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Administrative Systems | Viewpoint

Keeping Software Off The Shelf

I suspect that many institutions have experienced the dissatisfaction of investing in software that is not fully used, or worse yet, never implemented at all. Software that was purchased with the expectation of delivering new functionality or efficiencies becomes ineffective “shelfware.” In our case, the software-turned-shelfware was our student information system (SIS). Happily, we were able to restore our investment after an intensive review of our business processes and strategic objectives. Based on our experience and conversations with colleagues at other institutions, there seem to be four common roadblocks that can relegate software to the shelf:

· Modifying software rather than business processes

· Lack of knowledge and training for functional users on software capabilities

· Resistance to change in processes

· Lack of governance structure

Modifying software rather than business processes

In 1996, WPI became a beta site for the SunGard Higher Education Banner administrative system when the product was in its infancy. Over the years, we created numerous modifications and workarounds to make Banner better suit our needs. Over time, however, the modifications prohibited us from implementing vendor upgrades and taking advantage of new functionalities as they became available. In addition, users were frustrated by their inability to get information out of Banner, to the point where it was regarded by many as a burdensome shadow system.

Across the campus, end users and senior managers alike needed easier access to data, more consistent reporting practices, and a better understanding of how to use the information stored in the SIS to make critical decisions. To address these issues, WPI convened a task force that included senior administrators and the university president. We reviewed all our options, including purchasing and implementing a new SIS, as costly and time consuming as that would be. Fortunately, one of our task force members happened to see a demonstration using the current version of Banner. He was astonished to learn that the solution he was seeing was the same one we had at WPI. It was an epiphany for us. We realized that we had been missing out on much of the potential functionality available in our SIS.

From that point forward, we decided to reinvest in our existing SIS rather than undergo the costly and disruptive implementation of a new system. To help us move forward, we contracted with SunGard Higher Education for a Strategy & Assessment Service. The SunGard [or SAS] team guided us through an assessment of our administrative processes, academic environment, data, and institutional priorities.

The service transformed the use of our SIS. As a result of the assessment, we’ve reduced approximately 25 percent of our existing modifications, streamlined business processes, and increased functionality in all our Banner modules. Users across campus now have better access to the data they need to make informed decisions and are better trained to fully leverage the system in their daily work.

Lack of knowledge and training for functional users on software capabilities

In WPI’s case, early adoption of Banner led to the need for modifications, which in turn kept us from leveraging the system’s full functionality. For other institutions, it might be a situation where a key administrator is aware of functionality but hasn’t had time to review and test it. If he or she leaves, a new person may come on board with no knowledge of the available but unused functionality.

Another common problem is the lack of communication regarding new functionalities. Tools required to meet regulatory updates, for example, are often made available along with solution upgrades. However, IT might review these upgrades based only on their impact on IT operations without fully understanding the business unit implications. Ideally, the institution should have a protocol in place to alert and train users on new functionalities as they become available.

Also, institutions should budget for ongoing training on their software to help users fully leverage existing functionality. There are a variety of ways to grow staff members’ knowledge of the software. Collaborative knowledge sharing with peer institutions--both through user groups and ad hoc relationships--can be invaluable. Onsite vendor-delivered training can allow training for a large number of staff, with content tailored to the institution’s needs. Or two institutions might collaborate to schedule a joint training session on common training needs, with costs shared between the participating institutions.

Resistance to change in processes

When Banner was first implemented at WPI, modifications were made to address functionalities not available in the system. Over time, however, those modifications--and the business practices that drove them--were taken for granted. In many instances, the modifications perpetuated processes that no longer made sense. Like many institutions, we were so preoccupied with process that we sometimes lost sight of the actual objective. For example, imagine a long-standing policy that requires a signature on a hard-copy document for vacation requests. This policy could involve an inordinate amount of time for someone to circulate the paper document to the right person, obtain the signature, and place it on file. But when you take a step back from the process, you realize that the objective is to gain approval, and thus an electronic signature or e-mail approval could address the need in a far more efficient manner.

Taking a hard look at business processes was a critical part of our engagement with SunGard. This exercise, known as Process Improvement Assessments (PIAs), forced us to reconsider our current practices. Everyone had to stop and think, “why are we doing this, what is the point, how are we doing it, and how can we streamline?” These questions--and the ensuing discussions--prompted us to think critically about processes we had all come to take for granted and helped us identify ways to streamline our work.

The very act of discussing these technology issues often led to important discussions about university policies as well. For example, we wanted to automate faculty compensation for summer courses, but couldn’t figure out how to get the system to comply. Our practice was to pay them on the basis of class size. The issue came up because it was problematic from a technology standpoint. In the course of discussion, however, we realized the pay policy made no sense and was problematic from an academic standpoint as well, since faculty effort was significant regardless of whether there were 10 or 20 students in the class. As a result, we changed the policy for summer term pay, setting a uniform threshold for the class and compensating faculty for their time regardless of student enrollment.

There is a tremendous cost associated with modifications. They not only complicate upgrades, but also impede future integration capabilities. If your functional users are asking for modifications to fit their existing processes, take this as an opportunity to discuss current practices to determine whether a new process might meet their needs just as well, or even more effectively.

Bear in mind that resistance to change is even more likely to impede the adoption of new applications, like workflow or document imaging, than an application that replaces existing functionality. In this case, a department or staff member has been “making do” without the functionality so there is no urgency to adopt it or leverage its value. In the case of workflow software, an office might be accustomed to long cycle times and shuffling papers and folders from department to department. Also, a new process might result in a reallocation of responsibilities, which can be unsettling to some users. The obstacles are even greater when the technology has broad implications. For example, the implementation of business intelligence software does not merely impact processes; it represents a new mindset of really working with data in support of performance management. A change of this magnitude requires direction and support from upper administration. In either scenario, users might feel anxious if they don’t have support or adequate training. Make sure that staff members in the affected business units--from department heads to hourly staff on the front lines--are included in the planning process. Inclusion will help them share in the excitement of the new efficiencies and will give them the reassurance they need that they can execute their core business functions and achieve required outcomes confidently and effectively with the new approach.

Lack of governance structure

An effective governance structure is essential to the successful deployment of technology on any college campus. Technology-related requests need to be evaluated in the context of institutional priorities. In the case of modifications, this governing body can evaluate requests to determine which are marginal and which are mission-critical, and then hold fast when necessary to a policy that the institution will change processes to match the software rather than vice versa.

As part of our assessment, we realized that WPI did not have a cross-campus decision-making group to address technology-related issues like whether and when to invest in software or hardware. As a result, the IT staff was forced to make decisions on their own. Today, we have a governance structure that fosters dialogue and collaboration among all business units on a host of critical issues ranging from policy development to prioritizing technology needs. Technology decisions are now viewed at a strategic level and within the context of institutional priorities, rather than as responses to tactical pain points.

One of the most beneficial outcomes of our assessment was a new understanding of the role of governance and evolving to a state where we have support and active engagement across campus. The process felt awkward initially, but it has evolved into an effective model for decision-making.

From faculty pay to IT governance to departmental processes, the Strategy & Assessment Service has had a far-reaching impact throughout the university. But perhaps the biggest result was the transformation of Banner from a shadow system to a critical solution that now enables WPI to better serve its students. By tapping into more of the functionality available in our SIS, we have been able to manage increasing enrollments and a growing academic community with greater efficiency and effectiveness. Once considered an obstacle to our day-to-day work, our SIS is now viewed as an essential part of our success, helping us to optimize resources and improve services to students and faculty alike.

[Photo: Runningonbrains / Creative Commons]


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