In an age of increased globalisation and competition, English is becoming even more established as the lingua franca for business and cultural exchange. Teaching the Queen’s English effectively to foreign students would seem a sound proposition, lest our American cousins get all the glory. At the same time, anything that helps establish and support the UK ‘brand’ on the international scene, especially in the rapidly growing economies of Asia Pacific, has to be a good idea.

It turns out there is one organisation – partly funded by the taxpayer – doing both. The British Council is a body with some impressive statistics that back up its claim to be the country’s major tool for establishing “mutually beneficial relations” with other economies. It employs some 7,500 staff in 217 cities across over 100 different countries, and has now taught English to over 300,000 people via some 1,700 teachers working at 126 different teaching centres.

A complete education

In 2005 alone, for instance, it offered 1.2 million examinations in the language, up nine per cent on the previous year. Its activities are not restricted just to teaching. It ran some 2,000 arts events globally – think Shakespeare in China – and its websites get at least 1.5m visitors a month.

But the Council also has some challenges in terms of efficiency, cost and budgeting. It has been struggling with a raft of disparate legacy systems that hamper its ability to communicate well with the rest of government. They are so poorly coordinated that staff spend much of the time re-keying data or working with systems they cannot be sure match the current budgeting reality.

System strategy

A decision was made in 2000 to have Strategy 2010 in place by the end of the decade – a system that will offer the potential for a British Council staffer to do ‘anything from anywhere’ via common web-based systems.

Other salient features of the programme include a drive to improve efficiency through standardisation of processes which will free up staff time from broken administration processes to more ‘customer’ facing activity, as well as support for more efficient integrated planning and reporting capabilities.

Another aim is to consolidate all financial information in one place, offering the organisation reliable and timely information. Last, but not least given the nature of its business, have online registration and payment for teaching customers as standard.

Cultural focus

The way to deliver all this is technology. Well, partly, explains Richard Phillips, programme manager for the new Finance and Business Systems (FABS). “This is more about operational and cultural change – a transformation of the way we work,” he told MIS UK. “IT is an important part of this, it is a main facilitator but this isn’t an IT project.”

The British Council

The British Council is a global cultural and educational organisation with an annual turnover of £479 million, a third of which comes directly from the UK government.

The remainder is raised by commercial services, mainly the teaching of English as a foreign language in 126 countries. FABS will eventually impact some 7,500 of its employees. Based on SAP, the new system aims to replace some 20 legacy applications – in finance, education and HR – with a single platform that will let staff match expenditure against actual spending. It will also interface better with the Foreign Office’s IT systems.

The £27m development contract was signed in June 2003 and centres on a number of mySAP modules delivered via the NetWeaver platform. A third of all Council staff will be on the system by the end of 2006, with final rollout scheduled for 2009/10.

Phillips himself comes from the operational side of the Council’s business and much of its ongoing IT work is now outsourced to LogicaCMG.

“In fact, we wanted someone heading this who wasn’t an IT specialist – that was a deliberate decision.”
Of course, IT in the shape of a big – £27m-plus – implementation of SAP software is at the heart of the FABS project. Specifically, those old legacy systems are being replaced with a number of core SAP modules, a task overseen by a special 60-strong FABS team.

The modules are Higher Education and Research; mySAP Financials, mySAP Business Intelligence application; and an Enterprise Portal – all supported by NetWeaver. The first module is important for the Council as it is an education package that includes Campus Management and CRM for Student Management, which the organisation hopes will help streamline its student and education management organisational processes.

“What we want isn’t 110 good bilateral relationships with overseas governments,” says Phillips. “What we want is a single great one – centrally managed and administered which lets us work effectively at the regional level too.”

Continuous assessment

The Council always said that it would implement the FABS changes on a step-by-step basis. The first move was to implement mySAP Financials in the UK, with the set aims of improving financial planning and forecasting, better ordering of its financial ‘supply chain’, cutting the cost of financial operations and more timely billing.

That has been achieved, says Phillips, but things are not racing ahead. “We made the January 2005 go-live in the UK on time and on budget,” he says.

“We ensured we’d spent enough time building the FABS team with the right people then designing and blueprinting the system properly. All in all, though we have implemented things we are about the mid-point at the moment, certainly not near the finish line.”

But milestones are being reached. The Council now uses the new software for all its projects, all purchasing, the disbursement of grant payments, all travel and expenses administration, reporting, sales orders, customer billing and core finances. One of 2006’s aims is to rollout a planning system which Phillips says will give it “integrated planning and reporting for the first time”.

Academic access

“We are now live in 13 regions and have a big deliverable – going live in India – scheduled for October,” he adds.

“In the Middle East we will also implement the campus module of the system for the first time, giving our students the ability to book and pay for courses online and access their academic information.” As a key feature of the overseas implementation is online registration and payment, this is of key importance to FABS’ success overall.

“We did struggle a bit after we went live,” Phillips admits. “SAP is not that easy a system in terms of being ‘intuitive’ for staff. We have had some good change consultancy and talked to a lot of other organisations that had rolled it out but it was still a challenge.”

Last minute revision

Part of the issue was that even with a year’s worth of development some processes were still being designed at the last minute. Another hiccup was training. “We found that we were training people and getting good responses in the sessions but back at their desks they were finding it more difficult.”

Lessons learnt

The good news, he says, is that lessons have been learnt from the UK rollout and FABS elsewhere is going better as a result. “We have set up workshops now on the problem areas and are going to train people in the new processes before they see the new system,” he says.

“Also, people get fed up hearing about the new system. They want to see the damn thing, so we have created movies of the new apps for DVD and CD-Rom release that we are sending out to regions to help support this.”

But the organisation says it always knew that the FABS programme is not simply about rolling out an IT system; staff have to learn a new set of processes, not just a new system interface. “Successful implementation of FABS means changing the behaviour of all our staff,” he says. “It creates the opportunity for radical thinking about the way the business is organised. It also creates an urgency for decisions to be made as the organisational structure has to be reflected in the system.”