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Northwestern U Streamlines Research Purchasing With Open Source System

Northwestern University in Illinois has implemented a custom transaction processing system for its core facilities that lets researchers place orders and makes it easier for core facility directors to track, fulfill and bill for those orders.

Challenge

Core facilities provide university researchers with access to instruments, technologies and services to assist with their research projects. Northwestern University operates 60 of such departments.

According to Jeffrey Weiss, a research professor in medicine-endocrinology and the director for research core planning at Northwestern, the core facilities operated somewhat loosely in the past and used a wide range of solutions to manage their operations. "At the high end there were two software tools that had been written by people within the university to handle that type of processing, and at the low end there were people using Post-It notes and Excel spreadsheets to keep track of their stuff," said Weiss.

But core facilities are now required to be fiscally auditable and to meet regulatory compliance requirements, increasing the administrative burden on core directors. Since most core directors are scientists first and administrators second, Northwestern wanted to implement a system that would make it easier for those people to handle those administrative requirements and that could also integrate with its other enterprise systems..

Technology Solution

Weiss and his team looked at the various systems available on the market, including iLab Solutions and CORES (Core Ordering and Reporting Enterprise System), but none of them fit the bill. "There's no system out there that's going to validate payment sources from our financial system and then push transactions directly to that financial system," said Weiss. "It made more sense to us to just design this from the ground up." They decided to develop a custom enterprise system for managing core facilities, or any shared facility, for the entire university.

Weiss sketched out the system architecture requirements in terms of functionality and integrations, and then he and his team shopped the idea around to four commercial development houses, as well as to the internal team that had written the university's existing core facilities software. The university ended up selecting Table XI, a Chicago-based custom software development company. "They had hands-down one of the best proposals," said Weiss. "They're a great development house. They're local and they're very responsive."

Implementation

Table XI built NU Core, and rolled it out in one or two core facilities first. Northwestern's IT staff was very involved in the implementation process. "We dealt with a number of IT organizations at Northwestern," said Weiss. Hosted in the medical school's data center, the system uses the medical school's databases and the IT staff manages the hosting environment and system backups. The university's security officers were involved in the integration with the university's authentication system; the accounting services group was involved in the integration with the university's financial system; and the business intelligence group was involved in the integration with the university's Cognos business reporting system.

The development of NU Core didn't end with implementation. "The program itself is under constant development," said Weiss. "We meet with Table XI every two weeks to set development priorities, and we roll out new features on a two-to-four week cycle."

Results

About three-quarters of Northwestern's core facilities now use NU Core, and Weiss thinks most of the others will switch over to NU Core eventually.

According to Weiss, the advantage of NU Core for researchers who are using the system to order instruments or services is that their user accounts and payment sources are centralized. "If I establish a payment source and have authority to spend on it, I can use it on any core facility. If I have a user account in NU Core, I can use it in any core facility," said Weiss.

For core directors, the advantages are more significant. "We asked a few of the core directors how much time they were saving in terms of time spent on administrative tasks, and the range was between 40 and 70 percent. It's huge," said Weiss. NU Core lets the core directors track orders, generate detailed reports, assign work to other people within the facility and to bill. Weiss thinks the billing feature is the one the core directors like best. Before NU Core, the directors would spend huge amounts of time tracking down people to resolve billing errors due to expired payment sources or people trying to use payment sources without authorization. Because NU Core enforces those rules at the time of each transaction, those problems don't happen anymore.

Response to NU Core has been overwhelmingly positive. "When this system launched almost four years ago, it was a shadow of what it is now. It was the basic system," said Weiss. "Through feedback from the core directors we've added tremendous functionality specifically to address their needs. You're not going to get that kind of responsiveness from a commercial system."

Other universities can implement NU Core, too. "We don't sell it. We don't license it," said Weiss. "We've made it available for free through a very liberal open source license, so anybody who wants to use the NU Core code can just download it from GitHub."

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