Case study

Harrow Council finds power in ‘adopt, not adapt’ transformation

Harrow Council finds power in ‘adopt, not adapt’ transformation image


By becoming the first council to use Microsoft Dynamics 365 to run its finance systems in the cloud, Harrow Council is showing others how finance transformation and more can be done quickly and effectively. 


Client: Harrow Council
Our Role: We helped Harrow Council transform both their back and front offices using Microsoft technology
Industry: Local Government
Powered by: Microsoft


Local authorities exist in a world of competing concerns: budgets, security, serving residents, attracting and retaining good staff, and ensuring that investments today will build a solid foundation for tomorrow.

By becoming the first council using Microsoft Dynamics 365 to run its finance systems in the cloud, Harrow Council is showing others how this can be done quickly and effectively.

The original timeline to get the new system up and running was 12 months. Due to the disruptions of COVID-19, the project took slightly longer but still went live in only 18 months, a testament to the power of ‘adopt, not adapt’ thinking.

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Helping Harrow Council see beyond change

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Harrow is one of the 32 boroughs that make up London and, like all local authorities, Harrow Council must balance efficiency and budget concerns. So when SAP announced that it would be retiring the finance and procurement system the Council was using, Harrow needed a replacement for its 13-year-old legacy system. The on-premise setup had been customised to support the Council’s workflow and, as a result, it was complex and had not benefited from a great deal of innovation over the years. As part of its due diligence, the Council investigated several options for its replacement. The goal was a system that was modern and efficient and that enabled innovation.

Rather than building a bespoke implementation that would perpetuate entrenched ways of working, the Council sought to adopt a proven system and to change its ways of working and processes to fit the modern processes embedded in the technology. So the concept of ‘adopt, not adapt’ was a core philosophy for the project. To put this into practice, Harrow Council chose to partner with Microsoft and PwC to implement Microsoft Dynamics F&O, a first for any local authority in the UK. Getting the partnership right was a crucial step.

“We looked at moving to a new SAP solution but that’s really more than we need,” says Charlie Stewart, Corporate Director Resources at Harrow Council. “It’s a very robust, full-featured enterprise resource planning (ERP) software system that perfectly fits manufacturing. And that’s not us. We really only needed finance, HR, pay and procurement with good integration and future development.”

Charlie adds, “We chose the technology first with PwC, in partnership with Microsoft. PwC helped us evaluate the tech and confirm it was fit for purpose. You have to have trust in your partner and PwC was very customer-orientated; they pushed us and challenged us to really think about our choices – and that helped us to deliver better results. However, at the end of the day, you need to remember its your system, not the implementation partner’s.”

The goal for Harrow, says Charlie, was to develop a Microsoft Dynamics implementation that would fit the needs of local governments across the UK. Harrow’s implementation of Microsoft Dynamics finance and procurement system – went live in October 2021 despite the challenges of COVID-19.  HR and pay will go live in April 2022.  Charlie says "our experience provides valuable lessons for other councils and organisations."

‘Adopt, not adapt’ is the foundation of success

“PwC showed us it was time for us to ‘adopt, not adapt,’ and that really informed the whole project,” says Charlie. “It was the principle that was leading us in our decision making. You really do have to go back to this idea to really get the benefits of cloud based technology that will be continually updated and improved by the supplier.”

In the past, customisation was touted as a selling feature for business applications and tools. Now, as organisations are updating legacy systems and moving towards cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS), they’re realising there are good business reasons to evaluate and change their processes, ways of working and in some cases their operating models, instead of the applications.

For Harrow, widespread familiarity with Microsoft Office applications means the look and feel of the new tools are recognisable to staff. Even specialised modules, such as the finance app, integrate smoothly into the wider system and offer a great deal of functionality out of the box. That standardised functionality was important to Harrow Council because it didn’t want to grow dependent on a heavily customised solution that required extensive maintenance and wouldn’t mesh well with other apps, whether from Microsoft or third parties.

“If you customise a system, rather than adopting the standard version, you’ve increased the complexity of the implementation, you’ve complicated support and you’ve cut yourself off from all the updates, innovation and benefits that come from using SaaS” says Charlie. “If you adopt, rather than adapt, you’ll likely have an easier time and see more benefits.”

Using Microsoft Dynamics has modernised how Harrow works. Harrow, PwC and Microsoft looked first at building a foundation, says Lorna Ward, delivery partner for PwC on the project. 

“Adopting the standard and driving requirements from an outcome basis, rather than locking into legacy ways of working, makes such a difference. Full credit to the Council for committing to ‘adopt, not adapt’ – the team moved with such speed and agility as a result” says Lorna.

This meant getting core services – finance, procurement and HR – running in the cloud, which was a big element of the Council's overall journey to cloud. Furthermore, delivering more automated processes simplified day-to-day activity. By using well-integrated components, data now moves fluidly from one system to another, allowing greater levels of reporting and insights. These insights allow the Council to make better, more-informed decisions.

An approach that benefits employees and the organisation

One area that Harrow Council’s 10-person project team revised was how they went about procurement. Rather than having users write hundreds of detailed requirements that would invariably be based in legacy ways of working and require extensive system customisation, the team focused on high-level, outcome-based requirements.

“Instead of focusing on, ‘Can system X do all the things on this list in these very specific ways?’, the Council was able to ask a different question: ‘Is there any reason why Microsoft Dynamics 365 standard functionality can’t deliver the outcomes we need?’ Flipping the focus to put outcomes first is a game-changer,” says Lorna.

“Yes, we have had to change, but really not as much as many people expected when we set out on this project” says Charlie. “It has involved changing some processes – like removing spreadsheets from the workflow and having data go right into the system – and reviewing some policies. Sometimes the processes, the actual ways of working, are fine but the policies aren’t.”

No IT implementation is solely about technology – it’s mostly about people. Getting them to see the value, then engage and embrace technology – rather than resist it – can be the difference between success or failure. Agreeing a shared vision, running an effective communication plan and training also helped get staff into an ‘adopt, not adapt’ mindset.

Employees have now seen the benefits of the new system, and feedback has been positive. They have a familiar user interface, with support handled by Microsoft to ensure everything is up to date. And, with the introduction of automation for repetitive tasks, they are free to do higher-value work.

Moving forward with confidence

Harrow Council is on track to achieve the benefits of using a Microsoft platform from front office to back office: one source of truth, sharing data and insights, simplified technical architecture, cost savings and greater efficiencies. Furthermore, it has made ‘adopt, not adapt’ its default approach to all IT implementations.

The Council’s new approach has also helped it address the security threats that local authorities face. Many councils have been targets of ransomware, phishing and denial-of-service attacks. They are high-profile targets that hold sensitive information but, unlike high-profile targets in the private sector, councils usually have limited resources to respond to threats. This has been another advantage of the migration for the Council, because security in the cloud is supported by Microsoft, a company with the know-how and resources to tackle most threats.

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Steve Crook

Steve Crook

Consulting Leader, South East, PwC United Kingdom

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