January 28, 2008 By Merrill Douglas
An enterprise usually runs more smoothly when its software applications can "talk" to one another. Many Texas schools are opting to replace separate software packages with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and some are building modules from scratch. As they do, they're finding that the toughest aspect of this work isn't the technology. The big challenge lies in reshaping the business processes behind the software and managing the change that ensues.
"A lot of schools fail to understand, at least at first, that it's a process-driven implementation. It's not really a software-driven implementation," said Brian Braden, manager of the Portico project at Angelo State University in San Angelo.
Angelo State launched Portico, a $6.5 million initiative, in 2003. The main goal was to implement the Banner ERP system from SunGard Higher Education in Malvern, Pa.
School officials chose Banner to replace a series of separate packages for managing student information, finance, human resources and other functions. Those packages worked well, but they didn't offer many of the features found in newer software, said Doug Fox, the school's associate vice president for information technology and CIO. They weren't accessible via the Web, they weren't available 24/7, and although the IT team had created interfaces, they didn't share data in real time.
School officials could have taken a best-of-breed approach, choosing Banner for its strong student information system but looking elsewhere for other modules. "A lot of folks would tell you that SAP is the best finance system. And it might be PeopleSoft is the best HR system. We just didn't want to have that many flavors to work with," Braden said.
One strong argument for choosing Banner was that the vendor already had a strong foothold in Texas. Members of the Texas Connection Consortium -- an association of 37 state universities, colleges and community college districts that all use Banner -- fund a team of programmers that creates Texas-specific modifications to the system. "We're going to have 30 of those coming out this year," Fox said.
Schools use many of those add-ons to create state-mandated reports. Another modification captures the data that a student enters in the Texas university system's online common application and imports it into Banner at the schools where the student wants to apply.
As the first four-year school to implement the finance and HR modules, Angelo State agreed to serve as a beta user for Banner. Although this brought the school a significant price break, implementing software that didn't have a solid track record also made for a risky project, Fox said. "So we put a lot of time and energy into communication and into project management."
Communication clearly was important. Among other schools that implemented Banner, some ran into trouble because they didn't keep end-users in the loop, Fox said. "The technology was working great, but the user community didn't think it was working at all."
To gain stakeholder input and support, the team at Angelo State recruited end-users into the project. For instance, Charles McCamant, head of the computer science department, served as faculty liaison. Chatting with colleagues over coffee and holding meetings with deans and department heads, McCamant learned how faculty used the old systems and how they wanted the new one to work. Those conversations also helped point out which anticipated process changes might cause problems for users.
In another successful strategy, the team piloted portions of the new software with students, department secretaries and other user groups. That let stakeholders get used to the system in small, digestible chunks, Braden said. "ASU decided early on that we were going to define success as being on time, under budget and within scope. But we also wanted to manage the change of the new way of doing business in such a way
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