Weaving an Integrated Information Web
- By Michael Fickes
- March 1st, 2000
Stories of runaway schedules and eye-popping cost over-runs have tarnished the notion of enterprise resource planning (ERP) for many colleges and universities. Observers can point to numerous examples of $20-million budgets ballooning to more than $100 million and 12-month schedules zooming through two years of missed deadlines.
ERP has proven difficult, yes. But not impossible. The idea involves integrating individual information systems used in various university departments into a single information backbone providing controlled levels of access to all interested audiences.
TCB at TCU
Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, for example, recently implemented - on time and on budget - three key ERP modules developed by the Pleasanton, Calif., firm Peoplesoft. The modules cover the functions of human resources, public sector finance and student administration.
According to Cambridge Technology Partners, the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm that assisted TCU in implementing the system, Peoplesoft software forms a truly integrated information backbone for the university’s campus community of more than 7,500 students and 1,500 staff.
But the project’s success to date may have more to do with method than product. TCU administrators set ERP goals and designed a methodical plan to achieve those goals.
“We had a legacy mainframe system that was installed in 1984,” says David Edmond-son, TCU’s assistant provost. “In evaluating Y2K issues, we found that our system had problems that needed to be addressed. We could have upgraded the original product to solve those problems, but we also looked at this as an opportunity to develop a system that would improve our efficiency. Ideally, we wanted all of our business processes to be accessible to users, including students and faculty, across the Web.
“We wanted students to enroll in classes across the Web. We wanted our faculty to input grades rather than filling out forms that the registrar’s office had to re-enter. We wanted our staff to be able to manage their benefit programs across the Web.
“We haven’t achieved all of this yet, but we have set the stage.”
Choosing the Team
In pursuing these goals, TCU assembled a committee of key technology users drawn from each of its departments. Committee representatives came from admissions, the controller’s office, housing, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student affairs and other departments.
The committee evaluated a number of software packages and more or less took a chance on a new one: Peoplesoft. “At the time, 1997, Peoplesoft was a relatively new player in the higher education market,” Edmondson says. “But they had placed finance and human resource systems in several universities. They had also worked with universities in the United States and Canada to develop a student administration product.
“Ultimately, we selected Peoplesoft because we liked their client server and open architecture approach. We believed the system design would meet our needs for moving to the Web.”
With a product in hand, the TCU committee turned to the task of finding third parties capable of implementing the system. “Peoplesoft offered implementation services,” says Edmondson. “But they did this by contracting with other firms. I wanted to deal with a consultant that would take ownership of the project and have as much to lose as we did in getting the system up and running. I think that was the key to our successful implementation.”
TCU selected Cambridge Technology Partners for its experience in academic environments. In addition, Cambridge had crafted a way to maintain control of budgets and schedules. Cambridge offers a fixed-price, fixed-schedule implementation program. In this program, Cambridge divides implementation into discrete steps that include defining the scope of the project, creating a prototype, deploying or customizing the prototype, and installation and training.
“Cambridge could not estimate a time and cost for our entire project but could, based on experience, estimate each phase,” Edmondson says.
The university contracted for each phase on a fixed cost and schedule. After one phase was complete, the next contract was estimated and bid. Cambridge met their estimated budgets and schedules for each phase in turn.
By the beginning of 2000, the process had moved through four phases and cost between $6 and $8 million. Edmondson expects the entire project to cost between $12 million and $16 million.
So far, Cambridge has installed Peoplesoft modules to manage human resources, public sector financials and student administration. A housing module, developed by TCU, has also been plugged into the Peoplesoft student administration system.
Among its capabilities, the public sector finance module handles all aspects of financial aid including disbursements, batch packaging, loan processing, verification and applications for student funding.
Features of the student administration module include tracking health insurance information and controlling Diebold student ID cards used to charge purchases and services on campus.
The housing module tracks student room assignments, processes check-in and check-out data, sends letters to new residents, maintains damage assessment data and charges students for damages. This module also tracks meal plans.
With this much of the system’s backbone up and running, TCU has begun to deliver business and administrative services across the Web to students, faculty and staff. Students can now register for courses on-line and charge most expenses to their term bills. Employees have access to and better control of their benefits.
How successful is the TCU system? By the end of 1999, 80 percent of the university’s student population, about 6,000 students, had used the Web to register for the spring 2000 semester. Equally impressive, by using the admissions module to help recruit new students, the university enrolled its largest class since World War II.
By the end of this year, more services will show up on the university’s Website. Electronic fee transactions will be possible. Students will apply online for financial aid. Faculty will view and report grades online. Employees will post time cards and purchase supplies online.
Because it is not complete, it is perhaps too early to call the TCU system a successful model for ERP. Nevertheless, TCU has shown that careful ERP planning can produce results, without runaway budgets and schedules.