Make Your SaaS System Work for You: Implementation Best Practices
While many institutions implement SaaS ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) research administration or compliance systems, not all do so in a way that allows them to fully achieve their business goals.
Why? What makes the difference between an institution that simply uses a SaaS ERP system and one that takes full advantage of a system? How can institutions best leverage ERP systems to improve processes and solve problems? Texas State University recently implemented a new back-end system and here is what we learned.
Clarity of Vision
Success at the highest levels comes when both research and technology establish a clear vision. You can do this by articulating a clear set of goals for system implementation and communicating those priorities to campus in a straightforward way. Communications should answer the following questions:
- Why are we implementing this system?
- What business problems are we hoping to solve?
- Why is it important that we prioritize this project and work through any challenges that arise during implementation?
An explicit vision drives adoption and sets the tone for success.
Texas State University (Texas State), an emerging research university, identified the need for a SaaS system to support their growing research portfolio and create efficiencies within the research administration office. As Texas State grappled with the task of finding the right SaaS system to implement, administrators collectively identified and prioritized the variables that would impact their decision. Among those variables were:
- The size and expected growth of the institution.
- The current organizational structure, including central and decentralized research administration offices.
- The academic culture of the campus.
Any new system must also be required to integrate with Texas State’s proven best practices for a successful research office: standard methods for proposal notification, submission and tracking; ensuring consistent application of federal uniform guidance; and sponsor requirements and university policy/procedure.
In addition to meeting Texas State’s current research needs, the administration had the foresight to require a robust and flexible system that would evolve as the university evolved. The system also needed to be able to offer broad integration functions and create the capacity to streamline processes, while allowing for the flexibility to adapt to future organizational changes.
Research institutions struggle when employees are expected to carry out system implementation tasks in addition to their regular work. Even with strong external consulting services, planning and executing a system implementation takes time and effort from internal staff members.
Individuals with knowledge of the institution’s culture, business needs and tolerance for change need to make informed decisions about how to best use the system’s features. Those with the right technical skills and understanding of the campus technical landscape need to design and develop desired integrations with other local systems. Particularly in the deadline-driven environment of central research administration and research compliance offices, these important tasks require protected time. Schools are successful when they dedicate resources to the following tasks:
- Project management to coordinate internal tasks and decision making.
- Subject matter experts to make and vet system usage decisions.
- Technical staff to design and develop integrations.
Due to the necessary requirements of each of the above tasks, Texas State personnel experienced the challenge of juggling daily research administration tasks and a full implementation schedule. Roles and daily tasks were often re-arranged to ensure that adequate personnel were available to dedicate time to full implementation.
To coordinate tasks and decision making, technical and functional personnel came together to create a project framework. New teams were created, made up of both functional and technical members. Their first priority was to set a realistic expectation of the time needed for the project.
The functional team members were willing to dedicate a minimum of six months of their time to the successful implementation and post go-live of the new SaaS. Their responsibilities included creating needs assessments, working with IT, and testing and preparing for go-live of the SaaS system. The technical personnel were assigned to complete specific tasks in order to roll out a successful implementation. These IT individuals worked directly with the system vendor to ensure a streamlined conversion from their old system to the new one, as well as maintaining a linkage between Texas State systems and Kuali.
Additionally, the teams streamlined communications by designating primary points of contact (POCs). A POC was identified for both functional and technical teams, which simplified conversations (both internal and external) on any issues related to implementation. Contacts for future needs were also established.
Ownership of System Knowledge
In order for an institution to get the most out of a SaaS ERP system, it needs to consider the system fully “theirs.” An institution can do that by identifying staff members who will be responsible for developing a thorough understanding of how the system works. During the implementation process, this means:
- Identifying individuals who will become local system experts, who will be the people that others on campus turn to when they need assistance.
- Reviewing knowledge base articles and other vendor or consultant-provided training materials.
- Fully participating in vendor-provided training sessions, including taking notes and asking questions.
- Setting aside time to discover the system through open-ended exploration sessions.
After the go-live, these local experts will be responsible for the following:
- Establishing a mechanism for campus users to access help and support from the system experts.
- Updating system configurations and workflow settings to meet evolving business requirements.
- Monitoring release notes and other vendor communications to stay aware of new features available for use.
- Engaging with the broader community of users through attendance at user group meetings and professional conferences.
Texas State believes knowledge is necessary for the successful continued use of software. System experts, in the form of POCs, are heavily encouraged to continue learning the ins and outs of the system. Because of this expectation from Texas State, POCs have helped onboard new operations of the software and can help clarify if and how the software should be altered to continue meeting the best practices of the university.
Every university will have varying experiences and needs as they approach a SaaS implementation. However, Texas State’s best practice tips can help any university facing the intimidating job of implementing new software. If universities can clarify their vision and goals and adopt these practices, they will see a smoother go-live and can avoid some of the many possible complications of implementation.
Author Perspective: Administrator