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The people component: Why higher education institutions should focus on staff when implementing an ERP system

11.20.17

The relationship between people, processes, and technology is as elemental as earth—and older than civilization. From the first sharpened rock to the Internet of Things, the three have been crucially intertwined and interdependent. There would have been no Industrial Revolution, for instance, without entrepreneurs who developed new tools to facilitate new manufacturing methods.

Of course, the increasing complexity of processes and the rapid innovations in technology tend to eclipse the present role that people play in progress. On the surface the trend seems understandable, even reasonable, when it comes to implementing a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Implementing a new ERP system is one of the most daunting projects an institution can undertake. Some sobering statistics—over 70% of all implementations take longer than planned, while over 50% go over budget—illustrate why many institutions focus on selecting the right ERP model and purchasing the right software. This is important, yet there are two excellent and connected reasons why your institution should focus on the “people component” of an ERP implementation.

Reason #1: The Technology is Tenable

Companies have improved and vetted ERP systems over time, so that today there’s little chance your institution will purchase poorly designed ERP software. And you have multiple options. For example, you could pursue a hosted ERP model in which a data center houses your ERP system, or a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, in which a third party administers your ERP software. These options help minimize hardware implementation, maintenance, and incomplete attempts at full system utilization—which in turn saves you time, money, and headaches.

In short: You won’t have to bear the full brunt of the tech burden, and the software and hardware you purchase should work. This enables you to concentrate on the people component of the system.

Reason #2: People Propel the Processes

A higher education institution can optimize an ERP system to complete countless processes: automating registration, onboarding staff, processing financial aid, improving self-service capabilities, simplifying record-keeping, etc. Yet a system can’t do all this on its own (not yet, at least). People—both functional and IT staff—propel these processes. For this to happen, your institution needs to secure buy-in and equip people with vision, training, and resources.

People are wary of ERP projects, for good reason. When an institution decides to tackle an ERP implementation the onus often falls on already busy staff, some of whom may rather find a new career than manage a new system implementation. Your staff and their institutional knowledge are your greatest assets. It is important to empower staff to define how future-state business processes should work—and for you to remember that a common reason for ERP implementation failure is lack of engagement. Sometimes, those at the executive level make decisions without adequate input from the people who actually do the work. You will need to sharpen your “people skills” in order to educate stakeholders on the value of a new ERP system, and how the software will make their day-to-day roles and responsibilities more efficient and effective. To ensure that staff have the bandwidth to engage in this change, it is advisable to provide backfill for key administrative functions.

Designing business processes of a future-state system is arguably the most challenging part of an ERP implementation. Often, stakeholders don’t understand the new functionality that a future system can offer because they have only used the prior system. It is important to engage the ERP vendor early and educate your staff to ensure that they understand the possibilities when designing future-state processes.

Once you have designed processes, training should take center stage. And once again, people play a pivotal role in this process. Modern ERP systems usually require staff to fundamentally conduct business differently; this can require training not only on the new system, but also on other foundational technologies (e.g., the office suite) not relied upon before. It is important to identify these needs and incorporate them into your institution’s training plan up front.

An effective training plan needs to balance multiple types of training, ranging from formal classroom sessions to online learning and train-the-trainer sessions. Tech-savvy staff will be able to train other staff in using the new ERP system, which will not only increase the skill sets of said staff, but will also help them better understand how their roles fit within the larger picture of the institution. This, in turn, will organically improve communication and workflow, as well as lead to more collaboration and teamwork. The result: positive institution-wide change.

Moving Forward

Think about your institution’s focus when implementing a new ERP system—and be aware of the benefits that it could have for your staff, your students, and your bottom line. You will face other ERP-related challenges, such as selecting the right third-party vendor and facilitating change management. If you’d like to discuss some strategies for tackling these challenges, this process is easy—just send me an email.

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