How and why NUS moved its HR system to the cloud

NUS is moving its HR system to the cloud via SAP SuccessFactors. It’s taken five years to get this far, but the challenge isn't technology or organizational complexity – it’s change management.

Image courtesy of NUS

In 2015, the National University of Singapore (NUS) decided to move its HR system to the cloud. By the end of 2019, Phase 1 of that project was completed, with the remaining phases scheduled to be implemented by the end of this year. That’s a long journey, but as it happens, the reasons had more to do with people than technology.

Which is not to say that the technology wasn’t important. Indeed, according to Catherine Ng, Head of Talent, Learning and Development, Talent Acquisition at NUS, the university’s HR system – which used an on-premises SAP solution – was a customized and massively complex beast that was bogging down processes and becoming increasingly harder to manage.

“There were a lot of different applications and different schemes that needed that cleaning so that we can move faster,” Ng explains. “For example, a lot of the applications cannot be run on mobile, they’re not personalized, or it only runs on-premise, which means I need to open my laptop and log onto a VPN before I go into the intranet and be able to click on that app. So on the basis of [user] experience, we understood that we needed to move to a more agile kind of platform.”

That platform eventually turned out to be SAP SuccessFactors, but the decision was literally years in the making.

A long time ago in a university nearby…

NUS first began exploring its options in 2015 – to include cloud-based solutions. Naturally, SAP had its foot in the door early because NUS was an existing customer, but the company ended up having to make its pitch twice because the key NUS administrators looking after the project resigned before the award stage near the end of 2015. After this, the project was put on hold until mid-2017 when new administrators rebooted the project, says Cynthia Quah, VP and the SEA head of SAP SuccessFactors.

“We had to start the whole exercise over again because [the administrators] were new,” Quah says. “Even though we did the PoC before, we had to redo it.”

This time, along with the usual product demos, SAP walked the NUS team through its Upgrade To Success framework to determine its HR requirements and pain points. It also held digital workshops to not only explain to faculty the benefits of moving to the cloud, but gauging their needs in terms of what the new system has to be able to do for them.

“We did a little bit of ‘design thinking’ – we collected feedback from the faculty and the deans, asking them ‘what are your key challenges now with the current system?’” Quah says. “We did this because we need to get buy-in – we cannot just deploy technology, and then expect people to adopt it.”

Ng of NUS agrees, saying that the major challenge of upgrading its HR platform was people, not technology.

“It’s not so much about the capability of the platform – the bigger challenge that we’re spending time on is really about that whole mindset change, that change management,” she says.

For example, Ng says, part of the process of migrating HR to a new system is deciding which fields are worth keeping. “If this particular field only serves 0.5% of the population, do we need to create a data entry just on this piece?”

The problem is that that 0.5% will sometimes fight tooth and nail to keep those fields, if only because they’re used to it being there.

“In the old SAP platform, we created a customized cap on certain entries so you can’t go beyond a certain level,” she says. “When we moved to the new platform, we wanted to remove that cap because it’s not a common HR thing and no one has exceeded it for years, but there’s a lot of resistance – they say ‘Oh, no, we can’t remove the cap, it’s already there, it’s always been there, it’s a policy’.”

Strangely, there is a bright side to NUS taking several years to finally get the migration project going – when the university first started the project, SAP SuccessFactors didn’t have a local data center in Singapore, which Cynthia Quah says was launched in early 2018.

Upskilling made easy

In any case, NUS’ Catherine Ng says that SuccessFactors has proven itself adept at handling the needs of the university, not least because it’s customizable and enables NUS to establish a single platform across its various campuses and spinoffs that can still serve the specific needs of each.

“It’s a single platform, but the way the autonomous units execute some functions is really up to them – for example, if they have their own leave policy and how many days of leave employees have,” she says.

Meanwhile, Ng adds, the SuccessFactors platform will help NUS provide upskilling opportunities for HR staff in more efficient ways.

“In the traditional HR world, you launch 50 learning programs and then it’s up to the learners to say, okay, we’ll sign up, and then it’s a case of ‘fastest fingers’,” she explains.

But this isn’t helpful because it often results in staff simply signing up for the most popular programs before they run out of seats, even if the skills on offer aren’t that relevant to them. Moreover, there’s no way to know if the programs are doing them any good, Ng says. “The outcome is uncertain. How is it going to add value to your work? In which area does it help to fit in? How does it tie back to your own competency improvement and skill sets? It’s often left to the individual to figure that out.”

What’s needed, Ng says, is for each staff to better understand which new skills they need for the digital era that are specific to their competence, and have some degree of measurability of the outcome.

Moreover, she adds, this needs to be in alignment with the university’s own digital strategy, and needs to have the managers more involved in the process, “because the manager is the one connecting the dots and can say, for example, that you should absolutely go for a data visualization course because our department wants to set up this dashboard.”