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Enterprise Resource Planning | Feature

Rebuilding Campus IT Systems with ERP

The University of South Carolina has embarked on an ambitious ERP project that will bring the institution's IT infrastructure out of the dark ages.

It's not often that you hear about a large university gutting its IT infrastructure, but that's exactly what's happening at the University of South Carolina right now. Currently less than a year into the IT overhaul that will take about four years to complete, the school is getting rid of its "homegrown" systems and implementing a commercial enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution.

"When we're finished, our student systems, finance department, and human resources will be using the ERP," said Jeff Farnham, associate vice president for IT and deputy CIO. "It's a significant transformation, and one that will eradicate all of our antiquated, homegrown solutions in favor of a centralized technology solution."

Enterprise resource planning solutions are business management systems designed to handle multiple aspects of an operation. Product manufacturers, for example, use them to handle the planning, production, sales, and marketing activities under a single technology "umbrella" that allows each of those departments to communicate with one another and share information through the ERP. Such systems--typically comprising a unified software program that's divided into modules--also handle inventory control, order tracking, customer service, and related functions.

Pulling Out the Stove Pipe
Farnham said U South Carolina took the ERP route after realizing that its circa-1970s IT infrastructure could no longer keep up with the university's changing business needs. He said the decision was split between rewriting the antiquated software programs internally or leveraging an ERP system that other schools were already using.

"When we looked at the timeline for both options, we knew that the ERP would provide business transformation to the university in a much faster manner than doing it all ourselves," said Farnham. "It just made sense to select a commercial product that already incorporated the business functions that we needed."

The biggest issue, said Farnham, was the "stove piped" nature of the university's existing software solutions, which allowed for limited data sharing between departments. Another challenge included the inability to keep up with regulatory changes in the areas of financial aid, PCI payment cards, and privacy.

"All of these things were coming at us and impacting our homegrown systems," Farnham recalled. "It got to the point where we were only [handling] regulatory changes and not doing any enhancements because of the governmental regulatory load."

Staff turnover also played a role in U South Carolina's decision to tear out the old system and start anew, according to Farnham. Older staff members who were used to the homegrown systems were retiring, and being replaced by younger individuals who "understood new technology," he said. "It got to the point where hiring fresh, skilled staff members to work with old technology just didn't make sense."

Aligning All Thumbs in an Upward Direction
The tearout and new implementation aren't coming cheap for U South Carolina, with such projects typically costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. To get the approval and associated funding, Farnham and his team solicited feedback from each of the three business units (students systems, finance, and human resources) regarding their needs for an updated solution that provided integrated access to information.

Farnham then used that information to approach the college's board of trustees, which approved the project in 2009. "Yes, it's a big investment," he said, "but the [U South Carolina] community understood why it was necessary to replace our old systems and meet the demand for integrated access to information across departments at our growing school."

U South Carolina's student systems will be the first to benefit from the ERP, according to Farnham, who said the goal was "to bring the most value to the largest part of the university--the students--first." That first phase will be rolled out in 2011 and 2012 and will be followed by the other two business units in 2013 and 2014 to round out the total four-year implementation timeline.

Eliciting Organic Desire
As the solution is introduced to the various departments, he said, Farnham expects some resistance to the change, particularly from those individuals who have been using the old systems for decades. "Change is always a challenge for any organization, so their willingness to adopt will be a big part of the success of this project," said Farnham, who so far hasn't run into any major hurdles, thanks in part to an early campaign designed to make the users comfortable with the idea of implementing new technology.

"To create an organic desire for change among [users], we showed them what they could be doing once the new technology is in place," said Farnham. "We gave them a taste of the functions that they don't currently have at their avail and showed them what they could be providing students if they had these new tools at their fingertips."

Farnham said those tools will help U South Carolina reach its overarching goal of providing students with more information in a faster, more convenient manner through self-service functions and online course catalogs that offer better academic planning by quickly answering questions like, "If I take these courses this semester, will I be able to graduate on time?"

"Through better integration of information," said Farnham, "we'll be able to provide students with one-stop-shopping and self-service functions that they didn't previously have. That's one of our main goals."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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