My first time - Ian Hodson

01 December 2019

This article was featured in the December 2019 - January 2020 issue of the magazine. 

Ian Hodson MSc ChMCIPPdip, head of reward / deputy director of human resources, University of Lincoln, remembers his participation in a payroll software implementation project – recalling the suffering and the pleasure

Every good payroll manager has had two experiences they have survived. Firstly, that they have managed to retrieve the impossible and get out of the sticky situation of a BACS failure. Secondly, that they have been through a major system implementation and lived to tell the tale. I am fortunate – or unfortunate – to have been through both.

I remember the first time we undertook a major system implementation. But let’s not forget what had gone before just to get to this point: twelve months of meetings, moaning, business cases, costing proposals, tenders, presentations, contract negotiations etc. 

Nobody ever really wants to change the payroll system. It is one of the few times payroll actually gets respected by the senior leadership team who get nervous at the fact that the monthly cycle we live in leaves very little time for change. It is always quite ‘funny’ how at every other event payroll’s operation is sometimes dismissed as not that technical or difficult. 

The case on this occasion was simple but probably one of the most common that you see. The in-house payroll system had been developed over time to keep it just about compliant, but this was increasingly difficult as legislation became more and more complex. What was worse was that other systems in the business had moved on to being based on more modern operating systems, which meant that there were only a couple of individuals who still had the knowledge to support the payroll application. In itself this was a risk. 

The old system was also struggling to keep pace with the changing ways of delivering payroll. It was a long way from offering any employee self-service and it seemed paper payslips were becoming a dated way for people to access their information. The options were ultimately to keep tinkering with what we had, or to be bold and brave and face starting all over again but with the promise that it could set the team up for the foreseeable future. payroll system had been developed over time to keep it just about compliant...


The big aspect that you don’t always realise is that when you align yourself to a major new supplier you are actually buying in to a very different relationship. We would move from a system where change occurred only when you decided it was needed, to one where we received constantly information about a new release and mandatory patches that we had to take. You suddenly realise when looking at the impact the change will have on the team, that to get the most out of the system and deal with some of the terms that get thrown up including – server load balancing, sql coding and the formidable codeburst – you really need somebody by your side to offer interpretation skills.

One of my abiding memories is our very first meeting with the system. We had assembled a team of eight ‘super users’ from the department who we decided would go on an intensive training programme to get to know the ins and outs of an integrated human resources and payroll system and to be the experts. Although we all went into the training room with excitement and enthusiasm, I remember at the very first break everybody sitting in the coffee area in stony silence. It was like we had been hit with a whirlwind of change and the fun had left the room. 

The modern systems are beasts that offer to do everything from your sickness absence, to leave management, to appraisals, to case management, to international payroll, to equal pay audit…it goes on. It actually felt like receiving a full set of encyclopaedias for Christmas and after only an hour being expected to answer questions on any matter. Not going to happen. 

In hindsight what you learn is that all of this functionality is possible, but first you have to set it up. A little like before cooking a fine meal allowing for going to the shops to get some ingredients. 

We sat through day after day of training without it ever really getting easier and with the team having to reassure themselves that it would be ok. Suddenly the looming cloud of being able to set up the system, parallel run and get people paid seemed to be ominously hovering above our heads. 

As the training continued, back at the office we started to get the data ready for uploading. Who would have thought we had this much data? It was like clearing out the attic or moving home – the challenge as ever is what to leave behind. Your natural instinct is to try to take everything but then you realise that the chances are you don’t really need it and bringing all that past data with you is really complicated as it doesn’t map directly to the data fields in the new system. 


...the real skill was to be able to absorb the knowledge and recall the parts that you do need


We fundamentally decided that what we needed was a clean start and it would be a mistake to have our system build dictated by trying to squeeze in the format of the old one. We also realised how much time it would take that while wanting to focus on exploring the exciting functions of self-serve we could spend too much time on data manipulation. Our option in the end was to archive the old legacy system and to gradually turn it off as the data became no longer needed for enquiries.

As we carried on with our system build there seemed to be some enlightening moments when we suddenly realised that much of the super-user training that had made us feel so nervous was actually not needed, and the real skill was to be able to absorb the knowledge and recall the parts that we do need. A little like when you buy a car and they show you what lots of buttons do on the dashboard even though you won’t use the features on a daily basis. 

We started to build different modules with our rules in the background. On starting the process of testing, particularly the parallel running of payslips, everything feels a little more familiar – or whether there is a right or wrong answer, rather than not knowing if areas were set up correctly. 

It is surprising how quickly parallel running trains you for using the system. You soon stop having to think which menu an option is on and instead start clicking through the drop-down options and setting up your favourites like it is second nature. 

It is also often quite enlightening during parallel running when you realise it was actually the old system that was doing the calculations incorrectly or when you have to try to understand exactly how the system had been working to replicate it. The joy of hitting the recalculation button and the net pay matching always gives a sense of hope; there were a few ‘tricky’ employees where it took a little longer while we worked out how to get their pay to match. 

I am a big believer in trying to time an implementation with the commencement of the new tax year. Bringing over year to date totals and passing the baton mid tax year is never the best idea if it can be avoided – and a month-1 launch means that you start at a zero base. It also gives you a little more time to work on closing the tax year on the old familiar system when time is tight as you know there will also be a big commitment in time with setting up month-1 payroll on the new system.

That first month of processing on the new system is always a little bit of an energy rush. Lots of the team asking how to do things, lots of others shouting out their thoughts, and the occasional tears between the hysterical laughter. Being a manager in these situations is never easy. You are expected to be the positive messenger for everyone and calm down the operations to ‘business as normal’; however, inside you are feeling more nervous than the team as to how this is ever going to work out.

 I always remember the words of one of my earlier managers: “walk slowly and smile” – in other words, there is no panic and we are all having a good time. Sometimes easier said than done.

Implementations also seem to come in phases. No sooner do you start celebrating that the payroll data has all been uploaded and input then you move on to the next challenge of processing the first BACS, running the real time information returns and then, worst of all, the nominal ledger interface. 

The problem with setting up this interface is primarily that you are dependent on some other colleagues to actually know what they are looking for. 

It is only a giant journal of debits and credits that have to balance to zero, but because the way it’s set up depends on the finance system and internal operations it all takes a lot of time to agree a way forward. Our first nominal interface from the new payroll involved a number of uploading and reversal operations where transactions would not process or we had historic extra lines written to our old internal process which nobody seemed able to understand or change. The parallel running of the nominal ledger between the old and new systems and revisiting the setup of the pay elements to work out what was happening, was one of the most time-consuming tasks in the implementation process that we really underestimated. By the time we had got it right we were well in to the second month of processing and nominal two was run just a few days after nominal one.


...I wish we had taken more time to celebrate what we had achieved as it really is a monumental team effort...


The most important learnings from my first system implementation was about the knowledge building. Don’t be worried about all the information being thrown at you as you won’t need it all; instead, spread the knowledge out amongst many. 

One of the mistakes from implementation is to create a single point of failure that stops you from being self-sufficient. I also learnt that you need to have technical knowledge in the team and really transition the skills base of the team from data entry to optimisation roles in order to maximise the system. 

You also have to remember that often the reason you need to upgrade the system is that you haven’t done anything to optimise it so you’re off the pace and out of step. I always make sure that every time we have a new release we are looking at what has changed and which features are available to see how we could use it.

So, I lived to tell the tale of my first system implementation and of course the nature of payroll is that you get very little time to take stock and celebrate before you set off into ‘business as normal’. Looking back I wish we had taken more time to celebrate what we had achieved as it really is a monumental team effort to migrate to a new system. Of course, like all good reward professionals I now find myself actually looking forward to a new system launch as once you have learnt the process they are one of the most exciting pieces of work to get involved in – and experience goes a long way! n


Your first time 

Do you recall your first time – implementing a payroll system, that is? It’s a great and career formative experience, one which lingers long in the memory. 

The editor invites you to supply copy of up to 2,400 words providing an account of your first time so that readers will enjoy and relate to – and learn from – your experience. Please email [email protected] to confirm. 

Another example can be found online here at