With over 2,000 pubs across the country and a portfolio of brands including Pedigree, Banks’s Bitter and Hobgoblin, alongside its extensive trade and logistics operations, Marston's has grown to be the largest brewer of cask ales in the UK. Behind each pint is a back-end operation built on a complex SAP environment comprising production planning, sales, finance and warehouse stock control, all of which has to run like a well-oiled machine.
These days mandatory upgrades because of license and maintenance agreements are becoming a prominent feature of IT, but when they detract from mission critical operations they can be a hefty disruption to business. With a large, time-sensitive business like Marston's they can carry the risk of defects going live that can ultimately derail production, causing chaos and downtime. Previously, the only way to prevent this was rigorous manual testing that could take up to 14 months to execute.
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That’s why when the company faced a critical upgrade of SAS in 2012, the IT team knew an alternative had to be found.
‘For the past three years the team has been undergoing a shift in focus away from just the day operation of our tech architecture, to being more engaged with the business in every way we can,’ explains Mike McMinn, group IT director at Marston's. ‘Our ‘emerging technologies’ team was set up to get involved with digital marketing and innovative retail technologies. But when you do all this you have to make sure that the back end stuff which causes you so many headaches is running to an optimum level and reliably as it possibly can.’
The first step in finding a more streamlined testing solution was to understand how people were using the system by building a picture of its use across the business as a whole, in order to a build a test script – but for test manager Judy Dourst this promised to be a torturous exercise, involving the time-consuming deploying of analysts across Marston’s sites to capture screen shots and type up descriptions in Word.
She came across software from Original Software for recording SAP business processes, and saw that it could be a powerful way of automating the process of building a test library from scratch.
Unlike some other solutions, no specialist programmers were required. Having chosen 100 users to help capture the company’s day-to-day, period-end and year-end processes, Dourst then rolled out the software remotely to each PC overnight.
‘With a self-help online demonstration of how to use the software provided to the users, the software proved very easy for them to understand and use,’ says Dourst. ‘Out of 100 users I think I only had about six calls for help.’
Because the software allows users to customise how much of the process is recorded, as well as what is happening on screen and in the background, the result is a more detailed testing of SAP that allows the business to compare what was happening before the upgrade to what is happening afterwards.
The automation of these processes resulted in the major upgrade being completed in nine months – half the expected time – just before the crucial Christmas period. Other smaller upgrades were also completed at breakneck speed.
‘We had an upgrade of our warehouse management programme for our Mansfield distribution centre planned to be completed in March, and we only produced the blueprint for it in December,’ says McMinn, ‘So you can see the speed of development from that. We completed it by February, where before you’d need another six weeks or even two months of testing.’
Simplifying IT services has also released the IT team from getting bogged down in servicing core applications and into front-line consumer facing technologies.
‘We’re now starting to look at how we can extend the software’s reach beyond other applications, not just SAP,’ says McMinn. ‘Easily being able to build that complete picture means that when we are now engaged in business conversations we understand better how the company is using our systems and what processes they’re engaging in or preparing to engage in, so we’re ultimately better positioned to know what solutions we need to provide.’