Enterprise Resource Planning
Going With Best-of-Breed
ERP integration has become easier than ever—allowing institutions to focus on top-notch, specialized software while bridging the gaps between administrative and academic systems.
- By Rama Ramaswami
Back in the 1990s, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems may not have been user-friendly, but what they tried to do was totally reasonable: replace stand-alone systems in various departments—such as finance, logistics, and human resources—with a single integrated software program. The idea was that although each department would still have its own software, everything would be linked together and run off a common database. A user would be able to access and view data from all over the enterprise, from financial records and purchase orders to employee benefits information. And, in theory, a single vendor would supply all the components of this monolithic system.
Granted, that didn’t work a lot of the time. Many higher education institutions bought into the enterprise software pitch—and ended up with some disastrous implementations. Users had difficulty understanding the applications, costly customizations were sometimes required, and the new business processes weren’t always a good cultural fit. Following a wave of ERP system meltdowns, many university CIOs decided to go the best-of-breed route, using integration middleware to tie disparate applications together.
A Breed Apart
Today, best-of-breed is still the most common approach. The increasing breadth and complexity of colleges’ academic offerings make it difficult for all but the simplest operations to manage without vertically specialized software. “The teaching and learning tools that faculty want to use have business drivers very different from those in the administrative space,” says David Murray, VP of product management, common components, at SunGard Higher Education. “Even if one vendor met the needs of the broad range of administrative applications across a university, you’d need much more flexibility and agility in the technological tools for faculty—and we haven’t even talked about the needs of research. At the last university I visited, [IT administrators] had a six-page PowerPoint deck that listed all the technology vendors they had.”4
But thanks to advances in ERP technology, integrating applications from different vendors has become easier than it was in the past, Murray says. Many ERP providers offer advanced software that enables construction of interfaces across a variety of applications. This is a boon for CIOs seeking to connect, say, an individual department’s favorite legacy application—customized and tweaked by users over the years—with another program. For instance, Augsburg College (MN), a private institution with an enrollment of about 4,000 students, chose ERP vendor Agresso to link its various best-of-breed programs in 2003. Previously, the college had been using a midrange ERP system.
“The legacy environment was out of date,” says Leif Anderson, Augsburg’s VP and CIO. “A number of units of the college had gone off the central platform and implemented their own systems—for example, for fundraising and admissions. We were at a fork in the road. The question was whether to replace investments that were already made and working well. The conclusion we came to was that even if we chose an all-in-one solution, and went to the hardship and expense of replacing good applications that were already paid for, we would face the same problem in other areas of the college. With specialty systems, all-in-one is never all-in-one.”
For Augsburg, the ideal solution lay in building interfaces across best-of-breed applications. The Agresso platform integrates software that higher ed institutions commonly use, such as the College Board’s PowerFAIDS (financial aid) and Recruitment PLUS (data management), Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge (institutional advancement), and the open source learning management system (LMS) Moodle. Augsburg College uses all of these systems. “Our IT professionals like working with best-of-breed products,” says Anderson. “We have three people dedicated to the core ERP environment. They build the connections and interfaces, using standard Microsoft tools. The Agresso platform is built for this.” According to Agresso, its proprietary VITA architecture is a flexible model that allows users to easily adjust parameters or integrate external data sources on an ongoing basis after implementation.
While many universities favor the best-of-breed approach to ERP integration, others have found success working with a single vendor.
Edison State College (FL), a public institution offering two- and four-year programs, has invested almost totally in SunGard Higher Education’s software and services—except for Blackboard’s e-learning system, which integrates with the SunGard applications. What’s more, the college opted for a single vendor as far back as 1991. “A deliberate decision was made back then,” says Edison State CIO Mark Trask, “and it goes back to the Y2K problem. Edison State had to deal with how it would accommodate Y2K topics, and we went with a complete solution from SunGard. It took us three or four years to get up and running. We were dealing with a lot of homegrown stuff and best-of-breed approaches at that time.”
Trying to integrate and maintain the various applications, and upgrade them uniformly, was a complex and labor-intensive task that strained IT resources, Trask says. “If you have separate systems from different vendors, you have to conduct very exhaustive testing—especially any time you have an upgrade, as the vendors may not have collaborated on the release.” In addition, he says, by opting for a single vendor, Edison State made a decision “based on the organizational good” of a unified system, as opposed to focusing on the individual strengths of specific modules.
Since then, Edison State has invested steadily in SunGard products—and Trask is grateful for that. Whenever problems arise, he says, his colleagues at other schools are “finger-pointing at multiple vendors, whereas I’m very grateful for the single-point responsibility we have for the digital ecosystem here. Very often, a single vendor has enough options to accommodate local variances.”
Plus, he adds, there’s a lot to be said for the way a single-vendor system can reduce the learning curve for users as well as system administrators. “You’re more comfortable with the data structure and you have a better understanding of how a change in one area will affect a change in another area.”
Trask is quick to point out that users should choose a system based solely on how well it works for their organization, and the extent to which the added functionality of best-of-breed applications offsets the time spent on integrating and maintaining them. And he notes that single-vendor systems aren’t maintenance-free either: “We’re pretty uniform here, but things change. We have new releases all the time. We have to test everything.”
Observing that the platform, not the vendor, is the key to successful integration, Anderson advises flexibility when it comes to choosing vendors: “It’s better to have differently branded products that have a common platform than a common brand with diverging platforms,” he says. “When you go integrated, you need to be ready to add other brands to the portfolio. You can’t expect the vendor to be ready for whatever business challenges you may have.”
Making the Right Connections
Perhaps the most persuasive reason to stick with best-of-breed applications is that technology is finally bridging a longstanding gap: the disconnect between “back-end” administrative systems and “front-end” learning management systems. Traditional ERP systems were confined to the administrative side of college operations, such as finance and payroll; they were separate from the teaching and learning side, which had its own independent systems. This meant, for example, that data such as student grades had to be entered twice: once into the student administrative system and again into the LMS.
New standards of interoperability, however, are blurring these distinctions and making it possible to mix and match a wide variety of systems and applications. Responding to customer demand for easier system integration, vendors are increasingly at the forefront of a growing movement to set open and uniform standards for exchanging data. In November 2009, Oracle, SunGard Higher Education, and Jenzabar announced their intent to support the Learning Information Services (LIS) standards established by the IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit group comprised of education institutions and their vendors and suppliers. The LIS specification focuses on enabling learning application interoperability, particularly when it comes to managing the information that describes people, groups, memberships, courses, and outcomes.
Open standards will allow more flexibility in how applications can be configured across the enterprise from a single database. Currently, enterprise integrations are largely ad hoc and created on a case-by-case basis, resulting in interfaces that are difficult to maintain and upgrade consistently. “Until now, industry standards have defined data formats, but have not defined protocol and transport methods,” says SunGard’s Murray. “You don’t have any interoperability when that happens. In the past, publishers had to have a different interface for every learning management provider, and there was a lot of cost involved. The new standards will offer much more flexibility and choice. That’s the right choice for higher education.”
Uniform standards would help connect the many disparate systems—whether homegrown, legacy, or off-the-shelf—that proliferate at universities. A research paper commissioned by Datatel and written by independent consultancy Gilfus Education Group propounds the concept of an “Enterprise Education Platform,” which would consist of “an interconnected set of application modules within a consistent information technology framework and architecture.” This would allow colleges to consolidate data scattered across a variety of systems in different departments. As a first step toward this synchronization, Datatel has entered into a partnership with educational solutions provider Moodlerooms—which supports and hosts the open source LMS Moodle—and is working with some of its higher education clients to test the integration of Datatel’s Colleague ERP product with Moodle. (Other ERP vendors have taken similar steps to integrate with an LMS: For example, in October of last year, SunGard HE announced a partnership with Epsilen to integrate the e-learning environment into its portfolio of solutions; Campus Management’s CampusVue product lineup includes a Moodle-based e-learning solution; and offerings from Jenzabar and Three Rivers Systems span ERP, portal, and LMS software.)
Simpson College (IA), a private institution with about 2,000 part-time and full-time students, is a Datatel customer and Moodle user that looks forward to the LMS/ERP integration. Kelley Bradder, Simpson’s CIO and VP of information services, points out that a seamless connection between the two systems would eliminate the need for faculty to input student grades twice and would make information such as class adds or drops easily accessible and transparent. In addition, she says, this kind of integration would benefit the college’s non-traditional learners, such as graduate students who attend Simpson’s evening or weekend programs and who access their web-based learning management system via mobile devices. Integration of the LMS with the ERP would give those individuals full access to their student enrollment and course information.
Bradder’s top concern is that end users enjoy and benefit from technology without having to fret over how it works. “Our core mission is teaching and learning—students, faculty, and staff should be able to get information and not worry about the system it’s in,” she says. Rather than be tied to a single vendor, Simpson College has chosen the integration route to keep things familiar and comfortable for users. “I think integration is key,” says Bradder. “Most of these investments are worth millions of dollars. Then there’s the training of the people who use those systems. There’s always the human element to consider in learning these types of things. It’s hard to make a switch to a one-vendor system.”4
Similarly, a big annoyance for Louise Finn, CIO and assistant VP of technology services at Loyola University Maryland, has been the long-standing disconnect between administrative systems and learning management systems. As a Datatel customer, she is excited that the vendor is attempting to solve that problem by partnering with Moodle and providing a standard interface between the two. “A vendor-supported application is much more interesting than something I have to build myself,” she says, pointing to the limited IT resources that constrain most universities. “You’re going through a major upgrade, and at the same time, you have to integrate the new system with the other software. Most of the time it’s the same people doing both. Or the staff manages the upgrade, you outsource the integration, and when the system breaks, the staff is not trained to fix it.”
While IT staff shortages are unlikely to disappear, vendor-supported standards will go a long way toward making the chore of integration faster and easier. Curtiss Barnes, Oracle’s VP of industry product strategy for the education and research industries and a leading proponent of common technical standards and collaboration among vendors, predicts that the future lies in heterogeneity. “A vendor that is good at building HR or administrative systems is good because it’s good at talking to the customers of those systems,” he says. “That doesn’t mean the vendor is good at talking to students and faculty.”
Still, software from a single vendor has a consistent look and feel that improves the user experience, in addition to providing harmonized tools and architecture that increase efficiency, concedes Barnes. But instructional needs are becoming so specialized that one size simply cannot fit all, he observes. “The idea that a single system can meet the needs of art history and engineering and science is going out the window. Yes, we may want to standardize processes, but when it comes to classroom instruction, we need to procure the best applications for our internal customers—faculty and students.”
Oracle customer John Gohsman, director of applications and information services at the University of Michigan, agrees. Oracle’s PeopleSoft Enterprise Student Administration Integration Pack (SAIP) has helped the university integrate various administrative and educational systems, but while PeopleSoft applications form a large part of the school’s systems, no single vendor could meet the needs of a large, decentralized institution with three campuses, 3,000 faculty members, and more than 56,000 students. The university has more than 50 point-to-point interfaces to link a variety of applications. But Gohsman believes that managing them will become easier because the SAIP software uses the IMS Global Learning Information Services standards. And he thinks the day isn’t far off when integrated interfaces can work almost right out of the box. “With the move toward a standards-based approach, collaboration among vendors, and open source communication, the plug-and-play approach is a lot more doable.”
Increasingly sophisticated middleware and increasingly close collaboration are the two dominant trends that Gohsman predicts for the ERP space. “Oracle and other vendors are working together toward open architecture—that’s very helpful and something we’re very pleased about,” he says.
Ultimately, like the banking and airline industries, higher education is being forced to adopt a new business model, says Oracle’s Barnes—and his company is ready for it. “There’s a different mindset emerging in my customer base,” he explains. “[Universities are] focusing on the things that deliver competitive advantage and not on whether the HR system is satisfying a small set of users.” In Barnes’ view, competitive advantage—a commercial term increasingly cropping up in the academic environment—lies in how effectively a university recruits and trains students and how compelling its classroom experiences are. That means an increasing specialization among teaching and learning products and, in turn, a growing number of platforms and applications that support integration of those products. “We see in those spaces increasing heterogeneity and demand for flexibility,” he says. “Those are the things we’re preparing ourselves for and that are critical to our strategy.”