Enterprise Resource Planning | Q&A

ERP Bridges Administrative Divisions at Alma College

Fed up with disjointed software applications and diminishing product support on a soon-to-be-obsolete ERP system, the IT and administrative teams at Alma College in Alma, MI, started looking for a better alternative. The year was 2008, and school offices had separate databases that could not "speak" to each other, resulting in work and record duplications, paper files, and inefficiencies.

Knowing that the goal of creating a single, interdependent system would only come from a campus-wide administrative software overhaul, the small liberal arts college went in search of new solution. Ann Hall, special assistant to the president and former chair of the administrative software system implementation committee, said the rollout took place over an 18-month period, completed this last summer. Here, she discusses the school's IT challenges and the implementation of the new system that has helped to bridge the college's administrative divisions.

Bridget McCrea: What IT challenges led you to invest in a campus-wide administrative software system?

Ann Hall: Three years ago we were on an old system that we'd been using for several years, but that was becoming obsolete in the sense that most other schools had moved on to more current systems.

We basically wound up with a product where support was diminishing or becoming cost-prohibitive. We also realized that it just wasn't efficient for our student records, financial aid, alumni, and business offices to be on different systems. They were inputting their own data and information into their respective systems, but when another office needed access to those files, sharing the information required a phone call and a printed report. It was a highly inefficient system because there was no way to share information seamlessly. We knew we had to do something differently.

McCrea: What initial steps were taken to solve these problems?

Hall: We realized that, if we were going to replace our old system that we, should take a more global approach and look at improving efficiencies campus-wide. That was the catalyst for the change. Initially, the school's IT services director, director of administration, controller, and registrar got together and started talking to their colleagues at other small, private institutions about what they were using.

On their agendas was a system that would integrate admissions, student records, course registration, employee records, business operations and alumni/donor databases into a single, campus-wide database. We also needed something that could handle our security issues, and the fact that not every user needed access to every single piece of information in the system. That was a critical point.

McCrea: What else went into the selection process?

Hall: We looked at the packages that the other schools were using, and two of them made sense for us. We invited those two vendors to come to Alma and pitch their products, and to give our administrative staff the opportunity to voice concerns and have their questions answered by the providers before we made a final decision. We really wanted something to would meet everyone's needs. After months of research and interviewing, we selected Datatel's ERP solution. We bought the package and then implemented a rapid-fire, 18-month rollout across our entire campus.

McCrea: Have you run into any unexpected challenges?

Hall: The biggest unexpected problem we ran into was the transfer of our customized reports to the new system. We didn't realize just how many of these reports the departments had created on the old system, and while the new package included a number of delivered reports, we also needed our specialized versions. We're implementing this ERP quickly, but it's taking time to get to the point where we feel that the data is in the format that we'd like to see it in.

McCrea: How are you working through this issue?

Hall: Our CIO developed a form that the departments are using to submit customized form requests. Those requests are prioritized based on how critical information is, and the consequences of not having the reports readily available in their traditional format. From there, it's about plugging through and getting the reports written--a task that we're handling in-house, and with the help of a freelance programmer.

McCrea: With this implementation wrapped up, is there anything you would say to other schools looking to roll out campus-wide systems?

Hall: I don't encourage everyone to attempt it in 18 months. We had a collaborative work team that included directors from virtually every administrative office on campus. They got together every week--and continue to do so on a monthly basis--to plan collaboratively and keep the project moving forward. These meetings played a key role in the overall success of the implementation and served as an especially effective way to eradicate the "siloed" thinking, and to get everyone on the same page.

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