SaaS ERP is Making the Grade at Brown University

Instead of upgrading a 25-year-old mainframe ERP hodge-podge, IT leaders at Brown University decided to move to SaaS ERP for cost savings, IT simplification and better applications. Meanwhile, the City of Sanibel, Fla., is following its own SaaS ERP path.

By Todd R. Weiss
Mon, August 22, 2011

CIO — When powerful ERP applications are needed by growing businesses today, SaaS ERP is being looked at more and more as a viable option to traditional complex, expensive and labor-intensive packaged ERP suites. And while SaaS ERP is still young, in the right setting and with the right users, it's offering some eye-opening real world gains for a variety of organizations.

Two cases in point: Brown University and the City of Sanibel, Fla. are each in the midst of SaaS ERP projects that are slated to improve their operations, simplify their reporting functions and streamline and replace tired, old work processes that date back several decades.

"Because we were still back in the mainframe code days, we didn't have a lot of needed functionality," says Michael Pickett, the CIO at Brown University.

For years, the school has been running a hodge-podge of individual homebuilt and proprietary applications for payroll, human resources, purchasing, budgeting and other functions—all on a 25-year-old IBM (IBM) mainframe. "Our reporting was rudimentary. There wasn't a lot built in, no document management. We were using very ancient tools to try to manage a modern university."

When the economic downturn hit, it gave university officials even more of an incentive to make needed changes. Suddenly, they didn't have the staff resources they needed to manage that existing, outdated infrastructure, Pickett says. "That was a driving force."

The idea of SaaS ERP came up in discussions with the school's Board of Trustees. Two board members worked at companies that were using SaaS ERP from vendor Workday Inc., Pickett says.

Brown did deep research, talked with lots of analyst and experts, and brought Workday in for the project. "For a smaller institution that doesn't have a large IT staff, it's compelling," he says.

So far, Brown is halfway through the first HR phase, which is expected to be completed in about 12 months. The finance pieces will be finished in two years. Normally, SaaS isn't such a long process, but in this case there's lots of intricate work needed to rewrite old mainframe code and functions that were written in the old COBAL days, Pickett says. "So we have to do a big redesign and introduce new functions and workflows that didn't exist before. It's a massive rewrite of old to new. It's a process that we want to get just right."

Using Workday, the school's SaaS ERP systems will be on cloud servers that also handle accounts and data for other Workday customers in a multi-tenant environment. The multi-tenant environment doesn't trouble Pickett due to the prevalence of security audits and other controls used by the vendor. "These guys have done this before. Those are the kinds of things that you look at and you ask questions about. Nothing is risk-free, but this is something that a reasonable professional can live with."

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