Utility company Centrica, which owns British Gas, is implementing SAP's ERP Enhancement Package 5 through the company's Ramp-Up programme, in a move that will enable it to offer a more efficient, functional HR system.

Speaking to Techworld at the SAP User Group conference in Birmingham earlier this week, Centrica's senior project manager Grant Smith explained that the company decided to introduce SAP's ESS/MSS service after EhP5 made it possible to implement the software using the ABAP programming language, whereas previous iterations of ESS had been Java-based.

"We've not got any Java programmers within our corporate centre, but what we have got is a lot of ABAP programmers because we've got SAP, so that was a logical reason to migrate towards that language as well," said Smith.

Centrica has previously used a software solution from Aon Hewitt called MyHR. Smith said that the company considered implementing ESS/MSS when it was first looking for an HR solution four years ago, but the product was not mature enough for the company's needs at that point.

Moreover, Centrica had already outsourced its HR services operation to Aon Hewitt and, as part of that outsourcing deal, had gained access to Aon's self service solution. "MyHR allowed us to get off of manual paper-based forms and onto electronic processing of HR activities, so we were quite ahead of the curve," said Smith.

However, Centrica now has a strategic partnership with SAP, meaning that it always considers SAP solutions first. Smith heard about the improvements in EhP5 at last year's SAP User Group conference, but was dismayed to discover that the package would not be released until July 2011 - too late for his HR project, which was due to start in May-June.

It was for this reason that Smith decided to join SAP Ramp-Up, which allowed Centrica to get EhP5 in December 2010. Ramp-Up is an early adopter programme which allows certain customers to expedite the implementation of solutions that are not yet generally available.

"My main challenge was convince my senior management team that it wasn't beta software," said Smith. "In the end it rested on the enhanced level of support we would get from SAP. We got a Ramp-Up coach assigned to us and we got access to the Ramp-Up knowledge base.

"The fact is that SAP really wants us to succeed," he added. "They don't want their first customers going out and having problems and failing. They want people they can reference, people they can send out to show others what they've done. They're a lot closer to us than they would be to a general release customer."

Smith admitted that it was a steep learning curve, but said that as long as all testing is carried out rigorously, installing software via the Ramp-Up programme is no riskier than going on general release. Any problems are fed back to SAP, and SAP is usually very quick to turn around a fix.

As well as being written in a standard SAP programming language, EhP5 brought a number of other improvements to ESS/MSS, such as an improvement in the user interface and increased functionality provided through the toolset. SAP is also much more customisable that the MyHR solution from Aon Hewitt, and Centrica can benefit from regularly released enhancement products.

"We've got a product that's evolving. So to get on this rollercoaster of new release is keeping us much nearer the leading edge of technology, where we want to be," said Smith.

The company is now looking at introducing other products via the Ramp-Up programme, including the next version of SAP's middleware platform NetWeaver. Smith is also keen to start implementing SAP's mobile applications, and is hoping to "slip some of the mobile stuff in the back end of the ESS/MSS project".

"The message I'd give out is don't be afraid of Ramp-Up," said Smith. "Be aware there will be some things that will take longer, and you'll need to plan for that. But as a project manager I don't mind if I hit a few problems that will take me a few weeks sort out, when I'm getting that project six months earlier than I would have been able to if I'd waited for general release. It's all relative when you look at it."