by Tara Swords
National Instruments (NI) is a complicated business. But a phrase from the company’s website puts the Austin, Texas–based high technology firm’s work in the simplest terms: “If you can turn it on, connect it, drive it, or launch it, chances are NI technology helped make it happen.”
Location: Austin, Texas
Industry: High technology
Employees: Approximately 7,100
Revenue: US$1.17 billion in 2013
Oracle solutions: Oracle HCM Cloud, Oracle E-Business Suite, Oracle Exadata, Oracle Database, Oracle Hyperion Workforce Planning, Oracle SOA Suite
Global HRIS Manager
Length of tenure: 10 years
Education: BA in communications, St. Edwards University
Personal quote/mantra: “You should be continuously improving your systems and processes to keep up with the changing needs of the business.”
Indeed, NI has played an integral (albeit behind-the-scenes) role in some of the most important technological innovations in the world. That means helping build the future—literally. NI test equipment and virtual instrumentation software are helping the company’s clients refine advances in robotics, 3-D printing, genomics, particle physics, renewable energy, mass transit, sustainable agriculture, and much more.
NI’s heritage has a lot to do with this culture of ingenuity and innovation. Following a familiar pattern for 1970s tech startups, the company was founded in a garage by young geniuses with US$10,000 and a problem to solve—how to use emerging computer technology to collect and analyze data. And that scrappy mentality persists today; one of the founders still collaborates with the company’s engineers over lunch in the cafeteria.
But success has moved the company far beyond the garage. In 2011, NI reported US$1 billion in revenue for the first time and today boasts a workforce of more than 7,000 employees operating in 40 countries. And management has an ambitious target for the future: to reach US$2 billion in global revenue.
According to Wendy Cottrell, global HRIS manager at NI, maintaining the company’s original culture will be essential to hitting that revenue target. And human resources (HR) is central to the effort to make sure that happens. “Not everyone is sitting next to the founder anymore,” she says. “It really is up to HR to help share our values, making sure we can grow and keep our culture alive.”
Apropos of NI’s technology-driven business, the HR department has depended on technology to manage this growing workforce, using Oracle E-Business Suite for many core functions. But prior to a recent upgrade the enterprise architecture was complex, requiring integration among solutions from multiple vendors. This approach to HR systems was inefficient—and as the company expanded and the importance of HR increased, the tools the department used caused many challenges as they tried to be a valued business partner to the organization.
To increase the functionality of HR systems and to lay a foundation for company growth, NI turned to Oracle for a solution that would dramatically speed reporting and ensure that the HR systems could scale along with the business—driving new efficiency into HR operations around the globe and turning HR into a proactive business partner.Representative Issue
A single issue demonstrated the HR systems challenges NI faced: lack of easy visibility into total headcount. Knowing how many people work for a company isn’t a simple effort. It requires an understanding of every staffer’s employment status. Who is an employee, and who is an intern? Who works part-time hours? Do contractors count as employees? But having that headcount number, and trusting its accuracy, is essential to making critical business decisions.
We have to continue to evolve. And for me, from a systems perspective, I have to listen to what the business needs and go and make it happen.”–Wendy Cottrell, Global HRIS Manager, National Instruments
“We don’t want to overhire, and we want to know where we have gaps,” Cottrell says, illustrating the point. “We have to monitor headcount monthly or twice a month to make sure we are keeping staff levels where we need them. We need to know: Where are we under? Where are we over?”
At NI, all the necessary employment data existed, but it was spread between two separate systems, one for US employees and one for international employees. Pulling data from those two systems—something managers have to do often—was an ordeal. “We would have to query reports from multiple systems and merge, all while hoping that they were reporting the same information,” says Jamie Marquez, a staff business and support analyst at NI. “If we wanted to change or create a report, it went through a weeks-long process.”
When management needed the data faster, the IT team could make it happen. But it would require an all-hands-on-deck manual effort, which pulled valuable staff away from their regular duties and invariably led to errors. Plus, all the time spent creating and fretting over basic reports was pulling HR staff away from their true mission: to grow and support the company’s talent.
“The things that we wanted to do in HR were becoming increasingly challenging,” says Melissa Fuller, IT application manager at NI, of this extra effort. “After years of facing these complex manual tasks and saying, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ we started asking the question, ‘What do we need to do to be able to start saying yes to these requests?’”
Fixing the headcount problem meant automating real-time reporting so executives could access the data they need with just a few clicks. But that was just one improvement the HR and IT teams wanted to say “yes” to. They wanted to build a better way to manage compensation. They wanted to launch a global recruiting system and be able to integrate with payroll more quickly. They wanted to upgrade employee benefits systems. In short, they wanted to build a new HR platform.Cloud Minded
Cottrell and Fuller and their teams selected Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud (Oracle HCM Cloud) solutions as the platform for simplifying the HR systems infrastructure and adding the new functionality the company needed to support future growth. It would entail a big change—including a move to the cloud—but in NI’s entrepreneurial culture, it was an easy sell to the company’s leaders based on the increased need for HR efficiency. “I could have spent a year justifying the project, or I could spend a year implementing the tool,” Cottrell says. “Fortunately for me, the decision was obvious. Then it was just, ‘Go get it done. Make it happen. Figure it out.’”
Fuller’s team manages the technical side of the HR systems, while Cottrell’s HRIS team manages the systems from a business perspective. Together, they designed a major overhaul of the HR systems—but they knew the rollout would need to be phased. This was another place where the adoption of cloud technology would be a benefit. Once the IT strategy and architecture were established, new cloud features could be added over time, delivering benefits to the business even while the project was still under way.
The move to a cloud-based solution required a different approach to IT project management, and raised some new questions among the team. Would IT have as much control over data as it needed? How would the business need to plan for updates and patches? But the rollout itself was relatively simple, compared to an on-premises implementation.
“Doing it on premises would have been a dramatically different project and dramatically bigger, because we would have had to involve at least a couple of other teams to help us get it done,” Fuller says. “Going to the cloud allowed us to work on our own and replatform the business without a ton of interaction from our internal teams. I think we were able to get live faster than we would have otherwise.”Global Rollout
As of January 2015, all NI employees worldwide have access to employee HR self-service. Users log in to a portal and see information based on their role, displayed in their preferred language. They can even customize the layout of their portal display, organizing commonly used functions for easy access.
This kind of sensitivity to the user was critical for the adoption of the new system. Change management is always a key concern for large-scale enterprise technology deployments. But the team at NI made sure that delivering a better experience for employees was a priority. The flexible user interface was only one benefit, however. The proof was in the enhanced functionality. “We were fortunate that users wanted this new functionality,” Cottrell says. “So from a change management perspective, I didn’t have to do much selling. Everybody knew that it needed to be different.”
Today, Oracle HCM Cloud is the source of record for all HR data globally. A custom integration pulls HR data from Oracle HCM Cloud into all business functions using Oracle E-Business Suite—which includes data about research and development, customer relationship management, and enterprise resource planning. A third-party payroll system also accesses data from Oracle HCM Cloud, creating a new unified HR systems platform.
The improved data quality and performance that comes with an integrated, unified system has made HR reporting dramatically faster. Today, an international headcount—which could have taken as long as six weeks before—takes about four hours. And users require no training, just a login and a password.
With such a significant leap in performance, usability, and data quality, managers are starting to ask new questions about business operations, and looking for the ability to explore data for new insight. This is the type of feedback that Cottrell and Fuller hope to roll into future enhancements to the system, setting a new standard for HRIS responsiveness. And that, Cottrell says, is exactly how HR wants to operate: as a partner that can listen to the business and provide what it needs.
Marquez agrees that the new speed and agility that comes with cloud-based IT is changing expectations within the business. “It floors us sometimes how fast we can get something changed and turned around,” she says.Looking Forward
The HR department plans to use Oracle HCM Cloud for one of its most important roles: finding, attracting, and nurturing talent. Fuller and Cottrell plan to begin rolling out components of a talent management solution in 2015.
Cottrell says that HR’s ability to manage talent isn’t a nice-to-have; in a company that needs top talent to reach an aggressive growth target, it’s paramount. But before Oracle HCM Cloud, HR employees didn’t have a clear view of their talent pipeline or an easy way to manage it.
“In the US alone, we hire 200 to 300 interns every summer, and that’s the majority of where our new engineering employees come from,” Cottrell says. “We hire from that intern relationship. But we need to get to students earlier, before they even do an internship. We get referrals, but we have no way to track it.” After Oracle HCM Cloud goes live for global recruiting, employees will be able to refer candidates and NI staff will manage referrals similar to the way the sales team manages a sales lead.
Talent management is also critical for current employees who want to continue growing their careers within NI. “Right now, as an internal employee, it’s hard to apply for a new NI job anywhere in the world because you can’t find it,” Cottrell says. “You can’t see what is open. We have a very diverse population that may be interested in assignments abroad. And we also want to shift our talent to where it needs to be. It’s hard to do that today unless you know somebody who knows somebody who has an position open.”
Being able to react to what the business and the employees need is exactly the kind of HR organization NI wants to cultivate. HR and IT need to be a key piece of that transformation. “HR at NI is focused on helping the business manage our talent,” says Cottrell. “We have to continue to evolve. And for me, from a systems perspective, I have to listen to what the business needs and go and make it happen.”
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