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Celebrating Innovation

Inspiration from the 2010 Innovation Awards

By Margo Vanover Porter

*This series on the 2010 NACUBO Innovation Award recipients features Marist College's ERP system and the University of Virginia's campus cell phone system.

Take Intelligent Risks

Get entrepreneurial, urges William Thirsk, vice president of information technology and chief information officer, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York. If you can't find the hardware or software your institution wants and needs, why not create your own configuration?

"Vendors are only going to sell you what they've produced," he says. "We as business people need to take those products and add value and do mash-ups. We need to create new ways of implementing technology through innovative research to share with our peers. Finding ways to motivate people to be entrepreneurial and willing to take risks is challenging, but 100 percent worth the effort."

When replacing his institution's aging enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Thirsk took his own advice, which led to a research license to run SunGard Higher Education's Banner software on a new and unproven platform. In a recent interview, he talks about the experience, which received a NACUBO 2010 Innovation Award.

What was the challenge your institution faced? When we were looking at ERP systems—ours was older than the space shuttle—we did not want to buy a bunch of new servers and network equipment that took up data center floor space just because we licensed new software. We wanted to implement the new system on existing platforms and concentrate our money on the implementation effort itself, not on the infrastructure.   

We contacted all major ERP vendors as well as representatives of community and open source systems. Initially, we could not get anyone to meet our basic criteria because we wanted to run our ERP on a high-performance mainframe in our existing environment. More importantly, we wanted to work with a company that was comfortable operating in an open source or community source model.

What is open source? The open source model of software development is based on the collaboration of peers who share the writing of computer programs in an open repository for the benefit of all community participants. A good example is a course management system called Sakai. Our programmers and those from universities all over the world contributed to writing that application.

So what happened when vendors weren't interested in working with your criteria? We persisted. We eventually negotiated with SunGard Higher Education to provide us a research license to develop our own hardware solution. We did all the development work to make sure it integrated with all of our systems, donating back our new technology and what we learned for use by other institutions. We worked closely with the company to create a community source initiative for peer contribution of ERP research and development.  

Now, we are in full production with Banner on an IBM z9 mainframe.

*

What kind of cost are we talking about? We spent $60,000 to save $400,000. When you're looking at putting in a major ERP system, you're talking about millions of dollars and thousands of person-hours. We wanted to get the maximum value for the money the college spent. We've had a lot of experience implementing open source systems, working with mainframes, and building a cloud environment. We figured if we leveraged everything we knew, we could succeed. And we did.  

To do something no one has done before is always fun.

What role did the business office play? The business office helped us create the financial model to see what we would save and was the first module to go live and take advantage of the system. Members of the business office were in the room with us every step of the way.

How do you obtain buy-in from nay-saying stakeholders? That's one of the hardest questions about leadership. A good leader needs three attributes—technical expertise, the authority to make decisions, and charisma. Part of charisma is being able to effectively explain what we're doing so people get charged up.

Any advice? Take a tip from our students, who are fearless. They'll take risks on things we thought wouldn't work 30 years ago.  

I would advise anyone who thinks they can't do something to try. See if you can connect the dots. Try to see success, as opposed to just looking at the problem and saying, "It's never been done. We can't do it."

Taking intelligent risks is very important in technology.

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Boost the Signal, Not the Bill

The RFP must have read something like this: "Prestigious university seeks multiple cell phone carriers to pay for the privilege of providing service to university students, faculty, staff, and guests in residence halls, buildings, and outdoor locations. Prefer not to have multiple antennas peppering our landscape."

Sound far-fetched? Not really.

In 2006, officials at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in Charlottesville really did issue an RFP that accomplished all of the above conditions, a feat that brought them a NACUBO 2010 Innovation Award. 

"Cellular telephone technology continues to expand, but its reliability is often hampered by poor radio frequency signal strength," says Michael N. Warlick, senior buyer, procurement services, U.Va. "We were particularly troubled by the signal strength in key facilities, such as student residence halls, and by capacity issues at venues hosting large concerts or sporting events. Our community and guests expect their cellular devices to operate without problems, regardless of the size of the crowd."

Warlick, who worked with the information technology department to implement the campus cell phone system, recently answered Business Officer's questions about the process.

What is the single most innovative aspect of your project? The university didn't have to pay a dime to build the $4.5 million system. That's the best part. We did initially have to pay for the fees associated with the system integrator and for portions of the system to be built. Fortunately, after the first three carriers signed on and paid $1.5 million each, we could fund the project completely from the fees paid by the wireless carriers accessing the system. 

Plus, we managed to keep the system carrier-neutral. If we had been willing to provide one carrier with exclusivity, our job would have been easier, but we wanted our faculty, staff, and students to have choices in their cell phone service providers. We now have several wireless carriers providing excellent coverage in the residence halls, our sporting venues, and a few other key buildings. 

*Any plans for expansion? Other wireless carriers can still join the system. The current carriers pay rent for their individual equipment that is located on the U.Va. campus. The money from this rent may be used to expand the system to other buildings on the grounds, particularly those that the carriers don't have much interest in paying to build.

What's the takeaway for other institutions? They can piggyback off of our agreement with Longent, the system integrator, so they don't have to issue their own RFPs. 

Did you ever have any doubts that the plan would fall into place? We encountered a few anxious moments when we were signing up the carriers. Had we been unable to sign three carriers paying $1.5 million each, the project might not have been completed. However, we had researched the local wireless market and determined that local carriers were interested in enhanced coverage on U.Va. grounds.  

How long did the negotiations take? Negotiations with the carriers took longer than we anticipated because of the economy and mergers. For example, Alltel was the first carrier to sign up, followed by AT&T. During this time, Verizon had just started setting up operations in the Charlottesville area, and we were very confident it would join. However, Verizon then ended up acquiring Alltel, which meant we no longer had the third carrier. It then took another six months to reach agreement with T-Mobile.  

In April 2009, with three carriers on board, we finally had the funds to complete the project. 

When did you start the process? We hired Longent in June 2007 through an RFP process. We then started contacting the wireless carriers while deploying the system at the two main sporting venues—Scott Stadium and the John Paul Jones Arena. This showed the university's commitment and allowed enhanced coverage immediately after signing the carrier. We wanted at least one wireless carrier to be operational during the football season, but due to the length of negotiations and the lead time for the carrier to order equipment, this did not happen.

Although we occasionally wondered if we could continue the project without absorbing the cost, we felt confident that signing the first carrier would cause the others to sign up. Fortunately, this proved to be true. 

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, is writing the articles in the "Elegant Solutions" series. She covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

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