Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, has managed to deploy an online self-service HR portal, which connects to its core back-end SAP ERP system and is used by 30,000 employees, using agile development – a methodology rarely associated with the European software giant.

Mark Tristram, a lead on the project at Centrica corporate, spoke to Computerworld UK at the annual SAP User Group conference in Manchester this week, where he said that training, governance frameworks and team integration were key to successfully deploying projects within SAP.

Tristram and a colleague from Experior, who helped advise the agile first-timers on how to successfully deploy the ESS MSS portal, said that as a methodology, agile is rarely used within the world of SAP.

However, they both agreed that it could be done if the project is self-contained and only touches a few systems. Tristram said it would be extremely difficult to achieve with a core ERP that is connected to almost everything.

A bespoke tool had been hosted with Aon Hewitt, but Centrica wanted to bring the ESS MSS HR portal in-house in order to gain better control of its development and to standardise on the SAP platform – Centrica is very much a SAP-shop.

The ESS side of the tool, which allows employees to self-serve all their HR needs, had its own team of 20 people working on its development; and the MSS side of the tool, which allows for managers to self-manage their employees, had a separate team of 20 people.

The project took 18 months to carry out and completed in August.

However, Tristram’s first piece of advice to anyone looking to carry out a similar project was not to go straight into scrums, but to first set up a DSDM framework that will provide the business with a certain level of assurance that the project is being effectively governed. 

“DSDM allows you to plug into corporate governance, to give you some structure. With a company as big as Centrica, there is a fear of letting some wild agile guys go off and do their thing. We are so used to waterfall, but DSDM gave us a bit of comfort,” said Tristram.

“Scrums are on the ground, day-to-day work, whereas DSDM is more of a framework. DSDM recognises that if you have a serious amount of money to commit, you have to build a business case and you need some structure around business development, technical development and technical architecture.”

He added: “Certainly with SAP you can’t just install the development tools and start throwing out the web pages. Even from a testing point of view, you almost start with a complete test plan before the project begins. We pretty much did what you would do with a waterfall project to set off in the right direction, and then iterated in scrums.”

Tristram’s team did ten sprints once the DSDM framework was agreed, each iteration lasting three weeks long, at the end of which they tested a workable solution. He said that the tree week period, which might be perceived to be slightly long for a pure-agile approach, was down to the fact that the teams were working with SAP, which ‘is a bit more clunky’ in terms of development.

As it was the Centrica corporate team’s first attempt at an agile project, it is unsurprising that the change to employees’ development approaches required some getting used to. Tristram said that he noticed improvements in the separate scrums’ throughput as the three week sprints progressed.

Key to improvement was training.

“You can’t understand the cultural change and the change to the mind set of every individual. It doesn’t happen overnight. We brought in coaches who had experience of doing this, which was absolutely key,” he said.

“We also, during every three week sprint, would dedicate half a day to understand what went well, what could be done better, and what specific actions we could implement next time. Every time we went into a new sprint we saw a sharp improvement in the throughput of work.”

However, the MSS scrum had more difficulty than the ESS scrum in catching on to the agile approach, which Tristram point down to having to work on the more technical side of the project.

“The MSS scrum was still having problems at the sixth spring, but after about the third sprint the ESS scrum was up and running, with good throughput. You do get a bit of conflict between the two teams, but you really shouldn’t compare them. However, we made a few changes, the coaches worked more closely with the MSS team and towards the end they were able to get through a lot more,” he said.

Tristram also advised that companies should adopt a ‘three amigos’ approach, whereby they should break down the traditional siloed roles of developers, testers and the business, to work as one united scrum.

He said: “From the beginning, naturally, the tester acts like a tester, the developer acts like a developer. You play out your normal roles. However, the concept is to try and break that and level the field.

“We came up with the concept of the ‘three amigos’. It’s not the developer versus the tester, it’s you as a scrum and you are responsible for making sure all those tests get completed. It was great for the business to be engaged throughout, constantly giving feedback at the end of each sprint.”

Centrica went live with the system in August with a ‘big bang’ approach and has seen very few reported problems or incidents.

Tristram said that the tool has allowed Centrica to gain a great level of automation, as it connects to its Human Capital Management application in the backend directly. Before it was using a ‘complicated’ middleware solution’ to extract data. It has increased process automation from 40 to 80 percent, something that Tristram said will ‘deliver big savings’.

However, ultimately this project was about delivering a tool that satisfied user requirements.

“Do I think agile is faster than waterfall? No I don’t think it was for this project, and I don’t think it was cheaper either. It was about delivering the right thing, the business got what it needed,” he said.