Tech Leadership

Getting Correct Answers About Data the First Time

by Jim Hirsch

How often have you asked a question about the budget, personnel or students and received more than one answer from different departments? Or asked a question about available data and waited two weeks to get an answer?

Your school district’s departments have plenty of data to get you the answer — the challenge is that the data and the accompanying reports might all exist in separate databases with no easy way to reconcile which data are accurate or current. If this situation sounds familiar to you, it’s time to rethink your business software strategy and take a look at an enterprise resource planning system, or ERP.

Enterprise resource planning is actually a misnomer. These software systems typically don’t provide a venue for planning nor do they necessarily track a great variety of resources. However, they do bring all of an organization’s needs for transactions and information relating to business practices into a single set of software applications running against a single database. In that respect, the term “enterprise” fits exactly and provides the initial impetus for school leaders to take a closer look at this business software application.

Traditional ERP implementations often combine the specific functions of human resources and finance into a single, multifeatured application using a single database. While these functions are the most critical for businesses in the corporate environment, education settings have one other large function that is often ignored when considering an integrated system: student information. It’s a prime reason why traditional providers of enterprise resource planning systems for business are not always successful in the K-12 market.

Avoiding Duplication
In a school system, an ERP system would contain, at a minimum, all the applications, data and reporting tools for finance, human resources and student accounting. Additionally, related applications for food service, transportation, student assessment and even parent portals would connect directly to the data contained within the system.

For schools, a more descriptive name for such a system might be Total Education Administrative Management System, or TEAMS. A software firm in Austin, Texas, Prologic Technology Systems, had the same idea and recently created such a system for schools under that moniker.

Much discussion occurs regarding interoperability — the need for data in schools to be used by a wide variety of software applications without duplication of efforts for inputs. In addition, there is great desire on the output side for the data used to be accurate and consistent when preparing federal, state and local reports. This is where an ERP system fits much better into the needs of today’s school districts compared to other methods of data interoperability.

In its simplest form, when data about a student, a new staff member or a budget amendment for board action are entered into an enterprise resource planning system, that information is entered only once by the designated “owner” of that part of the system. Then it can be used directly by any other application within the ERP system or connected directly to the database.

Changing the Question
Imagine a study that examined the impact of teacher credentials and salary upon the achievement of a certain subgroup of students. With the typical school business system today, that data would often have to be extracted from a number of disparate databases and manual linkages created to connect teacher hiring and payroll information, along with their roster of students and demographic and assessment information. Finally, the report would be assimilated into a spreadsheet for review. If you decided to change a single portion of the original question, the entire process would have to be started over.

In an ERP system, the internal report program would have access to all of the student, finance and human resource information in a single database. The report could combine and filter the requested variables without any extractions or need for additional linkages. If the question changes, only the variables or filters need to be adjusted in the report program and the new view would be available almost immediately.

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s only because ERP systems are still new to school organizations, even though they have been operating in business environments since the 1960s. Current business systems in school districts may have been sufficient for your needs up to this point, but if you measure the amount of effort and time to ensure data integrity and to create reports that combine information from individual databases, you’ll quickly determine that an enterprise resource planning system can bring immediate value. It also will prepare the central-office team for future information needs that will depend on currently unrelated variables.

Jim Hirsch is associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas. E-mail: jim.hirsch@pisd.edu


Additional Resources
Jim Hirsch suggests more information is accessible at these sites:

“ABC: An Introduction to ERP,” in CIO Magazine, available at www.cio.com/article/40323

A list of ERP software packages, compiled in Wikipedia, at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ERP_software_packages

Prologic Technology Systems, www.prologic-tech.com