Trial by earthquake: a web-based HCM system earns its stripes

The use of a web-based HCM system ensured University of Canterbury's HR staff could continue to provide services to the organisation despite being displaced from their office.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor

Following the release of version 8 of PeopleSoft's human capital management (HCM) software in 2000, then CEO Craig Conway was touring the world reciting the company's latest mantra: there was "no code on the client".

He was bragging that users and administrators were able to access the software purely through a web browser, without applications installed on their own systems — making it an early forerunner of the softaware-as-a-service delivery model. This approach to delivering applications was to pay dividends for University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, a decade later.

The university moved to a web-based version of PeopleSoft in August 2010 — by which time PeopleSoft was part of Oracle — but in doing so became a very early adopter of version 9.1, and the first in New Zealand.

The university skipped some generations, moving straight from version 7.5 to go live on version 9.1. The HR team completed two pay rounds with consultants still on site to help. University HR staff had completed their training and were deemed ready to go it alone.

The University of Canterbury upgraded to web-based human capital management software in August 2010. In September the first of thousands of earthquakes struck.

On Friday, September 3, the consultants left. At 4.35am the next morning, the first of over 4000 earthquakes measuring force 3 or more struck. At 7.1, that September quake was the largest of all, but not the most destructive.

At the university, the HR team faced the challenge of running their first ever payroll without outside help. The team, however, had now been displaced from their offices.

"We were very much on our own," said the university's pay and HR administration manager, Vanessa Forrester. "We didn't have the confidence to do it from home. We wanted to share our collective knowledge."

They quickly set up a temporary facility on campus. The new web-based software was about to earn its stripes.

Just a month earlier, administrators needed access to their own computer to use the system while employees had no access at all.

With version 9.1, which is still in use at the University nearly four years later, employees could enter their own data and administrators could access the system from any computer through a browser.

"Our employees via self-service would put in their own timesheets and continue to get paid. It was quite a significant benefit," Forrester said.

Christchurch cathedral after the earthquakes
Image: New Zealand Defence Force CC BY 2.0

Both the users and the administrators were in a state of constant movement, and to some extent still are. Buildings had to be evacuated and inspected before being reoccupied, especially after the big one hit Christchurch at lunchtime on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people.

The HR team are still displaced from their damaged offices.

"After February, the building was not and is still not being used," Forrester said.

Despite that, the team have been able to continue working. And the new system served other purposes.

"We lost access to our paper-based personnel files and relied on PeopleSoft even more," Forrester said.

The system delivered emergency contact numbers for staff, and information about reporting lines that could not have been accessed otherwise.

By the time of the February earthquake, the team was feeling "quite well resourced", Forrester said. The students returned to campus just in time to see it closed down again on the second day of term.

Of course, any web-based software requires a solid server foundation. Forrester said there were no disruptions on the server side apart from occasional planned maintenance.

"The IT people were pretty good at recognising PeopleSoft as a priority," she said.

The university was committed to paying people on time.

"Earthquakes only happen when it's a pay week," Forrester jokes. "Whenever we wanted to do work we were able to do it, between jumping under desks."

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