Dec 20 2007

Is Your District Ready for an ERP?

Schools are discovering the benefits of enterprise resource planning software.

For years businesses have been using Enterprise Resource Planning systems, more commonly known as ERPs. Simply put, these systems are single programs that do the work of two or more programs and provide an automatic level of data interoperability. The use of an ERP also provides further benefits that range from data (input/output) standardization to more efficient reporting capabilities.

While businesses have been using ERPs for 40 years, these improved systems have been turning up recently in more schools. If your district or school doesn’t already have an ERP, it’s time to consider if these customizable systems can meet your specific needs while saving time and money. To make that decision, IT leaders need to consider two main factors: how much a new system can help smooth operations and what it will cost to buy and implement. While these may seem easy to gauge, beware. Purchasing an ERP is a complicated decision with a lot of ramifications. A nine-point checklist at the end of this story will help you determine your school’s true need.

Think Integrated Software

The name, “enterprise resource planning,” doesn’t accurately reflect the true purpose of these software systems. ERP software does little in the way of planning or providing resource information. However, the enterprise portion is what ERP software most directly addresses as it’s designed to support most major business processes. For an education information system software package to fit the true definition of an ERP, it not only has to serve the needs of people in the finance and business side of the system, but also has to meet the needs of people in human resources and in student accounting.

To truly provide these resources to K-12 education systems, the ERP combines the above requirements in an integrated software program that runs off a single database so various departments can share information and communicate with each other. This is a significant challenge, which few vendors can accurately say they provide within a single database.

Determining the Price

Due to the fact that ERP software is designed to provide the functionality of multiple individual applications, these systems tend to be more complex and often require changes in the way staff complete their tasks. For example, the ERP system may be expanded to include applications such as performance management (business intelligence) informing both student and staff achievement.

Implementing ERP software is something most K-12 technical support staff have no experience with, so projects are often more cost effective if implementation is provided as part of the overall ERP purchase. Most successful ERP projects in K-12 involve vendors with a proven history in education that provide implementation services directly rather than through a third party. The length of time to implement an ERP system depends on the size of the school system, the number of business process changes required and the willingness of the district staff to take ownership of the project.

A small, targeted project may be ready for use within three to six months; however, a large, multidimensional implementation may take years. On the humorous side of project timing, Gartner Fellow and Vice President David McCoy has said, “What's the average life cycle of an ERP implementation? [Answer:] 2.5 CIOs.”

Implementation services for a typical ERP project involve three primary tasks: hardware and software systems architecture, business process training and support and system programming. The systems architecture activity provides the hardware infrastructure to adequately support the number of users in addition to building the logical flow of data for all affected portions of the enterprise. The business process training and support activity matches the current practices in use by staff to those provided within the ERP system and provides training for staff as the system is implemented. System programming involves initial configuration of the ERP software and necessary program modifications.

The cost of an ERP system includes both the initial software license plus the implementation services described above. For most school systems, the cost of the implementation will range from 50 percent of the total license cost to up to twice this amount (depending on the amount of programming and training required). Large school systems may spend considerably more for a complex implementation.

John Alawneh, the executive director for technology operations for the Plano (Texas) Independent School District, is currently leading a large-scale ERP implementation and offers these nine steps for anyone considering a similar project.

  1. Obtain executive leadership commitment (superintendent and cabinet).
  2. Conduct meetings with stakeholders to understand high-level objectives and requirements; educate them on the new environment; solidify their buy-in; and set expectations.
  3. Conduct meetings with second-tier leadership to have more granular understanding of requirements.
  4. Work on setting realistic expectations for end users.
  5. Define the project master plan, timelines, roles and tasks.
  6. Divide the project into manageable pieces.
  7. Identify the resources to support the implementation, including infrastructure support; user training and support; process analysis and process reengineering; data integrity, migration and conversion; data reporting; customization; and project management.
  8. Determine the number of departments to roll out concurrently, based on implementation resources.
  9. For each department rollout, follow this process:
    • Identify leaders to own and champion the effort
    • Examine ERP processes in relation to current business processes
    • Prepare a list of your master data sets to examine before and after rollout to ensure accuracy
    • Ensure infrastructure is capable of handling the new system
    • Run tests on installation and infrastructure readiness.
    • Work with departments on implementing specifications, customizations of user interface and reporting requirements
    • Complete system setup and configuration.
    • Provide official user training
    • Train the help desk to support the system Jim Hirsch is the associate superintendent for academic and technology services at the Plano (Texas) Independent School District.

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