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Case Study: Community College Embarks on Financial Reporting System Implementation

Written By: Lyndsay Wise
Published On: December 8 2006

In 1996, the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) became an independently managed, board-governed institution. NSCC is the primary community college body across the province, and represents thirteen main campuses as well as six community learning centers. The schools are housed across five main academic sectors, including business; access; applied arts and new media; health and human services; and trades and technology. NSCC provides a full range of academic programs and provides the majority of technical and apprenticeship training programs in Nova Scotia (Canada). The school has a yearly enrollment of 25,000 students, and a faculty and staff of 1,400.

Business Problem

Managing the financial activities of NSCC required the monthly generation and distribution of month-end financial reports to various decision makers across the province. The generation and distribution of those reports to over thirteen different physical locations was quite difficult. NSCC relied on financial legacy systems to run all of its financial applications and month-end processes, and to generate financial reports. The month-end process took up to two weeks to complete after each month's close; it then took an additional week to print and distribute the reports to the required financial decision makers across the various campuses and community centers under the NSCC umbrella. By the time reports reached the appropriate decision makers, the data was stale and did not provide any value for the decision making process. Aside from not seeing any added value, end users were not using the reports because of the time frame in which they were received. The lengthy distribution process became an excuse for poor performance, due to users not receiving the appropriate information in a timely fashion. Additionally, it was difficult to develop new reports or make changes to the current report structures, meaning that the overall process was difficult to manage.

Different decision makers across the organization needed to analyze the data in different ways. Without the ability to customize, to change, or to develop new reports, the reports themselves provided limited benefit to end users. Having access to print-based reports only allowed end users to view the reports without access to source data, and without the ability to manipulate the report structure.

Additionally, the office of the vice president (VP) of administrative services was experiencing difficulties acquiring financial planning information across the various campuses, due to discontent with the lag time between the completion of month-end processes and the time at which reports reached their destination. Instead of receiving feedback from various departments regarding planning activities, excuses were being given to the VP regarding the lack of information decision makers were receiving. Without the right information, the decision makers assumed they couldn't make the right decisions.

Solution

Taking advantage of an organization-wide implementation of PeopleSoft for ERP, the NSCC controller's office decided to implement a new reporting tool as well, and a trial version of Business Objects' Seagate Info 7.0 was installed. The trial version provided free software, with all of the functionality available in the regular Business Objects Crystal Reports product offering, giving NSCC the ability to see whether this software had the required functionality. It also gave NSCC the opportunity to see how a new reporting process would work with respect to a centralized report creation and distribution structure.

The solution choice had been straightforward, as a colleague of NSCC controller David Dewey had recommended Seagate Info 7.0. After a three-day on-site visit by Business Objects, the system was up and running. Within one and a half weeks of full time work, the reports were being published to the web. This enabled reports to be uploaded, giving end users direct access to the information in real time. Within two weeks, the process of change had been completed. As this new reporting functionality was coupled with the ERP implementation, most end users thought that the new reports were a part of PeopleSoft, creating natural end user buy-in. The PeopleSoft logo was placed on the reports as well, giving the illusion that one system was being used. This tactic created a seamless integration as the end user community was not adversely affected.

One of the main discussions surrounding the actual implementation was whether to use PeopleSoft as a reporting tool as well. Most report users were centered in the financial departments across the various campuses. Due to the multiple end user locations, the training involved in the adoption of the new system would be time-consuming and costly. The alternative was to implement a reporting system that could integrate with the ERP system, in a seamless and user-friendly manner to allow for an easy transition. The decision to implement a third party reporting tool was made to take advantage of the advanced reporting capabilities it offered. Once the reporting framework was set up, a pilot project was put in place with fifteen users across NSCC campuses, with the members of the selected pilot group trained as super users. Since the original implementation of Crystal Reports, the use of Business Objects throughout the organization has expanded to over 200 users.

Additionally, attaining management buy-in was simple because the associated implementation costs were 75 percent less with the trial version than they would have been if Crystal Reports had been implemented first. Also, this meant that there was little to no risk regarding the implementation. The evaluation of risk was assessed based on simple criteria, the main factors including a relative no-cost implementation because of the trial version (as well as the fact that management felt the situation couldn't get worse). The main concern was the need to drive change for a process that was frustrating for all levels of financial decision makers; therefore, implementing a new reporting system for between $2,000 to $3,000 (USD) was seen as very low risk, as the low cost factor added to the advantages of attempting something new.

Moving from the original physical distribution of reports to providing end users with access to the reports (via Internet and e-mail distribution) gave end users more freedom regarding use and manipulation of the data. Due to the data being generated right after month's end, users were able to access the required reports at the close of the financial period. This new access to reports created a series of new requests from end users to make changes to the income statements. Those changes were made, updating individuals' views to reports, and making the number of report variations expand exponentially. Now decision makers were able to access the right data at the right time.

Due to the increased use of reports, a more stable server environment was required to meet the needs of the additional users, who had grown in number to over 200. Also, the decision was made to purchase additional licenses and to implement Crystal Enterprise, with subsequent upgrades as new releases became available. Now, one version of the income statement is created as a prompted driven report, to allow each user to see the report based on the view they need. From the users' perspective, there is only one report; however, in the background, the prompt-based report replaces over thirty variations of income statements.

The Crystal reporting environment has progressed to include the streamlining of human resources and the management of student administration. With over 1,200 employees and 25,000 students to manage, enterprise reporting has become the norm for NSCC. The financial department still retains the most knowledge and experience with Crystal Reports, translating to more user adoption and general buy-in.

Challenges

The NSCC discovered that creating a dedicated server environment was important to ensure the management of the new reporting structure. At the beginning, no changes were made to the servers; consequently, the server environment became unstable. This actually provided the controller's office with feedback regarding the use of the new system—without the new reports, the complaints were piling up. To make sure this did not become a recurring problem, three servers were installed, which included one redundant server and one development server to ensure seamless reporting with little to no downtime. This new server structure was implemented over three years ago, and has stabilized the environment.

Developing buy-in within the financial department and among management was straightforward, due to extensive training as well as the new availability to the appropriate data within a timely manner. However, once Crystal Reports use was extended beyond the financial department, attaining buy-in became more difficult. Without individual expertise and training, the administration department's reliance on the financial department to make changes and to take responsibility for reporting processes translates into a slow adoption rate.

Recommendations and Lessons Learned

The server issue highlights the broader challenge of creating a system that can be supported by growth over time. Identifying the functional and technical requirements, and accounting for anticipated growth is essential when developing a business intelligence platform. Whether pulling data from a data warehouse, or using reporting or other features of business intelligence (BI) on top of an existing system, the technical specifications must be identified. Also, the importance of having a development and test environment to ensure the continuous development of features that can meet the changing needs of end users should not be overlooked. The testing environment can also ease the transition to newer versions of BI and reporting tools. Testing can help organizations identify what the transition issues are, and fix them before they affect users. Organization-wide buy-in can therefore be expected, providing end users are not needlessly affected when software upgrades are implemented..

Maintaining in-house expertise also helps ensure end user buy-in, as end users don't need to seek outside support when issues occur. Although there will always be the need to have a connection with the BI vendor when issues arise, the overall experience of end users will appear hassle-free when they can approach another colleague with issues, concerns, or requests for change. It is important to work with a vendor, such as Business Objects, that will train users to become independent and give them the ability to develop and maintain their own BI environments. Additionally, it is vital to create an environment where users do not notice the transition between upgrades and changes or experience technical difficulties. In other words, whether running parallel or testing the solution thoroughly beforehand, it is important to provide the user community with a seamless implementation environment.

 
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