We wanted features that would support a large research university. For instance, we needed the ability to handle a $1 billion budget and 15,000 faculty and staff. Dealing with research projects, multiple budgets have to be accounted for, so that’s an important thing. Price was important, certainly, but we also wanted the capability for continuous improvement. The SAP system is a powerful system. You may not use all the features right away, but it provides a foundation for continuous improvement.
When we went out and asked folks that had these systems, the references we got from SAP customers were far superior to those of those of the competitors. “There is a very strong and supportive higher ed user community out there.”
Our financial system had been in place for 15 or 16 years. We have a relatively conservative community, so this was pretty much a drastic change, and that was a real concern. Plus, we didn’t have a ton of money to put into this, and we wanted to be very careful about managing the resources. So what we did was just stress communications with the community. We had a town meeting to announce the selection of SAP, and we had 250 people attend. The president spoke, all the business people from around the university showed up, and we also had one of the vice presidents from SAP. We talked about why we chose SAP and what the community could look forward to. We made a lot of promises that we intended to keep.
SAP is a great product. It does everything it says it’s going to do. Procter & Gamble is here in Cincinnati and they use SAP. Most of the big corporations do. What we said to our community was, “We’re using an industrial strength, world-class system, and it’s going to provide us with a lot of benefits.”
The financials were implemented last summer. This summer, we turned on the HR system. In the financials, we’re seeing great benefits. We were dealing with a system from 1988, and every month we’d bring out reams of green-bar paper financial reports and send them around to people. We don’t do that anymore. It’s all online; people can tailor their reports. They’re getting the information they need. They don’t have to wait a month. We’re within the top 50 in funded research universities in the country. That’s a lot of money to manage. And the researchers now can manage their budgets online. That’s a huge benefit.
We gave every user a curriculum to complete, and we gave them a report card. It was a neat approach in an academic environment. There are roughly 1,200 users of the financial system. They actually had a course to study and had to complete if they were going to be allowed to use the system, and it worked. At one point, we brought in 100 laptops, set them up in some student labs and had, basically, around-the-clock classes.
Several. The big issue is change management. The best way to handle that is to handle it directly and deal with the people who are affected. We included them in defining the specifications. We had white board sessions and poster sessions. We engaged the community from the very beginning. They knew how we were selecting, why we were selecting, what we were looking for, and I think they felt engaged and empowered from the start. We also kept reporting back to them. Communication was key. We had monthly communications?we still do. I think they felt they were part of the process instead of it being “done” to them. They were looking forward to the systems coming online instead of cringing in fear or apprehension.
The fact that the community looked forward to the implementation is a good testament as most don’t welcome change. We’re happy, the customers are happy, the vendors are happy. It’s the way it should work. Projects like this don’t have to be a crisis-driven, white-knuckle trip, and it wasn’t in this case. I think there were a lot of reasons. We had executive buy-in. Decisions were made quickly. There was no end-running. We knew what we were going to do. We brought in the users and then said, “We’ve heard you. Here’s what we’re doing. Let’s go.”
Fred Siff is Vice President and Chief Information Officer, and a Professor of Information Systems in the College of Business, at the University of Cincinnati.