Homegrown ERP Helps Texas Schools Meet Education Challenges

Texas schools create specialized ERP modules and sometimes entire systems to handle unique demands.

by / January 28, 2008 0

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.

The Texas Connection

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

that it wasn't a big shock to the campus."

Using the money it saved as a beta partner, the university offered incentive pay to teams that met certain established goals. "It gave people a pat on the back when they were working weekends and long hours," Fox said.

That kind of encouragement proved important. With its numerous demands and aggressive schedule, the project took a heavy toll. "People were worn out. People quit," Fox said. "We made it by the skin of our teeth."

But they did make it -- on time and under budget. Angelo State completed Portico, which included a new user portal as well as the Banner implementation, in December 2006.

Plano's Search
At about the same time Angelo State launched Portico, officials at the Plano Independent School District (ISD) began seeking an ERP system of their own. They started shopping, in part, because the vendor that had sold the district its student information and financial management systems no longer supported the software.

Also, Plano's management applications weren't integrated. Along with the student and finance packages, the district used custom-developed software to generate state-mandated reports and manage transportation. It had also purchased a health management system. "And then we fit them all together," said John Alawneh, executive director of technology operations for Plano ISD. "We had some jobs running every night that exchanged the information and synced up everybody in all the systems."

A diligent search turned up many single-purpose packages but no one solution that would do it all. "I have not seen any fully integrated system that supports the K-12 environment," Alawneh said. Apparently a district had two choices: It could take a best-of-breed approach and interface the components, or it could buy a general-purpose ERP solution and then pay SAP, Oracle or PeopleSoft to customize that product.

But officials at the Plano ISD decided on a third route. Since the original vendor had abandoned its student and finance packages, the district had been paying Prologic Technology Systems in Austin for software support. District officials decided to work with Prologic to create their own ERP for school districts from the ground up.

This solution actually cost less than it would have to buy and interface separate packages or buy a customized version of a leading ERP suite, Alawneh said. So far, Plano ISD has spent a little less than $4 million on the project. The money comes from a $286 million bond issue for district improvements that voters approved in 2004.

One reason the project didn't cost more was that it used open source software. "We didn't want to be tied and committed to any specific platform," Alawneh said. And school officials didn't want to spend millions of dollars a year on licensing fees. Plano's system uses Linux servers on the back end and browser-based thin clients on the front end.

However, because many of the 1,200 applications used throughout the district aren't browser based, Plano ISD won't be removing the licensed operating systems from all of its desktop computers anytime soon. "Until we migrate and sunset some of those applications, we would have to keep Microsoft XP running on some machines," Alawneh said.

Plano ISD and Prologic began developing the system in 2004. They got the HR module running in 2005, starting with a system for managing online job applications. The student information system also is complete. Now, the district is bringing up the financial modules, piloting time and attendance functions for transportation and planning a full transportation system.

The trickiest aspect of the implementation has been getting users to accept the new software, Alawneh said. To smooth the way, project leaders solicited ideas for the applications from school executives and managers, and they met with user focus groups during

the development.


Old Habits Die Hard
Still, the system has met some resistance. "The challenge comes when you introduce it to the users, who for many years used a green screen environment," Alawneh said. "They used the different workflow dictated by the older system. And now you need to move them into this Java-based, Web-based, graphic environment."

For example, to register a student in the old system, an employee simply entered data into a long, scrolling form. The new registration screen uses tabs and dropdown boxes and validates the data as it's entered. The process now takes longer, and some employees don't like that.

So school officials have taken pains to explain that the new process increases accuracy and makes life easier for co-workers and students. "Before, while they entered a lot of information and there were a lot of errors, it was quick for them," Alawneh said. "But it caused a lot of investigation somewhere else. Somebody has to chase after the correct information."

While working with Plano, Prologic has marketed the software, now called the Total Education Administrative Management Solution (TEAMS), to other districts. The Tyler and Arlington ISDs both chose the software to replace antiquated, "green screen" systems.

Tyler ISD already is using TEAMS to manage student information and hiring, and it will soon convert its payroll to the new software, said John Orbaugh, director of technology services for the district. "In the second semester of this year, we're going to start some pilots with the TEAMS grade book program," he said. "We're also starting to get ready for the purchasing module."

The Arlington district uses TEAMS for accepting and managing job applications online and is implementing the payroll piece, said Steven Harvey, assistant superintendent of technology. "We intend to continue through all of our finance departments," he added. District officials are still discussing whether to replace the existing student information system.

Like Alawneh, Orbaugh said it hasn't been easy getting users comfortable with the new system. "We haven't changed software in 16 or 17 years. People were very accustomed to doing things one way. And it was very upsetting to a lot of people's worlds." Along with a lot of handholding, one key to success has been training people on the new modules just before they're ready to go online, so they don't have time to forget the procedures, he said.

In Arlington, however, change came more easily. "We certainly have our moments where that's a little bit of a challenge, but I would say our staff has been, overall, very receptive to the change," said Harvey. "I think one of the reasons that's been true is that Prologic has really worked closely with the staff to make changes when things didn't seem quite right for the way Arlington did business." Staff appreciate that the vendor has modified the code to meet their needs, he said. "There are always growing pains as you switch to a new piece of software. But I think right now that's going very well."


Contributing Writer Merrill Douglas is based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer