You are here


Reporting for Duty

Getting administrators from across campus up to speed on generating and using financial reports begins with the right tools and some basic training.
University Business, Jan 2010

WHEN LYNNE SCHAEFER STARTED HER position as vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2005, the institution's financial reporting tool left much to be desired. Developed internally to pull data from UMBC's PeopleSoft ERP, the tool has produced complex reports that make it "hard to find exactly what pieces of information you're looking at," she says. "This creates frustration, especially for the untrained eye. ... I'm sure in some cases it has resulted in people throwing up their hands and just hoping it all goes ok."

Taking the time to try to fully understand and analyze the data often creates situations where colleagues aren't seeing the same information. "Depending on what aspect of the report gets pulled you can get a different answer. This creates doubts about the validity of the whole administrative system," explains Schaefer, whose department is in the process of implementing a financial reporting tool from iStrategy Solutions.

Sean Mallin, iStrategy's chief operating officer, notes that these issues are common on campuses today. "One department writes a report and has structured the query one way. Another person accesses information and structures the report a different way." When both reports are brought into a meeting, time is spent arguing about "whose numbers are right instead of making a decision," he adds.

'It's very valuable to bring all the parties together to talk through what information is needed and how best to deliver it to the various users.' -Lynne Schaefer, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The implementation anticipation is building for UMBC administrators, many of whom have already been using an iStrategy solution for student information-related reporting. "The excitement on campus is pretty amazing considering it's a financial reporting tool," Schaefer quips.

Perhaps President Freeman Hrabowski is its biggest cheerleader. "Without a system like iStrategy, it takes longer to get answers to basic questions," he says. Dissecting the data requires more back-and-forth and he might be less likely to have time for analysis before a meeting.

"The role of the president is to be very curious," Hrabowski continues, adding that encouraging conversations and problem solving among administrators across campus takes a deliberate effort. "It means working to create a culture that focuses on critical thinking."

A culture change surrounding how financial data is accessed and how decisions are made based on it requires having the right technology tools as well as training and support. So officials at a growing number of higher ed institutions are making sure their teams are well equipped—both with the systems and the know-how.

"You want the people who make decisions about budgets, expenses, and costs to be able to access the information quickly, and with confidence that it is correct," says Robert Dolan, the worldwide government and education executive for business analytics and performance management at IBM. "The key here is having one version of the truth." With the current economic situation, it's especially critical that people are looking at the same numbers.

Simply viewing the numbers in an accessible format has traditionally been seen as a challenge, even with the sophisticated systems used today. For example, the transaction-based ERP system at Broward College (Fla.) lacked both data manipulation techniques and real reporting capabilities, according to a case study about the implementation of SAS Financial Management across the community college's eight campuses. "Information was keyed into Excel spreadsheets from hardcopy financial reports or mainframe screens, and/or downloaded in text format and then modified into a specific report format," shares Liz Mendez, associate vice president for budget and payroll at the college. The ability to pull multiple years of data for comparison or summarize various accounts was limited. Now the data automatically flows from the college's ERP system into SAS, and administrators on any campus can see a budget-to-actual summary of financial data any day of the month.

As anyone in a complex organization who relies on data knows, having information on separate, individually created spreadsheets as Broward used to have can wreck havoc.

"I'm a firm believer that shadow systems create more problems than they solve," says UMBC's Schaefer. "We're hopeful that with the new system, it will be so easy to use and the data consistency will be such that people rely on this and get rid of the shadow system."

"I think there's recognition that these tools need to change," says Moira Kirkland, the senior product manager for financial solutions at Datatel. "The tools are changing. It's a primary focus for us here." She has seen a shift from transactional reporting to being "more about what you can glean on the back end" in terms of what the data means. The real challenge, she adds, is making the reports user friendly.

Reaching that goal is a must as data-based decision making becomes more deeply rooted on campus ground. "While instinct, gut, and experience may have solved problems in the past, people are begging to look more holistically at all information to make decisions today," says Phil Strand, director of performance management for SAS' Education Practice.

A move toward self-service is another reason for enhanced reporting tools. For a president like UMBC's Hrabowski, self-service means answering 10 questions on his own, and then having "enough detail to really ask a serious question of his people," says Mallin. "People are more self-reliant and have to do their own analysis and get strategic."

For administrators at each of Broward's campuses, it's about being able to manipulate the data to, say, compare themselves to another campus or see budget numbers for all eight campuses, explains Mendez. Her department uses SAS FM to develop budget vs. actual quarterly reports for the board of trustees and to assist in development of a cost report for the state. "The extraction of the data to create these reports takes only minutes and has saved many man hours that can now be devoted to spending more time analyzing the data, rather than extracting the data, or being devoted to other projects," she says.

At Calvin College (Mich.), which was a beta tester for iStrategy's financial tool, the easy access to longitudinal spending data has been key in making quick decisions, says Henry DeVries II, vice president for administration, finance, and information services. The prior practice, budget officers across campus getting a "standard vanilla monthly report" using data pulled from Calvin's Datatel ERP, meant that anyone needing an accurate picture in the middle of that month would have to make a specific request and wait for someone else to generate an updated report.

'It is all about self-service, getting it into the hands of users who make decisions." -Robert Dolan, IBM

Now administrators can really think on their feet. As DeVries and his team worked on the 2010-2011 budget, a member of the faculty senate was looking at budget trends over the past 15 years and questioned why costs in institutional support had grown so much, especially compared to instructional support and student support costs. "I said part of it was benefits, and he said, 'What's the rest of it?,'" recalls DeVries. DeVries was able to go back to his office and break down the institutional costs to see specifically which offices are growing and taking up resources.

"From an administrator's perspective, [the reporting tool] really allows you to answer the tough questions that faculty are asking," he notes. "The faculty are engaged [in the budget process] and they want answers. And we have to get answers."

Finance officials must get an answer to this one question before others across campus are trained in financial reporting: Who needs access?

At Broward, Mendez explains, there are three categories: system administrators, who support SAS FM software and system setup; finance users, who build and publish reports for other departments or internal use; and campus users, who are on the receiving end of published reports and can manipulate the data within them. Campus users include cost center budget managers, business deans, and upper-level management in need of direct access.

Oakland University (Mich.) also uses multilevel access to data, with each Banner system module owner being responsible for approving access to that module's data, says Robert Saunders, director of development information services. For his department, access is granted to anyone who can make the case for needing to see the data to perform his or her job, and the level of access is determined accordingly.

Another pretraining action worth some thought is forming a committee to focus on report generation and analysis issues and goals. "We have a reporting committee made up of representatives from across the university who come together to talk about what kinds of reports we need, how the current ones are working, and what improvements need to be made," says UMBC's Schaefer. The group was formed several years ago to work with the existing reporting tool, but having that infrastructure in place was useful when the decision was made to purchase the iStrategy financial solution.

"We have found it's very valuable to bring all the parties together to talk through what information is needed and how best to deliver it to the various users," Schaefer says. "The business managers, research faculty, principal investigators on grants, chairs and deans, the president and vice presidents all have different takes on what information is important to them."

UMBC also has a committee to help in the reporting requirements for accepting and spending grant money. "It's one single group specifically looking at how to improve post-award grant management, including financial reporting," she explains.

The University of North Texas is also using cross-campus groups to help with reporting. A steering committee comprised of a provost and vice presidents from various departments with different constituencies and data needs meets quarterly, according to William Senn, director of decision support. "The steering committee guides the decision support family, which meets monthly and discusses similar issues at a lower level, including what tactics are needed to make the report or analysis possible," he says. Senn's team has developed a number of budget reports through the IBM Cognos business intelligence platform that allow budget officers to "look in and dive as deeply as they'd like" into the data.

A few months ago, when Dolan met with an IBM Cognos customer, he says campus leaders' "biggest concern was, 'How do we get people within our organization embracing this culture and getting them to understand that they can run their own kinds of reports without breaking the system?' "

Yet once people start running their own financial reports, "they embrace it very, very quickly," he says. IBM offers users training on how the software works, how to build reports, and how to use the information they can now access. "It is all about self-service, getting it into the hands of users who make decisions," he adds.

In Strand's experience at SAS, clients will get department leaders together for a few days of training to get them up to speed on how to use the financial management software. "They learn how to develop a simple or complex report for their department, school, campus, or whole system," he says. Broward and SAS jointly offered initial training for the institution's senior management, and then one-on-one retraining has been offered to reinforce the value of the software, says Mendez, adding that a guide to the tool was developed for all users to consult.

A recommendation for iStrategy clients is to choose a problem, such as creating a budget, and explore its solution during a training session, Mallin explains. Then the institution can incrementally add to and grow the application. At many institutions, administrators "just want to solve every problem at once and won't roll out until they do that," he says. "What happens is they go on for a year, funding gets cut off, and nothing gets done."

For Oakland University's development team, the training goal was to allow the finance person associated with each academic program to learn the origin of a specific gift.

"If the school of nursing business manager sees $1,000 of revenue that hit last night because a gift was processed, we give a training program that teaches them how to go backwards and see who that gift actually came from," says Saunders. The development team can go onto Banner Advancement and see who made a particular gift, but in the past, those using Banner Finance couldn't do so. The users also have to be trained to understand the difference between gift and pledge revenue, he explains. With pledge revenue, they must understand that "there's no money in the bank yet."

At Calvin College, training for the iStrategy solution is through 30- to 45-minute "Lunch Bytes" sessions, during which participants bring their own lunch and the school provides beverages and cookies, DeVries says.

DeVries and others recommend taking advantage of natural "power users" in getting people up-to-speed on using reporting tools. Ideally, there should be someone in each department that others can go to for help in creating an ad hoc report, Datatel's Kirkland says, adding that the institution should make sure the person has the support (e.g., time) to play that power user role.

Also important is making sure that the president and others at the top lead by example. "It's all about accountability. It's about communicating that the college or university leadership has made this decision to implement this solution," says Dolan, adding that once people get going with the technology "it's infectious."

One way to help potentially reluctant users get started is to ensure that the training approach is a match for the participants. DeVries suggests paying attention to whether the group is more likely to be quantitative or qualitative in their decision making and then tailoring the training approach accordingly. For instance, Calvin's president, Gaylen Byker, has a business background and is very quantitative.

"The more data you can put in front of him, the better," DeVries says. "If the group is qualitative—say, I'm talking to the whole faculty—my job is to give the data and then tell the story ... so it's accessible to them." That might mean sharing faculty salary data for the past 15 years and then explaining how the trends aren't going to be sustainable for the college in the long run.

What will become of self-service reporting in years to come? "It will be important even as budgets hopefully begin to increase," Kirkland says. "Now they're robbing Peter to pay Paul. If budgets get bigger, they're going to have to decide how best to spend on exciting new initiatives and how it fits within the strategic plans of the institution"—and reporting will help get the job done.