Global recruitment company Hays has come a long way since its creation in 1968.
Today it employs more than 13,000 people, covers 33 countries and has 253 offices worldwide. It sees itself as a leader in temporary, contracting and permanent recruitment, covering 21 specialist areas of skilled employment including technology, accountancy and finance and engineering, and filling more than 1250 jobs every day.
The company also prides itself on having pioneered major changes in the business model used in professional and skilled recruitment, moving away from ‘advertise and apply’ to ‘find and engage’. It has always recognised the potential of technology to transform recruitment, and this continues today in its pursuit of new digitisation initiatives.
Hays deployed a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system over ten years ago to achieve greater automation and has since re-engineered the system to deal with areas such as exceptions handling. Today, it is always on the lookout to take advantage of ever newer emerging technologies to automate processes and generate even greater efficiencies.
“The world is continuously changing and moving on – and has even done so in just the last two years. As a result, we are always playing catch-up,” says James Hilton, group finance director for Hays.
“There can be constant changes to our business in terms of our customers and how they want to interact with us as well as the business models we rely on. At the same time, the world of technology is always changing, and today we are looking more at how we can combine Robotic Process Automation (RPA) with machine learning.”
Hilton notes Hays has not changed it’s ERP system recently, something not uncommon among large corporates given the time and resource needed to do so.
“When I speak to other finance leaders, they often tell me that they are trying to automate activities outside their ERP systems. They don’t want to keep changing their ERP systems all the time and instead are looking for cloud-based solutions and software they can use outside the ERP system or indeed to make use of RPA outside the ERP system. It is hard to make ongoing changes to an ERP system,” he says.
Hilton points out that Hays has combined RPA with machine learning successfully at its offices in Germany to automate tedious tasks previously handled manually.
“In Germany, all of our temporary workers have to have contracts that are signed on paper. This requirement used to involve large numbers of our people in manual tasks. Through RPA and machine learning, we have been able to scan these contracts and handle all the data entry into our system automatically. A robot can learn how to do tasks previously done by people,” he says.
RPA and machine learning have also played a key role in handling the requirements of new client companies.
“We have about 20,000 workers who submit their timesheets to us every week. We took on one client who wanted to use their own timesheets – instead of our timesheets. This meant that we were not using our own data and our own technology,” explains Hilton.
“With our own timesheets, our ERP system had always managed this as an end-to-end process but in the case of the new client, it meant transferring data from someone else’s system to our own. This called for manual processes and created a huge workload. We have since been able to automate this process with RPA and this is now being piloted with six large accounts/clients. It means we can bring in the data, cleanse it and more easily upload it onto our system.”
An AI future
Hilton is very excited about the potential offered by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and points out that the company is exploring its options.
“We have many projects going on around the world and are looking into what we can do with greater process automation – in the ERP system or through RPA. I think when it comes to the use of AI, we are only at the start of our journey,” he says pointing that the company has been looking closely at how it can use AI in finance for two years.
“What we have learnt is that we can improve insights this way – both in analytics and commercial finance. There are significant opportunities here, but all this does require quality data. We now have many projects up and running on data management and the cleansing data.
“The whole area of data governance is vital. And it is the structure of data that we have to take account of too. When it is on our own systems this is straightforward but when we are pulling in data from outside – for example, client data – it is unstructured. This can be a real challenge.”
Role of the CFO
Hilton explains that the CFO has a valuable role to play in driving the finance department towards a digital future – even if he/she is not a technology guru.
“We have over 1000 people working in finance at Hays. My role is to help identify the problems, understand them and look to solve them. I look to bring the team together to explore the challenges we face,” he says, adding that new challenges often arise as a result of changes such as new legislation or amendments to existing legislation and taking on a new client.
“We also have a Continuous Process Engagement Team in place to work alongside finance. We have our own KPIs to manage – and they can look at everything we do on an end-to end basis and see where the problems are. They look to understand the problem and work on finding a solution with the technology team.”
He admits that the introduction of new technologies can bring its difficulties – and here again the CFO has a key role to play in communicating what is happening and providing support.
“We have never really experienced any problems rolling out a new technology – but there can be a level of nervousness when you are automating tasks previously handled manually. However, new technologies can make people’s jobs much more enjoyable. We want to eliminate manual tasks like data entry – and many of our staff do prefer having a more value adding role,” he says.
“The role of new technologies also calls for good communications. People need to understand what you are trying to achieve – and be clear on this. There is also a need for training, and it is important to provide people with the skills they need. In the finance department we do a lot of on-the-job training, and we also have our own training function. We also have initiatives such as secondments to enable people to gain skills in other areas of the finance department.”
He adds that at Hays there is a small team at group level, which he is part of, that comes together regularly to consider and look at finance transformation group wide. “They look at all the issues faced globally. If there is a major challenge that needs resolving in one country or region, it may also be a problem somewhere else in the group, and the two can be resolved together,” he concludes.