Building Better ERPs for Schools

Joel Hames, VP, Product, SunGard K-12
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Joel Hames, VP, Product, SunGard K-12

For most organizations, “big data” is a concept, technology, and approach to data management that promises meaningful insights and new market opportunities. Big data analytics holds the same promise for schools–meaningful insights into student achievement. For them, an ERP holds the promise of efficiently managing extraordinary amounts of disparate data related to teacher development, and accountability to other stakeholders—who include school boards, policymakers, and all members of a given district’s community. 

In addition, school districts are legally obligated to comply with changing state and federal laws and regulations—regarding what reports must be generated, how data is simultaneously shared and protected, and why it is collected in the first place. An effective ERP system can both streamline these tasks and strengthen every link along the way. 

Better Data Means Involving Experts:  

While few doubt the power of big data analytics to uncover insights that can positively impact student success, there are fewer meaningful examples of this impact than would be predicted by its potential. This is due, in part to the systems that are selected to collect, organize, and distribute data that matters. A poorly implemented ERP, with limited scope and vision, inherently limits big data potential. Many districts have approached the challenge of selecting and implementing these ERP systems from the wrong angle. 

  By simultaneously coordinating, analyzing, and sharing the data involved in modern K-12 education, school districts can use the ERP system of their choice to guide operational success  

Across the country, it is common for districts to leverage their systems to simply capture as much data as possible. This plan relies on efforts to normalize that data and mine it for insights after the fact. Too often that’s not what actually happens. These efforts fail because gathering data for the sake of it is the wrong starting point. Just as bad as having the wrong data is having too much data that cannot be mined for insight. 

Enter the need for experts. Without data scientists on board to guide through the deep understanding of what data can do and what it cannot do, education administrators find it too easy to give up. As a result, districts can lose opportunities to benefit from the insights that data could actually provide. Even worse, lack of expertise and guidance can lead to erroneous assumptions about the stories within the data. This can lead to poor planning and execution, and undermine the whole effort of an ERP system. 

 In order to avoid these problems, the best course of action is for school districts to begin not with the gathering of data, but by asking two simple questions: “What problem do we want to solve?” and “What data will help us solve that problem?” 

Experts call this decision-driven data collection, as opposed to data-driven decision making. In other words, focusing on decisions that matter and understand what information is needed to best make those decisions is paramount. If that step comes first, then collecting data, looking for trends and answers will always lead to increased efficiency, deeper understanding, and a more meaningful impact from big data collection. 

Define the Question, Find the Answer: 

Here’s a quick example: in education, a tremendous amount of data is collected by school districts about financial performance. Combined, this big data repository represents a potential treasure trove of information about how to best guide operational success. Yet it is common for school districts to gather this data, put it in front of administrators and ask them to parse it, find patterns, and make day-to-day decisions from the potentially overwhelming amount of raw data that have been captured. This rarely works. 

On the other hand, asking professionals to solve a problem such as “How can we better anticipate shifts in funding sources in order to maximize funding in our intervention programs?” gives them a specific set of data to extract and analyze. This makes the analytics that come next more meaningful and useful. Rather than a large, impersonal data set that merely suggests the possibility of insights hidden within, teachers can focus on a specific, narrow band of data; explicitly collected and easily parsed. Repeat this across the district, and suddenly big data analytics will become relevant, informative, and helpful. 

The bottom line is this: big data analytics in an ERP or in any system are really only as useful as the problems that have been identified. In the absence of a shared understanding of the purpose of data, and a framework to identify and organize that data in terms of what employees and stakeholders can use, very little success can be expected of any solution.  

As a result, systems should not come first—and especially not because of a belief that they might “somehow” help. Instead, efforts should focus on understanding the problems that need to be solved; the intentions of how to solve them, and only then the deploying of analytics solutions will successfully inform and drive those solutions. 

Fostering Innovation and Growth: 

ERP systems have benefited corporations and industries for almost fifty years, but school districts have only been implementing ERPs in wide numbers for a decade or so. Yet education, with its varied stakeholders and unique set of challenges, is particularly suited to the advantages in streamlining and efficacy that the right ERP system can provide. Aligning strategies with goals is the main key.  

In addition, school districts considering a cloud-based or a platform-based ERP system should make sure to involve stakeholders at all levels in decision-making. Can an existing ERP be upgraded for instance, or will the district’s old system continue to be outdated no matter what changes are made? How can big-data information be integrated for the benefit of student achievement and stakeholder involvement? What granular-level problems need solving, and what overarching goals need to be attained?  

By simultaneously coordinating, analyzing, and sharing the data involved in modern K-12 education, school districts can use the ERP system of their choice to guide operational success, understand financial performance, and enhance personnel management.  

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