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Opinion: Leading an ERP Project to Success in K-12 or Higher Ed

ERP implementations can be among the most consequential and difficult projects on an IT office’s to-do list, and success depends upon the right leadership, partnerships, clear requirements and commitment.

The words "enterprise resource planning" in red surrounded by a circle containing many words in gray like "goal," teamwork," "business," "team," "vision," etc.
Modernization of systems is a constant state in the IT world of education, both in K-12 and higher ed. Changing business needs, demand for enhanced services, aging legacy systems and new advances in technology platforms have elevated the importance of these projects in recent years.

After leading a major ERP project in higher education, I have valuable experience and advice to share on the subject. Everyone knows ERP projects are complex, often face time constraints and compete with day-to-day work. They also require extensive commitment, a well-planned change-management strategy and the right partnerships. But it is most important to remember that ERP projects are business transformation initiatives, not merely technology projects.


For education leaders, ERP projects can streamline administrative processes, enhance data management and accessibility, improve collaboration and communication, support strategic planning, enhance the student experience, help reduce costs and optimize resources. For CIOs, these projects aim to modernize and transform administrative systems; ensure system stability; leverage modern technologies; improve data management, accessibility, security and compliance; and build scalable, integrated, interoperable and adaptable infrastructure. Both leaders share clear objectives that cannot be realized without their collaboration and partnership.


Firsthand knowledge tells me that successful ERP projects in education require a few key elements: effective leadership, strong partnerships, well-defined requirements and unwavering commitment.

  • Leadership: Every ERP project needs an executive sponsor who provides leadership, support and strategic direction throughout the implementation process. This sponsor cannot be merely a figurehead but must actively align the project with institutional goals, make critical decisions, resolve conflicts and communicate the priorities. The executive sponsor must champion the project, emphasize its significance within the organization, ensure its progress and overall direction, and possess the authority to ensure necessary partners and resources are brought to bear.

  • Partnerships: Successful ERP projects require engaged partners, including members of the leadership team such as the president, chancellor, provost, CIO, CFO, CHRO and functional area leaders. In K-12 school districts, this includes the superintendent, deputies and functional area leaders. Faculty, staff and even students must be involved on some level, especially since they have a lot to offer in defining functions, workflows and testing. ERP partnerships also extend to the vendor community, which brings valuable knowledge on system configuration and implementation but often lacks the internal expertise on specific education-related functions, processes and workflows. Clearly defining policies, strategic objectives and desired outcomes is crucial for effective collaboration with vendors.

  • Requirements: Comprehensive and accurate requirements are paramount. Many ERP projects fail due to poorly defined or developed requirements lacking the involvement of the right partners and subject-matter experts. Requirements should not only describe the current state of the system but also envision the desired future state, focusing on function rather than just the use of technologies like cloud or mobile. Developing requirements is an art that demands the right attention and care. Industry partners will struggle to understand the project’s needs unless its leaders present comprehensive requirements from the outset. Neglecting proper requirements leads to extensive costs and budget overruns, including needs for additional time, reconfiguration, custom development and testing, not to mention the potential for reputational damage, strained relationships and project failure.

  • Commitment: Often overlooked, commitment is essential for success. It is assumed that leaders and partners are committed, but commitment is also crucial at the team level. Internal partners must commit resources for activities such as gathering requirements, verifying configurations, cleansing data, defining user roles, security system tests, integration testing, and training. Industry partners must also commit to fulfilling the spirit of the requirements, providing appropriate resources, setting accurate expectations, being transparent and serving as trusted advisers throughout the project.

Implementing an ERP system in an educational institution is a complex undertaking that requires more than just technical expertise. By fostering partnerships within the institution, education leaders can overcome the challenges associated with scoping ERP projects and pave the way for successful outcomes.
Brian Cohen is the Vice President of the Center for Digital Government and Center Digital Education. Prior to joining the Center, Brian served for 30 years in IT leadership roles with the City of New York and most recently with the City University of New York (CUNY).