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Making the Switch

Surviving an SIS Breakup

Divorcing one student information system and hooking up with another can be a living hell. But if the right plan is in place, the transition—even with the inevitable glitches—can go surprisingly smoothly.

Buy a database administrator drinks and, after enough of them, he may start to compare his institution’s relationship with its student information system to a marriage. And it would not necessarily be just the liquor talking.

When things go right in a marriage, life is so much easier: Both parties feel supported in their goals, the household seems to run itself, and each partner can’t imagine life without the other. When things go right with an SIS—when users in one department can call up information from another department without incident and create useful data-driven reports—everybody feels informed, productive, and, like those marriage partners, couldn’t imagine life without the SIS.

But when a marriage falters, so do all the lives that have become intertwined with it. Likewise, when things go wrong with an SIS—when the system fails or simply stops serving the institution’s needs—the reverberations can be felt across the entire campus.

For slumping marriages, the answer often is counseling; for faltering SIS systems, technologists try updates, third-party software, and other manners of system expansion or improvement. But the process of troubleshooting a marriage or an SIS doesn’t always solve the underlying problems. And just as dissolving a marriage in divorce can be torturous, switching from one SIS to another can cause serious upheaval. The decision to do so rests uneasily on any administrator’s shoulders.

Emily Griffith Opportunity School
Denver, CO
8,000 students
SIS chosen: TopSchool
Top system priorities: Flexible and customizable
Words to the wise: Engage all departments in sifting through data to determine redundancies. “It was liberating to realize that we had been doing double and triple the work.”

So what drives database gurus to bite the bullet and make the switch? What are some of the biggest obstacles in transitioning? What should your institution know before considering such a huge step? What kind of process needs to be in place to ensure a smooth transition?

CT interviewed technologists at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College and the Emily Griffith Opportunity School (CO) who recently have endured these changes. We’ve polled some SIS experts for transition tips, as well (see “Five Tips if You Switch,” page 28). We’ve even chatted with folks from a division of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where administrators are in the process of implementing a brand-new SIS for the first time. Collectively, the input provides a road map for navigating one of the most difficult undertakings in the world of IT.

Seeking Customizability

For the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, the student vocational arm of Denver Public Schools, IT administrators’ relationship to their SIS was something akin to an arranged marriage.

It’s not like the EGOS IT department got to select its own SIS. The school’s long-standing system from SCT Banner (now SunGard) was part of a group purchase made in the late 1990s by the Colorado Community College System, with which EGOS has also been affiliated.

In the beginning, EGOS officials were happy with their SIS—it was fast, it was fancy, and it got the job done. Over time, however, the system proved to be too fancy. Technologists complained that the system did too much, providing bells and whistles that the institution never used. What’s more, the vendor required them to squeeze data into preexisting categories and silos—ones that were far too confining for the open nature of learning at the school. By July 2008, just about everyone in the IT department at EGOS was ready for a change, and the school issued an RFP for a new SIS altogether.

Representatives from different EGOS departments formed an SIS Task Force and set out to review bids together. After considering bids from a number of vendors, the EGOS team went with a solution from SIS startup TopSchool. Gardner Sullivan, EGOS’s project manager for IT, says the school opted for the startup solution for one reason: customizability.

“From the very beginning, [the vendor was] up front about how we’d have the ability to define our own fields of information,” he says. “For an institution like ours—an institution that never felt comfortable using all the stuff in the system we had had for years—that went a long way.”

Transition to the new system began in early 2009.

First, 12 members of the Task Force—a group that represented just about every department on campus—formed a separate team to oversee the conversion itself. The group then set up a plan to meet regularly—five days a week for three to four hours every morning, to sift through data categories from SunGard and work to define everything anew for TopSchool.

Sullivan says this process was “incredible” in how it empowered campus administrators to get a better sense of what they truly needed from the new technology. To wit: He notes that the process of painstakingly sifting through every ounce of data on campus helped conversion team members recognize that EGOS suffered from significant data redundancy among the financial aid, treasury, and advising offices.

“These guys sat down and realized, ‘Wait, we’re capturing that very same information on our own,’” Sullivan recalls, noting that many of the old systems were manual. “It was liberating in the sense that we realized we had been doing double and triple the work.”

Still, the transition to the TopSchool system wasn’t without hiccups.

The school’s contract with the Colorado Community College System was scheduled to end June 30, 2010, causing EGOS technologists to scramble to get the TopSchool system up and running in time. Sullivan says that in order to validate and verify data population from one system to the other, the school has been running both SISs simultaneously—a reality that is sucking both human and technological bandwidth.

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College
Fennimore, WI
11,000 students
SIS chosen: CAMS Enterprise
Top system priorities: On-site, affordable, helps meet rigorous reporting requirements
Words to the wise: Work with end users to “uncover a lot of whys: Why do you do this? Why do you do that?”

He adds that once the new SIS goes live, data from the old system will be frozen and available for up to six months, just in case EGOS technologists should need a backup if the new system crashes.

“It’s as if we will create a giant restore point, a fail-safe for when something goes awry,” he explains. “We want everything to work right the first time, but knowing this data is there takes the pressure off if—or should I say ‘when’—something doesn’t go exactly as we had planned it would.”

An SIS of One’s Own

In the Midwest, another consortium arrangement—this time with two other schools—forced the IT folks at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College to settle for an SIS setup that was too expensive and difficult to administer.

According to IT Director Jaime Klein, the off-site location of the PeopleSoft SIS (on a consortium partner’s campus) put technologists at SWTC at the mercy of others for upgrades, system updates, and other maintenance. Furthermore, SWTC users had to access data through a virtual private network (VPN) and then download it to their computers on the local campus. Klein says that when the VPN was working well, the extra step was just a nuisance, but when the VPN was being troublesome, SIS data could be locked up for hours. And to top it off, SWTC administrators thought the SIS cost too much.

5 Tips If You Switch

For most higher education institutions, the student information system is the lifeblood of IT—the system around which all other software programs revolve. With this in mind, consultants who specialize in database integration say it is imperative for technologists to find SISs that are aligned with institutional needs and priorities. These experts aren’t necessarily averse to transitioning from one SIS to another, if the first one is not doing its duty. They do, however, encourage IT administrators to engage in massive overhauls carefully, and keep in mind the following guidance.

Tip 1: Timing is everything

SIS transitions take time. This means it’s probably not a good idea to start late in the school year. Luyen Chou, chief product officer at Schoolnet, an SIS vendor for the K-12 market, says he knows of “far too many” organizations that put out RFPs for SIS transitions without accounting for time to get the system working correctly. “We see a lot of potential customers who think this is something they can do in a few weeks,” Chou says. He notes that a standard transition can take anywhere from six to nine months.

Tip 2: Set up governance

Considering how far-reaching most SIS projects are, experts recommend establishing a strict governance plan for the transition from the very beginning. Most of these plans involve a steering committee to oversee all vendor work on the project. They also call for reporting and regular communication about progress of the transition overall. Other governance setups might institutionalize different measures. The bottom line, according to Jens Butler, principal analyst in the IT Services and Sourcing department at consulting firm Ovum, is that “without governance, projects can and will run out of control.”

Tip 3: Control quality

Every SIS expert says institutions should pay close attention to the quality of data they’re moving from one system to another. Butler stresses that this means transition leaders should examine all data for errors, duplication, and other associated problems. “Data quality is key not purely at the granular level but also at the meta level,” he says. “Systems will only be able to report on and analyze the information structures put in place, and these must be aligned with organizational requirements to work most efficiently.”

Tip 4: ‘Backfill’ adequately

In order to pull off a successful SIS transition, most higher education institutions need to designate one (or more) full-time staffers to oversee the project from beginning to end. When this
person moves aside, however, it’s critical for the IT department to “backfill” the position by promoting someone else temporarily. “Schools must be mindful that they’re going to ask people who already have full-time jobs to take on additional responsibilities,” says Vicki Tambellini, CEO and president of The Tambellini Group, a consulting firm in Irvington, VA. “The only way to do that adequately is with a little help.”

Tip 5: Train your users

Even the most calculated and tactical SIS transition will result in frustration without the right kind of strategy and curriculum to train users on the new system. Schoolnet’s Chou says it’s important for institutions to “make sure key stakeholders will be able to hit the deck running.” Tambellini agrees, adding that the best idea is to train at least a core group of users on the new system before it even goes live. This way, she says, the core group can lead by example and help ease the burden on IT support staff down the road.

So when the PeopleSoft contract with the consortium expired at the end of 2009, SWTC set out to find a new, affordable, on-site system for its 11,000-student campus that could also address another critical need administrators had identified: meeting all of Wisconsin’s rigorous reporting requirements. After a lengthy evaluation process, the college settled on CAMS Enterprise from Three Rivers Systems.

Conversion began in earnest in the beginning of 2010 and, as of press time, was scheduled to go live by late spring. Rather than pull together a team to manage this transition, Klein hired one person to serve as the in-house project lead. This person, dubbed the CAMS administrator, worked with Klein to document preexisting business processes, meet with users to find out what they’d like from an SIS, and align these wishes with the new system.

In the beginning, the duo spent most of their time in meetings, interviewing constituents such as the directors of finance and student services. As the project gained momentum, Klein and her CAMS administrator also met with end users, to understand in a deeper way how they employ the technology day to day.

“We tried to uncover a lot of whys: Why do you do this, why do you do that?” she says. “Unfortunately, many of the answers are, ‘Someone told me to do it this way 20 years ago.’”

As Klein and the CAMS administrator got answers from their constituents, they relayed the information to a project leader from Three Rivers to make sure developers had all the data they needed. One way the SWTC folks handled this knowledge transfer was to provide screen shots of where data sat in the old system, to help Three Rivers figure out where to put the same data in the new one.

While establishing new business processes has been relatively straightforward, ensuring that the new SIS meets Wisconsin reporting requirements has been more of a struggle. As a state, Wisconsin has some of the toughest reporting requirements in the nation. Meeting them is of paramount importance—failure to do so could put the school at risk of losing a portion of its public funding.

On this point, Klein and the CAMS administrator are working directly with representatives from Three Rivers to make sure the new SIS fulfills reporting goals, which the vendor has pledged to help SWTC meet—an extraordinary measure for an SIS vendor to take. At press time, however, the promise was still a work in progress.

Klein is both realistic and optimistic. “The truth is that these types of implementations and transitions take so much longer than anybody hopes they will,” she says. “I don’t doubt they’ll fulfill their promise on reporting, but even if
it comes online after our mission-critical stuff such as financial aid and housing and things like that, we’ll still be in good shape.”

Starting from Scratch

Statistically speaking, the bulk of SIS transitions now are being made by small institutions. According to The Tambellini Group, a consulting firm in Irvington, VA, while most of the transitions in the 1990s and 2000s were made by larger institutions, a majority of the schools that have transitioned in the last five years have had fewer than 10,000 students.

UNC Business Essentials, a program of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School
Chapel Hill, NC
<100 students
SIS chosen: TopSchool
Top system priorities: Ad hoc reporting, able to integrate with LMS
Words to the wise: Maintain the ability to manipulate data reports. “Sometimes you don’t even know what [data] you need to request until it’s too late.”

There are even some smaller institutions that are starting from scratch. UNC Business Essentials, a small business-certificate program affiliated with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, just launched in April 2009—giving it the luxury of starting out the gate with the right SIS.

But even with a veritable tabula rasa, the school went through a similar process and encountered similar challenges experienced by institutions that are switching student information systems.

Before the Business Essentials staff started evaluating SIS systems, Managing Director Jessica Brack says she and a team of three other school leaders brainstormed the kinds of features they wanted from the technology. The list included a student portal, capability to add programs on the back end manually (read: without the help of the vendor), and a self-service model that would allow students to come in and enroll themselves.

Another top priority was selecting an SIS that could integrate into the course management software the school had chosen, the GoCourse Learning System from Agilix Labs.

“Because we were starting from scratch, we were able to be picky about features,” Brack says. “In many ways, that gave us an advantage, to be able to sit there and say, ‘We don’t want your system unless it can offer x, y, and z.’”

Members of the implementation team researched five different SISs and opted for the Student Lifecycle Management System from TopSchool. From the get-go, team members sat down with representatives from the vendor to determine which pieces of student data they wanted to populate the system, from standard demographics to students’ prior educational attainment.

With data categories firmed up, team members then worked with TopSchool to develop functionality around each field. Here, Brack and colleagues asked for reporting on just about every bit of data. They also requested that the vendor devise a system to enable the school to conduct ad hoc reporting, so administrators could cross-reference any data points at any time.

“The benefit of ad hoc reporting is that we can manipulate reports as we see fit, rather than working with [vendor] templates,” says Brack. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you need to request from someone until it’s too late.”

Still, the ad hoc reporting wasn’t ready overnight. Though TopSchool promised this feature from the beginning, developing it took an additional six to eight months; it didn’t actually work until January 2010. UNC Business Essentials leaders were unhappy about the delay, but there was quite literally nothing they could do.

Integrating with the Agilix course management system was another trial. During testing, technicians from both TopSchool and UNC Business Essentials found glitches in the integration. Grades, for instance, weren’t migrating from GoCourse into TopSchool after students finished courses.

To troubleshoot these problems, the three entities formed a cross-company team comprised of two technicians from Agilix, four from TopSchool, and two from the institution itself. UNC Business Essentials staffers kept a log of problems for the cross-company team to address; tasks were prioritized in order of importance. Through conference calls and face-to-face meetings, this group eventually managed to iron out all of the most mission-critical kinks.

Today, though the cross-company coalition has been officially disbanded, Brack says her team still communicates directly with TopSchool about issues that come up. The entities have a standing conference call twice a month during which they discuss problems.

“This ongoing service has become part of our relationship,” she says. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”


Agilix Labs GoCourse Learning System:


Oracle PeopleSoft:


SunGard Higher Education:

The Tambellini Group:

Three Rivers Systems CAMS Enterprise:


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