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Savings from a well-managed upgrade funds new IT projects for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.


by Tara Swords, August 2014

The gaming industry, like most sectors in the entertainment market, is driven by discretionary income. When the economy thrives, the entertainment industry generally shares its success; when times are lean, casinos tend to suffer as a result of the economic strain. But Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, North Carolina, broke the mold during the economic downturn that began in 2008. James Caldwell, director of information technology and risk control at Harrah’s Cherokee, believes the casino’s location at the foot of the Smoky Mountains—near major metropolitan areas in Georgia and North Carolina—offers some unique economic shelters that other gaming regions lack.

“We enjoy the dual benefit of being a resort destination, as well as a convenient day trip market for customers within driving distance,” Caldwell says. “We’re the perfect place to get away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life.”

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

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The company’s loyal customer base kept the resort going strong during the downturn. So when the economy started to recover and business volumes increased, the company’s leaders—backed by the tribal leadership of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which owns Harrah’s Cherokee—decided to prep for the future.

Preparing for the future meant, in part, a US$650 million expansion to the casino resort with more game tables and dealers. It also meant an upgrade to Oracle’s JD Edwards EnterpriseOne 9.1—the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system running business operations for the company. Accomplishing the upgrade would help maintain existing levels of support while management shifted focus toward business expansion. And Harrah’s Cherokee employees would gain access to new features to help them in their daily jobs.

To drive the upgrade forward, Caldwell and his team enlisted the help of Oracle Specialized Platinum Partner CSS International and built a program to complete the upgrade in just 100 days. This proved to be a winning combination: the upgrade came in on time and under budget, allowing management to spend the savings to extend the system’s functionality. The upgrade paid out dividends in the form of a new project to streamline HR processes and automate time-consuming, error-prone tasks.

A Strong Hand

Large software projects can be complex—and run the risk of going over budget. Every missed deadline threatens a system’s overall return on investment. Poor project planning is often the culprit. But Caldwell was determined to avoid this fate by accurately defining the scope of the project upfront, pulling together all project team leaders early on, and surveying key users to get a clear understanding of the business impact and opportunities. Caldwell made sure to secure critical executive support prior to moving the project forward.

This type of planning wasn’t just a nice-to-have; it was essential in a business such as Harrah’s Cherokee, which serves customers 24/7 and cannot tolerate outages.

“Anything done without the proper planning could have had substantial impacts on approximately 2,700 employees and up to 5,000 guests on property at any given time,” Caldwell says. “As an enterprise, the casino never sleeps, has sick days or holidays, or takes time off. With more than 20,000 different visitors over the course of a single day, the mere thought of an issue that adversely impacts the business or an outage can keep you up at night.”

The planning paid off—literally. Early on, it became clear that the upgrade would finish nearly 15 percent under budget, which is a rarity in large-scale IT projects. Coming in so far under budget meant the decision-makers at Harrah’s could get a little creative with their remaining dollars and expand the project scope. What else needed fixing? What additional changes would help take their upgrade to the next level? That’s when they chose a project that would bring about dramatic changes in process efficiency and lay the groundwork for smoother facility expansion in the future.

Room to Play

Managing a casino is a complicated business. It’s not just about serving drinks and keeping the game tables active; in world-class facilities, it means managing a hotel, restaurants, nightclub, spas, security, customer database, and banking operations. Every one of those areas has its own set of complexities, not to mention the armies of employees it takes behind the scenes to handle all of those areas plus office functions, IT, housekeeping, and landscaping.

The casino never sleeps, has sick days or holidays, or takes time off. With more than 20,000 different visitors over the course of a single day, the mere thought of an issue that adversely impacts the business or an outage can keep you up at night.
James Caldwell,
Director of Information Technology and Risk Control, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

At Harrah’s Cherokee, the employees are what keep the business humming along at a profitable pace—but the processes related to hiring and managing those employees were slowing down business and threatening to take too much time away from the core mission: the customer experience.

The existing JD Edwards system already included modules for HR and payroll, but those systems relied on manual rekeying of data by HR employees. When employees entered in data, they sometimes introduced errors or failed to include critical information, creating unnecessary delays or even causing certain processes to grind to a halt.

For example, if an employee record has incorrect data, that employee won’t get paid on time. Because Harrah’s Cherokee is in the service industry, it tends to have higher employee turnover—and that steady influx of new employees who need onboarding means constant opportunities to manually key in new data incorrectly. If the Harrah’s IT team could make the system easier to use, they would minimize the amount of errors that creep into the system.

In addition, employee management tasks were often spread across multiple HR employees: For example, one person would key in data related to new hires, and another would key in data related to job changes. Additionally, training employees to use the computers was time-consuming and challenging because the interfaces employees used weren’t always user-friendly.

Caldwell knew that HR needed a way to improve the quality and efficiency of the onboarding process. Getting it right would have an immediate and direct impact on customer service. “We don’t want to invest all the money and time in hiring new employees and getting them ready to engage our guests, only to lose them within a month or two,” Caldwell says. “Any tool we can implement that helps create efficiencies or labor savings provides us more time to focus on the guest experience—and to get new employees properly trained and focused on the guest experience.”

Caldwell and his team saw an opportunity to fix that problem with an add-on to the JD Edwards system: the Pages feature of JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Tools. Pages puts a friendly interface on employee self-service applications by giving IT centralized control of users’ work screens and letting them customize what employees see. For example, the steps of a particular process can be assembled in a visual process flow, not just as a listing of menu options on the screen. By employing the graphical capability of Pages, IT can build menus in a way that gives users a visual overview of an entire process and shows their progress as they travel through it. Arrows and graphics can represent different steps—a truck icon to symbolize a shipping transaction or a dollar sign to symbolize a cash transaction—making processes more intuitive.

Pages also automates previously manual processes, such as a request for personal time off. Now, employees simply log in to their self-service portal and submit requests online. Managers approve them online, too, making the process faster, simpler, and less prone to human error. Performance reviews are also managed through Pages. Benefits manuals and how-to guides are viewable through Pages. In fact, employees now can navigate so many tasks on Pages that help calls to HR have decreased significantly as a result.

“Before, people were calling HR with all of their questions, and we had limited resources,” Caldwell says. “You’d be put in a phone queue, put on hold, or get someone who perhaps wasn’t familiar with that particular facet of HR. Now, everything is consolidated, current, and accessible via self-service.”

During this project, Harrah’s Cherokee was hiring approximately 800 table games dealers, so these easier processes have helped the company hire people faster and with fewer hiccups than before.

“Pages helps us efficiently manage hiring processes and get people in to meet demand,” Caldwell says. “We had to find people, onboard them, train them—it was a massive upload of employees, and it would have been very challenging without Pages.”

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort Stats


2,700
Number of employees at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

15
Percentage by which the software upgrade came in under budget

5,000
Number of guests on the property at any given time

20,000
Number of visitors at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort every day

In addition, CSS created a custom workbench that imposes business rules on 20 critical processes. Now, if data is missing, the system catches the error before it causes a problem. The user in charge of that role receives an alert about the problem and the opportunity to fix it.

“Harrah’s Cherokee was thrilled with this functionality because it’s extraordinarily useful,” says Keith Jones, director at CSS International. “On the very first day, these alerts saved some payroll processes that would not have run properly.”

Change Management Made Easy

Although Pages would ultimately make life much easier for staff at Harrah’s Cherokee, it was a change—and employees often resist change. So Caldwell and his team took employees’ point of view to anticipate concerns and worked with users to minimize resistance.

“We have employees who have been here for many years, and such a dramatic change is a tough pill for them to swallow,” Caldwell says. “We went to the front lines with them every step of the way. Once we showed them we were there to support them and train them, we got their buy-in. They saw the improvements right away and got excited and wanted to know, ‘What else can I do with this new system?’ It was a really neat process.”

Caldwell and his team didn’t just serve up a new system that users had to accept; they sought users’ input on changes to things such as menu design and interface layout. As a result, Caldwell says, users became invested in the project and helped make it a success.

HR employees, in particular, now have more time to bring value to the company. They can spend more time finding the most-desirable qualified applicants instead of spending all day keying in data.

“Most people wouldn’t ever even consider going back to the way we used to do business,” Caldwell says.

Prepared for Expansion

Midway through the project, Harrah’s Cherokee finalized plans to open a second location in Murphy, North Carolina, about 65 miles from the original location. Caldwell and his team will be managing IT for the Murphy casino out of their existing data center in Cherokee, and the JD Edwards system has created a foundation for smooth expansion. HR will be able to focus on recruiting high-quality candidates, not keying in data. Pages will help the company limit the number of HR employees they need onsite at the new location. And they’ll be able to train new employees and get them up to speed quickly, so every new employee at the new location can focus on delivering a great customer experience from Day One.

“I’ve really realized the benefits of having one centralized ERP system,” Caldwell says. “These changes will provide us the flexibility and scalability to successfully manage another facility from where we already are.”

Tara Swords is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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Snapshot
Snapshot James Caldwell
  • Director of Information Technology and Risk Control
  • Length of tenure: 18 years
  • Education: BS/BA in accounting and corporate finance, Western Carolina University; Project Management Professional, Project Management Institute
  • Personal quote/mantra: “There’s a difference between standing up and telling people what you’re planning to do and standing up and going and accomplishing something.” —Paul Stanley
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