University ERP: Big Mess on Campus

Disastrous ERP implementations have given more than a few universities black eyes. Fortunately, alternatives to these complex integrations now exist.

By Thomas Wailgum
Sun, May 01, 2005

CIO — When Stefanie Fillers returned to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus last fall, she needed to log into the school's new online registration system, called Spire, to make certain that the courses she had signed up for would allow her to graduate. She also wanted to waive her participation in UMass's health insurance plan. So when Spire crashed the day before classes began, Fillers, a senior, was annoyed. But at least she knew where her classes were—unlike most first-year students.

"The freshmen were going crazy because they didn't know where to go," Fillers says. The Spire system allows all 24,000 students at the Amherst campus to register for classes and perform other online activities. So when it crashed as the result of a PeopleSoft Web portal implementation that had been rushed, classes were half-empty for the first three days of the semester. And there were long lines everywhere you looked.

Around the same time, returning Stanford University students were also welcomed by a nonfunctioning Web portal that prevented them from finding out where their classes were. And some 3,000 students at Indiana University were denied financial aid by a buggy new ERP system, even though they had already received loan commitments. While the IT department and financial aid administrators scrambled to fix the bugs in the complex system, short-term loans were processed for those cash-strapped coeds who needed to pay for classes, rent and food.

These recent campus meltdowns illustrate how the growing reliance on expensive ERP systems has created nightmare scenarios for some college CIOs. In every case, the new systems are designed to centralize business processes in what historically has been a hodgepodge of siloed legacy systems. And indeed, that's exactly why college administrators are drawn to ERP systems. They drool over the integrated views that an ERP system offers of finance, HR, student records, financial aid and more.

But those same officials often fail to see the enormous cultural and technical obstacles that can delay—and even cripple—such ambitious implementations. A recent survey found that university ERP implementations have taken far longer than expected and cost five times more than what the projected price tag was. "There are a lot of people who have scar tissue" from ERP failures, says Bob Weir, vice president of IS at Northeastern University—including himself.

ERP implementations are difficult, even in very top-down corporate environments. Getting them to work in universities, which are essentially a conglomeration of decentralized fiefdoms, is nearly impossible. Staff in the largely autonomous departments do not cotton well to the one-size-fits-all strategy of an ERP implementation. Yet for universities, developing all software in-house is not an option. These nonprofit organizations simply don't have the talent and financial resources to create and manage a robust enterprise system. Indeed, representatives from PeopleSoft, which dominates the higher education market for ERP, say that a large part of the problem results from the inexperience of university IT departments and their tendency to rush implementations and inadequately test the new systems.

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