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Student Management Software – Integrated ERP or Best of Breed

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Deciding on a single fully-integrated ERP system or multiple Best-of-Breeds?

For educational institutions, performing tasks like nurturing prospects, providing portals for students and faculty, maintaining ongoing relationships with graduates while managing financial operations and compliance regulations presents challenges that require a significant investment in student management software.  Each task is part of a separate functional area with distinct processes and needs for collecting and utilizing data.

Selecting the best student information software to manage these disparate operations will involve a complex set of decisions.  There is never a perfect solution, so prioritizing what’s most important is critical, since compromises must be made.

The final decision always comes down to a choice between either one fully integrated system software or multiple niche’ software systems, a.k.a. Best of Breed (B.O.B.). Either choice offers positives and negatives that should be weighed against the goals of your organization and the available technology resources.

A Fully-Integrated Information System

The main distinguishing benefit of a fully-integrated student information system is that it utilizes a single database for the entire organization. If implemented correctly, each individual has a single file housing all their information, which means all the data about that person is typically accessible in real time. Since all information is entered into a single system, the back-end inner workings are relatively seamless and the data integrity is usually very good.  But there is a downside.

A fully-integrated system is very broad in functionality, fulfilling a wide range of needs for the organization. But like any software, it’s difficult to do everything well and in order to maintain this seamlessness for the full scope of the organization (which is no small task) other aspects of the system are usually de-prioritized. In most cases what you’ll find lacking are the user experience and some specific features that are not critical or essential for the majority of their customers.

A Fully-integrated ERP System: The Pros and Cons

Below I’ve listed the most important benefits and drawbacks to consider when comparing a fully-integrated ERP with B.O.B. software.

Benefits

  1. More accurate and complete data.

  2. Consistent processes throughout the student lifecycle.

  3. Lower maintenance costs due to common architecture.

  4. A single user interface throughout the system.

  5. The overall Total Cost of Ownership is usually lower due to a unified business process.

  6. Single vendor is more accountable for solving issues.

  7. Fewer training costs due to common architecture.

  8. Subject-matter expertise levels are reached faster for the chosen technology.

  9. Single platform decreases evaluation, testing, proof of concept, and time to deployment.

  10. Economies of scale may afford opportunities for bundled (more price-competitive) license fees.

Drawbacks

  1. Risk of sole reliance on one vendor.

  2. Risk outdated technology and features.

  3. Less flexibility when adding new features and functionality.

  4. Downtime affects the entire system.

  5. Increased control and permissions required to ensure institutional data integrity.

Best-of-Breed Software

A best of breed system has the advantage of focus. These systems specialize in smaller functional areas like Admissions or Financial Aid and the features, user experience and look are built without much consideration for the other operational aspects of the organization. The features and functions are focused on user experience with added bells and whistles, but there is a significant downside: data integrity and accessibility.

Utilizing multiple database systems usually runs the high risk of information getting stuck in silos inaccessible to other parts of the organization when they need it, or the creation of multiple incomplete records for a single individual.  For an organization to operate effectively it’s important that the information is complete, accurate and accessible and it can be a challenge getting multiple B.O.B software tools to operate together.

In an educational organization, there is no more dramatic example of this than the admissions department.

Best-of-Breed Software for Admissions

Admissions departments are under pressure to increase the pool of quality prospects.  New marketing technologies seem to emerge every day with the promise of finding and attracting new prospects.  The problem with adopting such new technology is the usual suspect: data integration.

Many inbound marketing technologies have two weaknesses, one they’re industry agnostic and don’t have all the specific admissions functionality like (application tracking, financial aid, transfer credit eval etc). Also these tools generally use implicit data with limited biographical information to find, track, and nurture prospective students.  All student records should have a unique identifier (Name/DOB or SSN) to tie the data together.  For many standalone marketing or admissions products, a cookie or email address is often used as the unique identifier. The problem is that cookies and email addresses change frequently based on who is performing the search or what computer/phone performs the request. Therefore the data does not lend itself to later integrating with the student information database because by its nature, it contains little actual biographical data about the person to match up.

Since this data cannot easily be integrated into the ERP system, the organization is faced with some difficult choices.

  1. Either, use the best of breed software for the entire admissions cycle which means specific functions like common application, Department of Ed integration, financial aid, transfer credit evaluation, and many other necessary functions are not available.

  2. Another choice is to manually enter, batch upload, de-dupe and correct the data.  This can be very labor intensive and usually yields only an 80-90% accuracy rate.

  3. The third approach is to not integrate the best-of-breed software at all. Just import data into it and take advantage of its strengths and let it function in a silo.

Best-of-Breed Software for Financial Analysis

The Accounting/Finance department is the other place where B.O.B software is often found. This does not present a problem if the data from the ERP is only exported to the B.O.B tool for analysis and reporting.

However, there is often a temptation to create a shadow system where the financial package is maintained and synced manually with the ERP. This always presents a problem, since these departments usually require immediate access to real-time data for critical strategic decisions and there can be a lag between one system synchronizing with the other. There’s also the added man hours required to keep both up to date that should be factored in.

Best-of-Breed Software: The Pros and Cons

Below I’ve listed the most important benefits and drawbacks to consider when evaluating B.O.B software.

Benefits

  1. Ability to choose the most feature rich product and latest technology for each department.

  2. Industry familiarity.

  3. Greater flexibility for replacing software modules.

  4. Maintenance and upgrades can be performed module by module without disrupting the entire system.

  5. Easier to implement a smaller department more quickly.

  6. Avoids single vendor dependence.

  7. Allows each department to operate independently of a centrally administered system.

  8. Often involves lower initial costs through more competitive licensing fees.

Drawbacks

  1. Added complexity of multiple systems, multiple databases and multiple vendors.

  2. High potential for data integrity issues, duplicate data, missing data, incomplete records.

  3. Increased costs from data warehousing, complex networking.

  4. Integration points must be continuously updated and maintained.

  5. Increased difficulty troubleshooting due to added complexity and finger-pointing from multiple vendors.

  6. Multiple user interfaces increases training costs and confusion.

  7. Difficult to get a complete set of reports in a timely manner.

  8. Duplication of effort (e.g. address change must be entered into several databases).

  9. Architectural complexity creates high downstream costs to integrate and maintain diverse systems.

  10. Testing and running proof-of-concept trials involving disparate platforms and architectures increases time to deployment.

  11. Higher training costs; team members rarely achieve subject-matter expertise levels across every technology.

  12. Higher risks, as incompatible product road maps may create unforeseen disruptions, such as one vendor opting to stop supporting another vendor’s products.

  13. Lack of coordinated effort at shaping vendor roadmap for organization-wide functionality.

Mapping a software’s strengths and weaknesses to your priorities

Like with any software decision, it’s good to determine whether the strengths of the vendor aligns with your organizational priorities. The “must haves” should map to the vendor strengths and the vendor’s weaknesses should be similar to the “can live without”.

The major areas to consider for making these decisions can be broken down into:

  • Data accuracy - How correct is the information?

  • Efficient operations - How much time will be saved?

  • Data accessibility - Can I get the information when I need it?

  • User experience - How easy is the system to use?

  • Cost - What is the return on investment *?

The following chart compares the strengths and weaknesses of a fully integrated system or B.O.B. software by evaluating data accuracy, efficient operations, data accessibility, user experience and cost, as it relates to the entire organization and a specific department. This is not scientific and can vary by organization but it serves as a good rule of thumb.

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Conclusion

Even after all this assessment, there are other factors that can tend to add further complexity. Competing interests are usually at play where a department will favor a best-of-breed over an integrated system, even though it might not be the best choice when considering the bigger long-term picture.

It is important with any software choice that the organizational buys into the decision. A lack of buy-in may otherwise undermine any potential productivity gains.

The evaluation should always include an understanding of the level of integration that can be achieved especially from a technical standpoint since the other variables are subjective.  The best way to do this is to look at other institutions and look at the support mechanism for user support, data integration, data warehousing needs, and institutional reporting.  If all of these are being provided at a high level without large staff investments, then the solution should be considered.

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About the Author

Joe Stefaniak has been a leading expert for almost 30 years in the development and implementation of software solutions for higher education.  His expertise is in helping colleges and schools streamline operations and manage information for better decision making through analysis and application of best practice software.  He founded SCAN Business Systems in 1986.  Its flagship product, Campus Café, has grown into a leading provider of educational student information systems. He holds a degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University.

Footnote

*    It is extremely difficult to actually compare the return on investment and total cost of ownership of an integrated system vs a best-of-breed approach.  But the variables to include are:

  • Staffing levels and/or savings based on ERP approach.

  • Productivity gains or losses based on which approach is chosen.

  • Cultural issues sometimes referred to as turf issues.

  • User bias and/or lack of buy in which can undermine the efficiency of any organization.

 

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