Workday Podcast: Driving the University of Pennsylvania’s Big Transformation

Moving to Workday’s modern cloud-based solutions empowered the University of Pennsylvania to be more strategic and support its mission of academics and research. We talked with UPenn’s Chris Blickley to learn how the university enacted large-scale change for its 30,000 employees.

Audio also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

A successful digital transformation is often just as much a people transformation. After all, the best technology in the world won't power lasting, positive change if people don't want to use it.

“Change management is huge and one of the things we've been successful at UPenn during our implementation,” says Chris Blickley, the director of Workday operations at the University of Pennsylvania. “It wasn't an afterthought. We integrated change management in everything we did.”

In this episode of the Workday Podcast, Blickley also discusses how UPenn didn’t just leapfrog an entire generation of tech to embrace the cloud—it also empowered its people to adopt new tech processes and culture.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation with Blickley, edited for clarity. Be sure to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts, and remember you can find our entire podcast catalog here.  

  • “Instead of building a solution, we kept saying ‘Wait, wait, wait. Workday is coming up with that solution soon.’ Once it came out—it was maybe two weeks—we had that functionality up and running. If we had to build that solution from scratch, it would’ve taken months, and a lot of resources. The fact that we can leverage what Workday is doing, and implement and roll it out very rapidly, is a win for everybody.”

  • “I'm not exaggerating when I say every design meeting or functional meeting where we needed to make a decision, those guiding principles were put on the screen. And we made sure everyone was reminded of our mission, and how we were going to make the decisions.”

  • “We knew we were not going to make the system work the way UPenn has worked for the last 20, 50, or 100 years. We were going to have to change the way we do our business and our processes to meet the best practices that Workday implemented. It was important to say that constantly up front. That it is configurable, not customizable, and we have to change.”

Mary Hayes Weier: A successful digital transformation is often just as much a people transformation. After all, the best technology in the world won't power lasting, positive change if people don't buy into using it. This is Mary Hayes Weier, where with Workday, my guest today is Chris Blickley, the director of Workday operations at the University of Pennsylvania. He's going to talk about how his university not only leapfrogged an entire generation of tech to embrace the cloud, but also empowered its people to adopt new tech processes and culture. Chris, thanks for joining me.

Chris Blickley: Thank you for having me.

Hayes Weier: Can you tell us about UPenn and the customers you serve?

Blickley: Absolutely. University of Pennsylvania is the largest private employer in the city of Philadelphia. We like to claim that. I think the city of Philadelphia itself is the only larger employer than us. We're fairly large. We have about 30,000 employees; 18,000 of them are faculty and staff, regular full-time employees. And then if you add our health system, which is really a separate entity, we're close to about 60,000 employees. Just to give you a little bit of background on our size, we have around a $12 to $13 billion operating budget, and we do about $7 billion in payroll. And obviously that is through Workday, which is wonderful. And then something the university is really proud of is that we are one of the largest recipients of National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. We receive about $1.1 billion in sponsored research, which is a core mission of the university in addition to academics. And research is right there with academics.

Hayes Weier: Wow. So really a core of the community there. Fantastic. Well, how do you see the role of your group impacting UPenn overall?

Blickley: I think the role of the university is academics and research. And I think our role supporting Workday is to ensure that the people that are doing academics and research can focus on that, and that the administrative processes are easy. They're simple to use, that those processes work so they can focus on their core mission. And I think that's what I like to try to tell our team is we're here to be in the background and make these things work, so that the mission of the university can be accomplished. 

Hayes Weier: Absolutely. Can you share with us what challenges you experienced before Workday? 

Blickley: Yes, so we were on a legacy mainframe system that was put in, I want to say, in the late 70s or probably early 80s. Yes, quite a challenge. We added a lot of things onto that. We had a web front end to make it simple to use. But when I started at Penn 25 years ago, everyone was working on the old green screen technology and typing things in. As you mentioned at the beginning, we've leapfrogged the whole generation of tech. We didn't move to the big PeopleSoft and Oracle solutions for on premises major implementations. We did not do that. The challenge for us when using an old system like this was with being in compliance. We spent a lot of time making sure that we were in compliance with tax laws and with human resources, policies, and federal guidelines. And we really couldn't take our university to the next step of being more strategic and visionary with our systems to support us because we were spending so much time on just keeping things running and keeping the system plugged in, for lack of a better word, but just meeting our obligations. And that's obviously why we went to Workday. Not only do we need to get rid of the old technology and move forward, but we really need something that would help us be more strategic and visionary in the process.

Hayes Weier: Right. Your story is very familiar. I know a lot in the education community have had similar challenges.

Blickley: Absolutely. And a lot of piecemealed systems: one system to do payroll, the core system, and then we had a system added on for timesheets. We had a system added on for time off requests, systems added on for benefits, which was actually outsourced. And nothing was connected. Nothing was talking to each other, at least not how Workday would do it, for example.

Hayes Weier: Well, looking back on the deployment, if you could pick the top three elements that contributed most to your successful deployment, what would you say that would be?

Blickley: I would start with saying that, with our implementation, one of the key things that we always talked about (and this came from our CIO) was that this is not a technology project. This is a business transformation, human capital management transformation project, that happens to be technology with it. But if we looked at it that way, and we talked about that we're actually going to transform business processes and think differently about the way we do things. that will make this successful. So that was one. I think the other thing was we had a strong set of guiding principles that we relied on constantly. And I have a couple of them. I would like to point out that we want to be “One Penn,” one University of Pennsylvania. We don't want 12 schools and lots of administrative centers, thinking, “I do it this way. So the system has to do it that way.” No, we're one company, we're one university, we have to get to a place where everyone's doing something the same way. Something that was also very important with implementing Workday is “adopt don't adapt.” We're adopting Workday. We're not going to change Workday. We can't customize it. We have to adapt our business processes and we have to change. Adopt Workday and change the way we're doing things to be successful. And my favorite one is “keep it simple.” We have to keep it simple.

Hayes Weier: Absolutely. That's great advice. Now that you've been operating successfully for a few years, and there is an uptake in additional functionality, what are you relying on to continue the momentum there at UPenn?

Blickley: I would say the first thing is that we try to adopt the philosophy of continuous improvement, which is easy with Workday, because Workday is constantly evolving and constantly improving. And we like to take that into our team. For every weekly release, and the two times a year release, we really look at every single thing and think about how can this help us. Should we implement it? Then let's implement it before the next release. But let's constantly be evolving with Workday as you're evolving. That's one. And I think the other thing is really trying to focus on--and we're not here yet--but moving from the transactional to the strategic and value-added services that we can add with Workday. So getting people paid, making sure they're in their benefits, making sure they're onboarded and hired. Those are the transactional things. But we really want to motivate the team to start moving to the strategic and the visionary things that Workday can offer us: talent management, people analytics, and all those great things that you're doing.

Hayes Weier: That sounds amazing. How exciting. What a future. How do you successfully manage change to get people to adopt and use Workday?

Blickley: Change management is huge. And one of the things I think we've been successful at Penn during our implementation. Change management was part of everything. It wasn't an afterthought. We integrated change management in everything we did. We had a large change agent network that was involved in communicating. But moving into post implementation, one of the things that I thought was really important is we've integrated the change management team in the operations team. When we're having an operational meeting and talking about a feature, our communications people are sitting there with us, our trainer is sitting there with us, and hearing what we're doing, and immediately thinking about how that is going to impact our change management plan and what we need to do to make sure that's getting out there. And we do the typical things. We do newsletters, we have a website. But I think the most important thing is it's fully integrated. It's not an afterthought.

Hayes Weier: Well, tell us about how you empower individual users, engage and get buy-in from leadership, and build the right project team?

Blickley: The most important things are honesty, transparency, and trust. Our team in IT, which is the Workday operations team, built relationships not only with the people we support, but also with our leadership. They trust us. We're honest with them. We're transparent. We tell them when things are going well. We tell them when things are not going so well. And we've built an honest environment where we can really just focus on what needs to get done and solve the problems, celebrate the successes, and move forward to the next step. And I'm a big proponent of that, whether that's with leadership or within our team. Honesty and transparency are key.

Hayes Weier: Did you have to put a support model in place in order to make this magic happen?

Blickley: Yes. Support was something that didn't really exist formally, prior to Workday. You would reach out to who you knew in human resources, or you would reach out to who you knew in payroll, and call a customer service line. One of the things that we did with Workday was we built a full integrated support model. We built a call center and hired people to staff that, where they can respond to tickets, answer phones, and answer emails. We built that so that it also is tier two with the people they used to call. And then it also has a tier three, which is really the Workday experts where we can dig in and figure out what's going on. Building my team was a combination, and I think this is really important, of subject matter experts in the area, as well as people that understand the technology and can marry that together. If we have someone that's doing benefits on our team, they really understand benefits, and they really understand Workday. And they can bring that together to help us move forward.

Hayes Weier: Training is always so critical to an effective deployment. How did you tackle that at UPenn?

Blickley: For implementation, the training was a huge effort. We had a lot of people that needed to be trained in a short period of time. We used our internal training team. We supplemented that with additional people to conduct the training. And our consultants were able to really help us and get in front of these people to train them. We trained, I want to say, hundreds and hundreds of people in that short period of time. It was all in person. It was hands-on to some extent. But we really wanted to make sure that everyone had what they needed for day one. 

Were we successful? Partially. People, they understood the training, but you still need additional training. We did a couple of things after implementation that we thought was very helpful. One, we moved all of our training online. After you do your training, though, you have to meet with one of the trainers, and be hands on and have a conversation to make sure that our trainer can confirm that you know what you're doing before you get into the system. And then we also do lots of office hours. If you're having an issue or you don't understand something, maybe you're referred from the Solution Center, which is our tier one call center. You can get with a trainer, you can sit down, you can have a conversation, and she can help you one on one. 

Hayes Weier: Can we talk about the user experience with Workday for a moment? Going from a mainframe system to Workday, a modern solution, must have been quite a shock for the folks here at UPenn?

Blickley: I think it was and we did have a web front end. It's not like people weren't accustomed to using the web for things. But the biggest change was we moved from a system that was about putting data into the system and just making it happen to an effective data transactional system with layers of approvals and processes that are more appropriate. And I think that was the biggest challenge for people. Understanding that if you put in a compensation change for a person, it needs to go to an HR person for approval and it has to go to a finance person for approval. It doesn't just happen. That was probably the biggest challenge for people. And I think again, leapfrogging from a mainframe system all the way up to a modern cloud-based solution like Workday was challenging, but it's the place we needed to be. It's what we needed to do.

Hayes Weier: And is this the first time that employees have had human resources access from a mobile application?

Blickley: I would say yes and no. People had access to some applications on their phone. We had some mobile friendly things like time reporting, maybe putting in PTO. But the ability to really have access to all of the information in one application on your phone was completely different from Workday. And our previous technology was mobile friendly, if you wanted to use a website. But actually getting into a mobile app, installing it on your phone, and having everything that you need to do right there. That's a brand-new experience for us. And mobile is still being adopted. A lot of people still use it from their desktop. I think it's mostly used for people putting in a PTO request or someone that is not in front of a computer all day and has to submit their timesheet. We hope to continue to roll out the mobile experience for more people.

Hayes Weier: What is UPenn's approach to initiating and implementing large scale projects? Can you talk a bit about that?

Blickley: I can talk about implementing Workday, from my perspective, which was my large-scale project. But I think the things that we did are appropriate for any large-scale project. I talked about some of our guiding principles earlier in our discussion. And establishing those guiding principles upfront before you do anything is critical. And making sure that everyone understands them. I'm not exaggerating, when I say every design meeting or functional meeting where we needed to make a decision, those guiding principles were put on the screen. And we made sure everyone was reminded of our mission, and how we were going to make the decisions. Clear definitions of responsibilities are also critical. You can't be in a room trying to make very important decisions about functionality and how you're going to move forward, if it's not clear what everyone's responsibility is. Who's the decision maker? Who's the influencer? How do you escalate decisions if you can't make one? I think that's critically important. I think this is probably the most important one--change management is not an afterthought. Change Management needs to be part of what you're doing when you're making a decision. Think about how this is going to impact change. How are we going to communicate this? How are we going to get the university to evolve based on this decision that we've just made?

Hayes Weier: Culture is such an important element of this. Were there any particular approaches to culture, in bringing your culture into this new experience?

Blickley: I think from a cultural perspective, recognizing that higher education is a little bit different. We have different types of people that work in higher education. We have staff that are keeping the university running. We have faculty whose primary mission is doing their research, teaching their classes. We have to make sure that we're not interrupting that flow. When we think about even managerial self-service or something that needs to go for an approval to a manager, we need to be respectful of getting that approval in Workday for a person who is primarily focused on teaching their class or doing their research. We have to make sure that we respect that culture. It might be a priority for us and the administration to make sure we're getting that approval, but maybe not a priority for them. We have to meet in the middle. And we have to build solutions that are going to allow us to make everyone happy.

Hayes Weier: You previously mentioned that you didn't want to do things the old way, but rather adjust your process to do things the Workday way. Can you expand on that?

Blickley: So Workday talks about how the solution is configurable, not customizable. Even before we selected Workday, we knew that we were going to be 100% in the cloud. That was part of one of our principles. We were going to select a solution where nothing is going to run on site. So that comes along with that it's configurable, not customizable. We had to buy into that immediately because we knew we were not going to be able to make the system work the way UPenn has worked for the last 20, 50, 100 years. We were going to have to change the way we do our business and our processes to meet the best practices that Workday implemented. And I think that was really important to say that constantly up front. That it is configurable, not customizable, and we have to change.

Hayes Weier: Do you appreciate moving away from customization to be able to configure it?

Blickley: I appreciate it, but there will be people that say they don't appreciate that. And that's perfectly fine. But it allows us to focus on continuous improvement. We're not spending months building a custom solution and coding from scratch. We're implementing what Workday has designed as a best practice for all their customers. And we can do it quickly and rapidly and roll things out. 

Workday released flexible work arrangements as a feature that came out earlier in the year. We were waiting for that. We wanted to implement that because we were returning to work. We were thinking how do we track this hybrid work environment, people being remote? Are you two days in? Are you three days at home? Whatever the situation may be. Instead of building a solution, we kept saying the wait, wait, wait, Workday is coming with that. And it's coming fairly soon. Once it came out, it was maybe two weeks and we have that functionality up and running. If we had to build that from scratch, it would have taken months, and it would have taken a lot of resources. The fact that we can leverage what Workday is doing and implement and roll it out very rapidly, I think is a win for everybody.

Hayes Weier: That it's fantastic to hear. There's so much change in the world right now with these new hybrid work models and the impact the pandemic had on so many organizations. I'm really glad that you're finding that new function. 

Data always seems to be a big risk and challenge as well. What issues did you have with getting the right data in a timely manner before Workday? And how has that access to quality data changed and helped you make better decisions?

Blickley: I'll start with our implementation. Converting data from a mainframe flat data model to something that is more transactional and effective data was a big challenge. We had to figure out how to fit everything into Workday. And some of the data that we were converting was decades old. If someone was hired in the early 1980s, their record was still sitting in our old mainframe system. And we had to figure out how to make that work in Workday. We did a lot, it wasn't perfect. Do you talk about bad data in bad data out? We still have that to some extent, because we brought some bad data in during the conversion. No fault of our own, it wasn't necessarily clean in the old environment. We're still dealing with that. But we're trying to now use Workday to focus on getting the data better. 

Clearly, Workday allows us to get better data through the business processes: lots of validations, condition roles, things that we can build to ensure that it's coming in the right way. But we still have some issues. We’re a very decentralized environment. Taking advantage of what Workday provides us with, if we see something is happening incorrectly, we try to help a user with that to get the data correct. But we also then look at how we can improve that business process to prevent that from happening in the future? If somebody puts something in that doesn't really work the way we want it to? How can we go back and revise that business process to stop that from happening in the future?

Hayes Weier: So we talk a lot about digital transformation. Where do you see that playing in terms of driving the impact and mission of the University of Pennsylvania?

Blickley: I think the most important thing is to remember that technology is not the mission. The technology supports the mission. And like I talked about earlier about our Workday implementation not being a technology project, we focus on how the technology can support our mission of academics and research, which seems far away from the world of administrative processes. But we remember that we're here to support the mission. The technology is not at the forefront. It should be in the background and supporting what we're doing. That's what I like to keep in mind and I think that's what keeps us successful.

Hayes Weier: We've been talking about higher ed transformation with Chris Blickley from the University of Pennsylvania. Be sure to follow us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And remember, you can find our entire podcast catalog at I'm your host, Mary Hayes Weir. We're and I hope you have a great day. And Chris, thank you so much for joining us today.

Blickley: Thank you for having me.

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