Solving Global Business Challenges with Workday: Q&A with Aon’s VP of Finance Solutions

In Gaelic, the word Aon means “Oneness,” a fitting name for a company that has grown through more than 500 acquisitions to become one of the leading professional services firms in the world. Operating in 120 countries with 50,000-plus colleagues, Aon is united in its most important goal—to serve its clients.

As the company has grown worldwide, so has the complexity of managing the business. Disconnected systems had made it difficult—and costly—to have a global view of the organization and integrate acquisitions quickly. Increasing challenges led Aon to a big decision: It was time to make a global technology change.

“Our previous finance and HR systems couldn’t support our fast-changing global business,” says Jim Kendall, vice president of finance solutions at Aon. “Part of being an industry leader and providing clients with the best service is having the right technology foundation in place—systems that support our growth and give colleagues the tools and capabilities they need to do their jobs successfully.”

Aon moved to Workday to create a single unified system worldwide for finance and HR. We sat down with Kendall to better understand the challenges of rapid global growth, his views on whether the cloud is risky, and the biggest impacts he’s seen to the business.

What drove Aon’s technology change?

Jim Kendall Aon
Jim Kendall

As we’ve grown through acquisitions, the diversity of our systems and processes became a real issue for us. It was difficult for leadership to have a global view of our people and financial results—we didn’t have a single source of analytics across finance and HR. It also drove a high total cost of ownership.

The increasing complexity of the business also made it difficult to integrate new companies into the organization. We were doing multiple acquisitions a year and integrating them proved challenging.

We needed to make a change and decided we wanted to have one operating model worldwide for finance and HR in the cloud.

As a company that helps other organizations understand and manage risks, how did Aon view moving finance to the cloud from a risk perspective?

I think moving finance and HR to the cloud is becoming inevitable for some companies, and there may be a greater risk in not making a change. For those concerned about the clouds, I like to ask, “Can you do a better job of managing risks than a vendor who is managing it 24/7 as its core business?”

For Aon, moving to the cloud was an opportunity to simplify and take advantage of semi-annual releases that keep us current with the pace of technology change. Moving data around—from finance to HR to data warehouses to other global data centers—creates significant risk. Having a single cloud-based system for finance and HR significantly reduces that risk.

Why did Aon choose Workday?

We formed a steering committee with leaders across HR, finance, procurement, IT, and audit, to talk about the merits of having a shared finance and HR platform versus using the legacy platform we were already on and integrating those systems.

We agreed three things were very important: we needed a system that would give us strong controls worldwide, we wanted good analytics with the ability to act on data, and we wanted to lower the cost of ownership. Workday delivered on all of these.

How has having a global, unified finance and HR system made an impact on the business?

Workday has changed the game for us in several ways. First, having a single system for finance and HR has improved our analytics capabilities, enabling us to take action directly from reports. Our colleagues around the world also have access to real-time data that allows them to better understand how the business is running and how their actions impact profitability and expenses. We can drill into the variances that matter, understand why, and take actions all in one system.

“The relationship has been different than vendors in the past where you buy the software and the vendor walks away. For most of us who have been doing this a long time, the partnership is something we value very highly here.”

We are also able to integrate acquisitions more quickly. As a professional services firm, people are our greatest assets so it’s important our colleagues feel like they are coming into a company that’s going to give them the tools they need to do their jobs. When we onboard new people, they automatically have both the HR and financial tools they need, such as expenses and invoicing.

It also helps drive engagement when we are acquiring a company—there is a lot more excitement than if we were converting those colleagues to a legacy ERP system. In the past, a big challenge during an acquisition was figuring out where people fit within the organization. Having real-time visibility into the organization allows us to quickly assess the impact of an acquisition and determine where people should be.

Has the ability to integrate acquisitions more quickly helped reduce risks?

Yes. Being able to integrate a company sooner closes the gap on the amount of time between the deal and people working effectively—which greatly reduces risks and increases the chance of success.

Another challenge of fast global growth is keeping processes and controls consistent. Workday has enabled us to standardize processes worldwide but also allows local operations to configure individual country requirements, such as local tax or expense item requirements.

What was the deployment process like moving to Workday? Did anything surprise you?

I was surprised by the amount of transparency from Workday. We were able to immediately show our colleagues—everyone from the finance team to regional leaders—what Workday looked like and how they would use it. The system was different than what they were used to, but it was also what they expected from a modern application—you can access it from your mobile phone, use search capabilities, and use it anywhere at any time. This helped significantly with buy-in and getting people excited about Workday. I was also surprised by the ease of doing updates twice a year. We had a hard time believing it was going to be easy, but found ways to weave it into our strategy.

What really drove our success through the deployment is the long-term partnership between Workday and Aon. We were very tied to Workday’s roadmap to have a presence in certain countries, and Workday delivered on its promises.

The relationship has been different than vendors in the past where you buy the software and the vendor walks away. For most of us who have been doing this a long time, the partnership is something we value very highly.