Million-Dollar Decisions—ERP Projects and Higher Education

By Rory J. Weaver
Utah State University

They said it couldn’t be done. But we did it. A three-year, $6.5 million ERP implementation completed on time and on budget. In fact, the controller handed me the final balance sheet for the completed “Banner” implementation project and we actually had $28,000 left over. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Utah State University’s ERP project began about four years ago when our VP for IT at that time, Dr. Barbara White, was charged by our President, Kermit L. Hall, to effect a critically needed change at our institution. USU was struggling with an obsolete legacy system consisting of multiple, disconnected, and often conflicting information silos. President Hall wanted an integrated “single system of record” from which the university could retrieve accurate and reliable data to make informed decisions.

We knew we were making one of the most significant and expensive changes facing our institution. Under VP White’s leadership, we began a rigorous marathon of fact finding and option exploration. Other institutions had completed their own similar ERP projects. We looked to them for their valuable insights into the practical realities. Now we’re sharing ours. Following are five things we learned and applied to our ERP project that contributed to our success:

1. Determine where responsibilities lie for million-dollar decisions.
An ERP system can easily be viewed as an IT project. Not so. “Enterprise Resource Planning” is exactly what it says. It is enterprise wide. VP White was responsible for the project, yet our university president remained involved. VP White likewise involved the president’s cabinet, the provost’s office, and our research foundation. We began a communications campaign alerting every department that this project was on the horizon. We solicited their involvement early on. We received positive and negative responses. We banked the positive and diffused the negative by educating naysayers about the anticipated benefits of the new system. This communications exercise resulted in the whole university being implicitly involved. Consequently, when discussions involved dollars for the Banner project, everyone knew what was being talked about. Everyone also knew the president and his cabinet were ultimately responsible, and that the VP for IT was authorized to move the project forward.

2. Identify internal and external forces that are keys to success.
From our communication campaign, we were quickly made aware of the internal forces, political and financial, that were “for” or “against” the project. Some departments recognized that Banner would be an asset to their mission. Others saw it as a threat. We took a great deal of time carefully and honestly dealing with this issue. Additionally, we began this project during an economic downturn in the state, when legislative budget cuts were being applied. (You undoubtedly experienced the same economic impact following the 9/11 tragedy). Both internally and externally, we had uphill battles to fight. On top of that, this was the first ERP project we had undertaken. Our internal staff were somewhat intimidated and, in many cases, literally unqualified to take this on. We published an RFP in search of an implementation partner who had “been there, done that” and could help us succeed. We found one in SunGard Collegis, a member of the SunGard business family that includes SunGard SCT, the product vendor for Banner.

3. Know the financial requirements and lock in funding.
One of the most important lessons we learned and applied throughout the project was a requirement imposed upon us by President Hall. From the very beginning, he would not give his approval for this project until we could, in his words, “Show [him] the last dollar from the first dollar.” This was sage advice. Financially, ERP implementations can easily escalate out of control if there is not a clearly defined and strictly adhered-to budget plan. We probably spent the most time and energy determining what was financially required, and then identifying exactly where the money was coming from and what it would be used for. The university controller and I were held jointly accountable for the discharge of financial obligations. What an experience that was! There was never a dull moment trying to defend the Banner budget from predators and critics. If your campus is anything like ours, when you have a pot of money sitting out there, someone else thinks they have a claim on it. This phenomenon leads me to the next lesson we learned.

4. Understand the organizational and political realities of your institution.
We often joke about “the Golden Rule,” declaring, “He who has the gold, rules.” It’s true. And to be successful with an ERP project, you must clearly understand the organizational and political realities of your institution. Knowing where the power base resides is essential to success. Again, through our communication campaign, we learned where the power was, where the money was, and what the internal and external forces really were. The results prompted us to convene appropriate committees and organize ourselves in a hierarchy that included the campus power brokers. We aligned our implementation efforts to meet their needs. With their needs being attended to, committee members became allies when threats occurred. Our campus power blocs included student leaders, faculty representatives, employee organizations, and upper administration. With everyone at the table, it was easier to move the project forward. All the players had a stake in the game and their constituent concerns were heard and responded to. The greatest benefit was that we had a realistic view of what was required to meet the respective and varied needs of all concerned.

5. Build teams of “Best Minds” that guarantee success.
We learned that some of the best minds are those who have to live with the decisions being made. We made sure we included clerks, administrative assistants, secretaries, and front-line workers in the design and implementation of our ERP system. They have a “real world” grasp of the situation. Additionally, we brought together functional subject matter experts and technical programmer analysts for critical discussions about system design. The results speak for themselves. In a recent “Weekly Status Report,” a seasoned ERP consultant remarked, “The USU Team has produced the most robust Banner configuration that I have ever seen. USU has implemented a state-of-the-art system that will serve their employees for years to come. Congratulations!”

That is a very nice acknowledgement. And the congratulations rightly belong to a dedicated group of professionals who have given their all, and then some. Through it all, the intended beneficiaries are our students. In the end, the effort is not really about ERP, or technology, or power bases. It is about people. And we need to keep that in mind as we continue to make million-dollar decisions.

Rory Weaver is Associate Director of Networking and Computer Services, and Project Manager, ERP at Utah State University. Along with Barbara White, now CIO and Associate Provost at the University of Georgia, Weaver will co-present a workshop July 31 on “Million-Dollar Decisions—ERP Projects and Higher Education” at the Campus Technology 2006 conference in Boston.

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