Purchasing | Project Spotlight
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.
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..
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."
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."
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."
Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.