IBM and Oracle power HS2 into the fast lane

Paul Esherwood spoke exclusively to Bill Gayler, ERP system owner, about the HS2 ERP journey and what it means for the business going forward.

If you are going to start a business with a £55bn budget, you will need a finance system capable of supporting volume, scale and flexibility. At least that’s what HS2 believes as it comes to the final stages of implementing an Oracle ERP Cloud solution. The new system is a full suite of Oracle ERP Cloud, HCM and SCM, and is one of the first deployments of the full Oracle SaaS product stack in the UK. IBM Services is the implementation partner and EY has provided change management and programme governance.

Putting aside any mixed feelings about HS2 and the sensational headlines in some red tops, HS2 is a project that the UK should be proud of. It is after all, the largest, most complex infrastructure project the UK has ever undertaken and will connect over 25 towns and cities from Scotland to the South East, serving nearly half of the UK population. It will make journeys between major population centres easier, increase space on the existing lines for more local journeys, and take passenger and freight traffic off our motorways. More than 7000 jobs, including over 250 apprentices, are being supported by HS2 and the project has already injected £10bn worth of contracts into the UK supply chain.

Most organisations have an it strategy that covers 18-24 months, but because of the scale of the programme, HS2’s horizon is eight to ten years

The background

The technical infrastructure required to support a business which is yet to hit top gear is complex. Finding a solution that meets the current needs, while also developing systems, processes and technology that will support HS2 in the future is a huge challenge. HS2 effectively started out as a scale-up with a Sage accounting system which was soon replaced with SAP Business ByDesign. The SAP system was supported in-house and was not meeting the needs of the business through a mixture of poor user adoption, lack of functionality and disparate architecture. SuccessFactors was not integrated with the core ERP solution meaning HS2 was effectively running two solutions from the same vendor as separate systems.

The decision to replace SAP with a new solution was taken back in 2017 and the first phase of the Oracle implementation went live at the end of 2018, with a second release going live in April 2019.

Bill Gayler, ERP system owner at HS2 explained why they needed to replace SAP for several key reasons, he said: “The business had the entry level SAP products for small-to-medium sized enterprises across two systems and we needed an integrated one. We also supported SAP in-house and it was challenging to retain the depth and breadth of skills necessary. The Oracle solution we were able to secure is much more comprehensive. One obvious example is that it enables us to have a standardised purchase-to-pay process which, in an organisation like this, is hugely beneficially. Ultimately, it’s a single integrated system across ERP and HCM which has enabled us to streamline our own business processes and overcome the challenges of synchronising the two legacy SAP systems.”

IBM brought something that we were lacking – a vision for the solution and knowledge of the product – and they got us on track quickly

The rationale

The rationale for moving to Oracle was put forward by former CIO, James Findlay – now director of his own digital advisory company. Subsequently, the ERP baton was picked up Stephen Potter who took the role of interim CIO before leaving to join NATS, the UK air traffic control services company. More latterly, Robert Kirkwood had been appointed as a permanent CIO, although on the day we went to print we learned he had left his post with immediate effect.

Back in 2018 Potter said of the challenges facing HS2: “We had to make the right transition from what was effectively a very large start-up and scale up pretty quickly to ensure we have a modern organisation capable of delivering the project. This meant having to put in enterprise-level capabilities required for that mandate. One of these technologies was Oracle Fusion. It was a decision made before I arrived, but we went through a rigorous validation process.”

The problems to solve

HS2 is an arms-length body of DfT, but the HS2 line is being built by construction and engineering JV partners and the organisation therefore has the challenge of ensuring that the right information is accessible through the entire HS2 ecosystem.

Building a railway, buying land and providing infrastructure all generate huge amounts of data, and it’s HS2 job to get the most value out of that data, both internally and externally. Historically, one of the most difficult issues had been locating and extracting valuable data, but the new Oracle solution which includes intelligent analytics, should see an end to siloed data.

But while emerging technologies are very much in the thought process of the HS2 team, the biggest challenge is the time scales involved. “Most organisations have an IT strategy that covers 18-24 months, but because of the scale of the programme, HS2’s horizon is eight to ten years. Starting to do procurement now for eight years’ time and trying to predict what ticketing systems you need and what you need to underpin all of that is a major challenge,” said Gayler.

The Oracle team is being led by executive sponsor, John Abel, who joined the project six months ago. Although the Oracle relationship is being managed by IBM and licenses have been procured as part of the IBM deal, Abel was keen to point out how integrated the three teams have been which has ultimately led to a successful go-live, on time and on budget. He said, “The best endorsement I can give is that it’s very hard to see where the Oracle, IBM and HS2 teams start and finish. All parties involved have worked collaboratively as one team focussed on delivering a first-class solution and Oracle is delighted that its technology is underpinning such a prestigious project. HS2 is utilising the full power of the Oracle ERP Cloud suite, coupled with our PaaS offering and Oracle Cage (Government Cloud).”

The implementation journey

The implementation partner for the project is IBM Services, led by executive partner, Jamie Cole. IBM won both the build and managed services contracts through a tendering process and provides ongoing support for the solution. Cole said, “IBM Services is delighted to have partnered HS2 on such a high profile and important project. The Oracle solution will serve HS2 into the future and we are very pleased to have played a major role in its success.”

Commenting on the tribulations of the ERP journey, Gayler outlined several key areas where IBM has added significant value. “IBM brought something that we were lacking – a vision for the solution and knowledge of the product – and they got us on track quickly. They also manage the relationship with Oracle. They speak the same language as the vendor and having our trusted partner dealing with Oracle has freed us up to concentrate on other tasks and duties”, said Gayler.

Given the complexity of the project and the scrutiny under-which HS2 operates, it is remarkable that a relatively small team has brought the project together so quickly and efficiently. As far as cloud ERP projects go, the headline architecture for this project was relatively straightforward. It was SaaS to SaaS – and although I can’t imagine there has been too many other similar projects, the fact that the legacy systems were cloud-native and the target system was as well, has meant that many of the big bumps often felt along the ERP journey have been avoided. Gayler commented: “Like any ERP roll-out, we’ve faced challenges. But I have to say, although we expected more challenges during the hypercare period, the implementation across the business has gone well. The fact this is a SaaS service seems to have been a big factor. The user uptake rate – particularly in the first two weeks – exceeded expectations.”