Business as Unusual: Accelerate ERP deployments

Many of us have enjoyed at least one ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) deployment or upgrade.  Sometimes we can measure these in half-decade and I’ve heard of ones that went more than a decade.

And today, we’re all enjoying planning for a post-pandemic world, one where we are likely going to see more students expect online classes. We’re not even sure which universities will be holding in-person classes in the fall.  So even more students will expect better online services.  I’ve been saying for years that most ERP systems basically have just digitized standing in line in the gymnasium to register for classes.  That has to change.

So, as we plan for the Fall semester, the state of play in higher education is that a lot of schools are still running on older ERP systems and a lot that have deployed newer ones are only partially deployed – typically around the simpler to deploy HR and Finance modules that are easier to standardize.  And I say simpler but not easier intentionally.  Even more complicated is the fact that not all of our vendors have moved beyond their first iteration of cloud systems, especially in the student information system space.  Which is the system most critical to sustaining ourselves in our business as unusual model.  So, the challenges are there.

These deployments are slowed by all these factors and even more by our campus cultures of collaboration, buy-in, and shared decision making.  This is a worthy model but we’re in dealing with pre-existing enrollment existential crises and a pandemic whose cultural and business repercussions may last for quite some time.  Without meaning to sound overly dramatic, we are in a moment that calls for emergency action.  For the second time this semester.

What does that mean?  The key idea is that we need to move astonishingly faster.  We cannot roll into a more online future next fall with the normal academic pace of deployment.  Schools that are three years away from more modern systems are in trouble.  We need improved systems urgently.  And we can’t move slowly with thoughtful debate as though each school was so unique that they cannot move to more standardized practices.

So today’s to do list item, is to close the gap between your existing system and where you need to be in six months.   I don’t think it’s possible to make such a transition in the few weeks or months we have before fall enrollment.  But spring enrollment typically happens around November.  And we need to be planning to be ready by then with systems that work a lot better.  So what do you need to do to make this happen?

  1. Start with your vendors.  You need to be able to convert to a new or upgraded system quickly. The vendors are already in the cloud and they probably have the tools to do the necessary data conversions.  Your implementation partners need to be focused on getting people ready to use new tools – both business units and faculty.  What you roll out must be easy and intuitive and minimize customer issues.
  2. Begin the conversation now with your campus about the urgency.  Paint the picture of where you want to be and how you can get there.  You have to be the salesperson and you have to be able to convince the staff and the faculty that you can’t wait to do this the old way.  Some comfort of this is the newer cloud-based systems are much easier to use and learn – and there is much more standardization and business unit configuration control once they’re deployed. Standardization has a lot of benefits but it is going to be a challenge in our culture.
  3. Empower a small group to make decisions and drive the project to conclusion.  You cannot have debates about how you set up the system once the project begins.  You can debate changes as part of the next upgrades.  Recognize we have to move to an agile continuous improvement cycle and not a waterfall model. If this is the top priority, you need to be able to decline other non-critical projects, and you probably need to split into a KTLO (keep the lights on) team and a project team. Really, the only other thing you should have in your portfolio is helping more faculty move their courses online.
  4. Agree on who is leading.  The traditional view is ERP conversions have to be led someone on the business side. This makes sense to me when there is time to be thoughtful and I have seen it work better than other theories. Unfortunately, I don’t think the kind of speed we’re talking about is likely to make that a good idea.  The business side needs to be prepared to work on the change side of the equation, not on the technology.  I always say the technology is the easy part, the people and business process change is the hard part.  And the CIO is the executive who knows how to do systems conversions.
  5. Have an exit plan.  A percentage of the CIOs who drive something to success this fast are going to burn out or burn bridges.  And if either of those happen, you want to be in control of your transition.  We’re talking about a timeline that is going to leave some people feeling like their voices weren’t heard in our culture that believes in making sure all voices are heard.  Some people’s feelings may be be bruised.

This may be the most challenging leadership moment we will see as CIOs.  But if we don’t lead now, why are we the leaders?