Shortly after joining the Naropa University staff in 2016, Tyler Kelsch found out the college’s enterprise resource planning software was in many ways running the show.
“The first few days I was there, when I asked ‘why is this the way it is,’ the staff would tell me ‘That’s how the software works,’” Kelsch said.
Naropa’s legacy software had been in place for more than two decades, and it had been modified and customized to the point where staff had developed inefficient and ineffective practices in order to work with and around the software.
Our goal here is to serve students, not to keep adding programmers to our back-office IT shop to manage this big snowball that kept growing because of piecemeal customizations.
In February, Kelsch sought an enterprise resource planning software-as-a-service solution in order to scale and streamline the college’s student information, human resources and finance operations.
“We weren’t serving our students or faculty well,” Kelsch said. “The main point was to bring us into the 21st century with our solution to manage the organization.”
EdSurge caught up with Kelsch to ask about how SaaS can improve operations for colleges of all sizes. He shared his perspectives on why a single service provider is more effective than combining disparate services and how easy to implement SaaS can be.
EdSurge: What led you to seek a new enterprise resource planning system?
Tyler Kelsch: A few months ago, I was walking through the registrar’s office, and the assistant registrar was talking to a student who was trying to get some information. The very first thing that came out of the employee’s mouth was, “I’m sorry it’s taking so long. The software is clunky and hard to get the info you need.” It became an immediate apology for why we were not serving the students better. When that’s happening, to me it’s worse than getting a student complaint. It’s almost defeatist, like we couldn’t do anything about it. It was clearly time to make a change.
The premise was that software-as-a-service would be easy to use like a subscription service. You don’t have to buy anything more—you can just access a secure system and use the tools. The old way of thinking was that we wanted to customize the software we used before assessing our own business practices. Instead, software-as-a-service gives us a backbone—we won’t be able to customize it, so it forces us to look at our business practices and make them more effective and efficient. It also helps curb spending in information technology by decreasing the amount of time spent fixing our legacy system when updates to the base software would break the customizations we had implemented. Our goal here is to serve students, not to keep adding programmers to our back-office IT shop to manage this big snowball that kept growing because of piecemeal customizations. With software-as-a-service, we can continue to grow without requiring any custom measures.
Was SaaS difficult to implement?
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We previously moved to Microsoft Office 365, where the expectation from our IT Department was to take advantage of as many of the software’s standard tools as possible to conduct our business. This required everyone to rethink how to modify practices to take advantage of the tools as well as learn to fully use the extendibility of the tools to support processes, so that helped clarify the transition to software-as-a-service for resource planning. Plus, all of my staff and the student support services staff were frustrated with the legacy vendor software, so they were ready and willing to make the switch to a standardized software instead of our customized monster.
We estimated it would take us three months to implement the financial module but got it live in less than that. The entire project plan will take 18 months and so far we are on time or slightly ahead of schedule. I’ve implemented four resource planning systems in my career, and this was the easiest because it only required training rather than the high-level thought processes required to create something new.
The solution we chose was Ellucian Colleague. Ellucian brings the wealth of their client base’s experience with them to the table. Every one of their consultants I’ve engaged with so far have experience with higher education institutions already using Colleague, so when we have issues, they can tell us how other schools resolved the situation. Having a valued partner helping to guide us through implementation is what made it so quick for us to get the software rolling.
I’ve implemented four resource planning systems in my career, and this was the easiest because it only required training rather than the high-level thought processes required to create something new.
Would switching to SaaS work for larger colleges?
While we’re a college of about 1,000 students and 300 faculty and staff members, we liked that our new system can scale regardless of how we grow. For example, the commodity codes used to identify types of purchases are pre-set. I’m sure 99% of the codes we use are the same for us as they are for the University of Colorado next door, for example. The ones that are different and unique to Naropa are easy to add.
What would you say to other institutions considering moving to the cloud?
Really look at yourself—what are your needs? And look at the solution in a holistic fashion. Don’t be afraid to turn it into an opportunity to change the way you deploy resources where you need to have them and serve your students instead of building a base of IT staff to continue to develop and maintain a customized software environment. It can be hard to let that go after it’s built, and it can be even harder for institutions to let go of corresponding bad operating behaviors developed over time. That’s where you get that old adage, “This is how it’s always been,” as if everything is permanent.
One of the mindfulness concepts we practice is that the only thing that's permanent is impermanence, and yet we were challenged with our own need to change, it was hard to let go. But that doesn’t supersede the need to do what’s best for the students. In some ways, you could be harming progress of students by not letting go of some old practices that are actually impediments to their goals of getting an education. The goal of a student is not to fill out 20 different forms to get their financial aid released when one would do.