Spark’s big-bang back-office transformation with Dynamics 365

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

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Spark’s ongoing evolution as New Zealand’s largest telecommunications and digital services provider takes Agile to new levels. But it’s hard to be nimble and forward-looking without a back-end to match. To turn its decades-old ERP into the envy of its peers, Spark undertook a business-wide Dynamics 365 transformation on an unprecedented scale—a journey spanning 2 years, 11 process leads, and a huge team of tech experts from 4 businesses all working together to reimagine Spark’s back-office platform.

There’s no such thing as a “typical day” at Spark. With more than 5,000 people and thousands more partners and contractors working across the country on everything from designing business telephony solutions and managing supply chain for Spark’s retail stores, to staffing the helpdesk at Spark’s customer service centres and overseeing the rollout of 5G, there’s a lot going on.

And when you’re a large, fast-moving technology business with an Agile approach, you need the right tools to manage all the moving parts. Imagine, then, what it was like working on a legacy ERP platform that dated back to the late 90s, long before the old Telecom New Zealand became the full-service tech company it is today.

“It just couldn’t keep up. Our Agile operating model is five years old now, with squads of people forming and reforming, reprioritising tasks, flexing and changing to keep pace with the demands of our business. But the legacy SAP system wasn’t able to keep track of who was working on what,” explains Lisa Chapman, Spark enterprise automation lead, who was tasked with owning the solution and leading business change for the transformation project.

“There was also a proliferation of complexity that arose from having a system that was 25 years old. We needed a system that was simple and intuitive to use and easy to navigate, so you didn’t have to know the dark arts or the transaction code just to create a report or perform a task.”

But for a business as large and complex as Spark, switching to a new ERP wasn’t as simple as purchasing and installing new software overnight. Any solution needed to be designed to meet the needs of a host of different business areas, from finance to procurement, HR, inventory management, supply chain, billing, and so on. In fact, Spark identified more than 70 interfaces that were required for different functions.

They chose Microsoft Dynamics 365 Finance and Supply Chain Management as the perfect solution because it’s designed to be as flexible as possible while capable of being used straight out of the box, with minimal customisation.

Thus began a two-year, enterprise-wide transformation on a scale to rival any other Dynamics 365 implementation in the world, featuring a cast of tech experts from Spark, Microsoft, implementation lead Infosys, and data migration partner Tech Mahindra.

Such a huge undertaking was highly ambitious, representing a leap into the unknown for all partners. Could it be done without disrupting service to all 5,000 employees—and Spark’s millions of customers?

The “Big Bang” that raised a few eyebrows

In fact, it wasn’t just the scale of the transformation that was ambitious. The approach was also highly unusual.

“We raised eyebrows early on by going ‘big bang’— choosing to tackle everything all at once,” Lisa says. “We decided Dynamics 365 had to turn on overnight, across all business areas. Usually people say you should turn on your core finance function first, then HR, then procurement and so on, but we’d have had to rebuild our legacy system to integrate with Dynamics 365 as well to keep both platforms working side by side.”

The course was set—go big or go home.

The transformation programme was designed to be business-led, tweaking the Dynamics 365 solution to fit Spark’s ways of working rather than the other way around. Eleven process leads from across the business were chosen to provide insights into how their departments worked. They were empowered to reimagine the business process, enabling the team to decide which features to customise and which could be used straight out of the box. Eight senior business owners then made any major decisions on behalf of their business units.

“Our mission was not just to rebuild what we had, but to think about what we needed,” says Lisa. “There were so many different functions and use cases, some quite niche, but all are critical functions the platform had to support.”

In all, more than 35 applications had to be integrated. Once the scope of the platform was decided, Spark’s own teams designed the solution, with support from Microsoft and Infosys.

Because of Covid lockdowns and the dispersed nature of the teams working on the project, Microsoft Teams was a godsend for collaboration and communication. Lisa sings the praises of the Microsoft FastTrack team, who were on hand throughout to assist with the blueprint and co-design the implementation process, as well as reviewing code and making sure the platform was sized correctly.

Microsoft recommended an asynchronous rollout and running a couple of real-world “dress rehearsals” ahead of go-live, having seen the benefits of this approach over a standard data migration simulation.

The first dress rehearsal, which mimicked the Dynamics 365 cutover process during Spark’s financial month-end, was carried out during business hours to identify any potential issues and fishhooks and enable them to be addressed before the real event. A second dress rehearsal was carried out in real time, 24 hours a day across weekends and changing shifts, to streamline the process further.

“Doing that gave everyone a good idea of what would happen, what the results would be of failing to do certain things within certain timeframes, and how long it would take,” says Steven Koppens, Senior FastTrack Solution Architect at Microsoft New Zealand.

Microsoft supported with rigorous performance testing, identifying 32 critical business operations to test, from integration with third-party apps to carrying out month-end financial processes.

Then came the final test—go-live. Tech Mahindra migrated all the existing data from the old platform to Dynamics 365, while over two and a half weeks, teams from Spark, Infosys, and Microsoft got the new platform up and running, ready for cutover weekend. In just two days, all “in-flight” transactions were migrated as well—and the new ERP was live.

“We expected it to be a bumpy landing”

“We expected it to be a bumpy landing and it really wasn’t,” Lisa says. “Compared to other major transformation programmes we’ve been through, go-live was really uneventful! We were expecting the first month-end financial process to take three weeks. It took us eight days.”

Onboarding new employees has become significantly quicker, too. What once took hours of explanations from a buddy employee can be learnt online in a matter of minutes.

“We use Microsoft 365, and because this is a really familiar interface that is intuitive to people, they are finding it much easier to interact with the system,” says Lisa. “We have a very simple training module—but to be honest, what we’re seeing is they don’t even need to use it. People can easily onboard themselves using the employee functions.”

Along with dramatically improved ease of use, Lisa says the Spark team are enjoying being able to use data in new ways, gaining insights and making data-driven decisions.

“People’s adoption has been great. The user interface is really intuitive. It’s easy to find things and do what you need to do, so it’s really widely embraced,” Lisa says.

The self-service capabilities of Dynamics 365 are proving an especial hit. Spark’s employees can do things like submit timesheets and manage their bank account details, and managers can approve workflow tasks, all through the one platform. Administrative tasks like timesheeting and expenses can be a dreaded chore, but Dynamics 365 has taken the pain out of the process for Spark’s people.

“I always thought expenses were easy to claim for, so I was happy with the process and the experience. But wait, along came Dynamics 365 and it’s even easier and quicker and the money is in my account so quickly!” one says.

Empowering employees’ evolution

Beyond making their lives easier, Spark wanted to use this digital transformation to re-imagine business processes and empower employees in their own roles. Previously, project managers had left bill processing to the specialists. Now, with an easy-to-use interface, Spark decided it was time for project managers to take control of customer billing, streamlining the project invoicing and payments and making for more satisfied customers and faster cash flow.

For those involved in Spark’s procurement, Dynamics 365 introduced a centralised product catalog that gives visibility and insight into what people are buying, from which suppliers, and at what price. This means employees can see what’s already on order across the business before making any new purchases, avoiding silo buying and an inventory full of identical products. As an added bonus, Spark can also negotiate better commercial pricing through bulk buying.

It’s almost as exciting for the Infosys and Microsoft teams who helped with Spark’s transformation.

“Leveraging Infosys Cobalt and its rich ERP and Microsoft Dynamics 365 Finance and Supply Chain expertise, this true collaborative effort between Infosys, Spark New Zealand, and Microsoft is an important milestone in Spark’s ongoing evolution,” says Amit Syamal, regional Associate Vice-President, Microsoft Practice at Infosys. “Infosys played a lead role in process and solution design, helping deliver a platform-led transformation journey. Together we were able to de-risk and accelerate end-to-end ERP service delivery and data-driven decision-making for faster value realisation through the Dynamics 365 implementation.”

Brendan Bain, Director of Telecommunications, Media, and Utilities, Microsoft ANZ, adds, “This has been an exhilarating journey spanning over two years, and it’s exciting to see it come to fruition. One of the very first enterprise-scale replacements of a SAP ERP with Microsoft Dynamics 365, this collaboration represents many firsts for both Infosys and Microsoft at a global level. At its core, it’s about creating a unified, organisation-wide platform that enhances the experience of all of Spark’s people and customers. Ultimately, that means supporting Spark to innovate even further beyond its roots as a telco to one of New Zealand’s leading digital services companies.”

And incredibly for such a vast project, the “big bang” was also bang on schedule.

An ongoing business evolution

But it wouldn’t be Spark if the evolution stopped there. Data is at the heart of the business at Spark, and with all the Dynamics 365 data now going into Spark’s Azure Data Lake, the business is poised to do much more with business insights and analytics. Spark plans to leverage the ERP data through intelligent models and analytics to augment business processes, leading to more accurate and relevant reporting and improved forecasting. Ultimately, it gives Spark the agility and flexibility to create business value.

The second phase of Spark’s Dynamics journey is already underway. Building on the foundational elements of release one, the team are excited to bring further incremental benefit to the business through adding more functional features, whether that’s around subscription billing or integrating D365 to a new recruitment and onboarding solution, cutting out the need for staff to jump between platforms.

“The gold for us is the flexibility the product offers and its ability to integrate. Spark has plans to evolve and grow and Dynamics 365 has the capabilities to evolve and grow alongside us,” says Lisa. “We always promised this wouldn’t be one of those ERP programmes that runs for four years and doesn’t deliver. And it’s not only met our expectations, it’s continuing to deliver. We now have a system that reflects who we are as a modern organisation.”





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