. In terms of integrations, focus on high-volume and critical integrations, and think about if you really need to transfer historical data over. If you don’t need to, don’t integrate it. Plan early how any blackout period will work during system cutover. The more notice you can give the business, the better. Finally, for me, Workday sells itself—show them what it can do rather than telling them. You’ll be glad you did.