UNIT4 Aims High in Education

Can Specialized Features for Advanced Research and Grant Management “Pull Along” ERP?

In a recent industry analyst roadshow engineered by the amazing efforts of Judith Rothrock of JRocket Marketing, UNIT4 announced the first of two phases of a new and improved, industry-specific solution for “education living in change.” This integrated solution specifically targets universities and institutions of higher learning. Why? Because these institutions have some very specific needs and UNIT4 has very specific answers to those needs, while also providing a more traditional “core” solution. Can these special solution components for advanced research and grant management, and “constituent” engagement management “pull along” accounting, human resource and other core Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) functions?

Why not? After all, the alternative is to first address these more basic functions with solutions and then go out and buy (or build) applications to manage functions not typically addressed by ERP… and never the twain shall meet. And yet these functions consume resources managed by ERP. While these different solutions might actually “talk” to each other, more often they are completely disparate, frequently homegrown and not integrated, resulting in duplicate or redundant data and efforts. And let’s face it, once basic accounting and human resource needs are met, some colleges and universities just never get around to addressing these other functions with formal solutions that extend beyond the desktop and the ubiquitous spreadsheet.

Most any ERP solution can meet the accounting needs of higher education. Universities make purchases, pay suppliers, send invoices, collect cash and reconcile financial statements just like any commercial or non-profit organization. In many ways, this feature functionality has truly become a commodity. And there has also been a proliferation of human resource management applications (embedded in ERP and stand-alone).

Yet while accounting and human resource applications can lead to internal performance improvements, they seldom provide institutions of higher education with a competitive edge. However, in our post-recession, increasingly competitive, knowledge-based global economy, how colleges and universities go after grants and how well they manage the activities associated with those grants, namely their advanced research, can indeed differentiate them in the field of higher learning, making them more attractive to potential students and supporters. Using general-purpose project management solutions doesn’t necessarily cut it.

These advanced features for advanced research and grant management will be launched in the second quarter of 2013, to be followed by additional functionality for constituent engagement management. Constituents include existing and prospective students and faculty, as well as the surrounding community of companies and professional organizations. With a different twist to more traditional customer relationship management (CRM), this additional module will provide a single aggregated source for managing these relationships.

Advanced Research and Grant Management

This new module provides functionality designed specifically to support pre-award and post-award grant management, and also manage research projects. It takes an integrated approach to managing the entire grant/research life cycle from proposal submission to publication. The result is increased transparency to the research approval cycle in order to better identify accuracy, project trends and the success of research activity. It also provides accurate costing models and fully integrates with financial reporting, extending the control delivered by ERP to the bursar’s office to the research process.

While research teams are seldom exposed to enterprise applications such as ERP, recent efforts by the UNIT4 team to provide a new and improved user experience to all its solutions should make interacting with the solution an intuitive and enjoyable experience. At the same time administrators will be well equipped to make better-informed decisions.

Constituent Engagement Management

This proposed addition is being designed to answer anticipated questions posed by prospective and existing students, including those at the post-graduate level. The overall goal is to help the university to attract, engage and retain these students. While most enterprise applications destined for the post-secondary education market are tailored for administrators, UNIT4’s approach is tailored to both the interests of the students, as well as industry relationships: businesses, professional organizations and the community at large. It does this by embedding the same social media capabilities that are becoming woven into the fabric of the student society. As social media insinuates itself into businesses and professional organizations, this will be an important aspect that helps “social” mean “business.” By replicating the same improved UNIT4 user experience across all its applications, it will incorporate solutions into a more social model, supporting better collaboration and increased visibility and transparency.

Is the World Ready for this Strategy?

“Basics first” has long been the default standard for satisfying the needs of any organization, whether it operates in the world of business or the slightly different world of education. Because many of these needs (like payments and invoicing and general accounting) are quite generic, a lot of the ERP-based solutions start to look quite similar. In fact many have begun to view ERP as a commodity.

There is a hidden danger in making this assumption if you simply assume any ERP will meet your basic needs and you don’t ask the hard “show me” kind of questions during the evaluation. More than one organization has been caught by this, assuming the solution meets all the basic needs, when in fact it has some functional gaps or is simply so hard to use that users spend more time working around the system than with it.

But indeed, there are many good solid solutions out there that do indeed satisfy the basics. Much like a utility that provides electricity, natural gas, water or telephone service to your home, as long as you stick to a truly proven provider, you can safely assume your basic needs will be met. You wouldn’t trust these basic services to some “fly by night” company, but you would – and do – trust one with a good track record, and it probably doesn’t really matter to you which one you use, providing service continues uninterrupted. Using one over another doesn’t add more market value to your home or even make your life any easier.

But adding a home security system, or stunning landscaping does add value. In fact, in purchasing a new home, those differentiating characteristics are more likely the reason you bought the house to begin with. Of course you need electricity to power that security system. And you need water to keep that landscaping stunningly beautiful. But those basics just “came along with” the purchase. In other words, the differentiating factors pulled along the business to the electric company and those other utility providers.

So are organizations ready to treat ERP as a utility and realign the selection team to focus instead on the real “value add” that produces a strategic or competitive advantage? Early results from the first 300 respondents to the Mint Jutras 2013 ERP Solution Study would indicate that many are. More than half (56%) indicated they would indeed consider this “utility” approach to ERP, 27% are undecided and only 17% gave a firm “no.” If these results hold true then the concept of a niche kind of solution to an industry-specific problem does indeed have the potential of pulling along the underlying basics of ERP.

To some, the concept of a utility is immediately associated with “cloud” deployment. That, along with a subscription basis purchase is the most logical delivery option.

Those willing to consider ERP as a utility do not seem to object to that concept with 51% indicating either private or public cloud options might be considered, as long as security is proven. Some (28%) will only consider a private cloud, yet 43% were simply looking for a virtualized environment that would reduce or remove hardware requirements on-premise.

UNIT4 offers the solution both on-premise and as Software as a Service (SaaS). In fact one university in particular, a long time Agresso ERP customer, chose to convert its on-premise solution to the cloud. Sodertorn University, a forward-thinking Swedish college with 13,000 students and 850 employees started using Agresso ERP right from its inception in 1996. Five years later it was in rapid expansion mode, although it still had only one third of its current student population. Amidst this growth however, the administrative team sought to redeploy resources that had been purely supporting internal technology to programs that would directly benefit the student. As a result Sodertorn University became the first Agresso on-premise customer to move to a cloud environment.

It also began to treat its ERP solution as a utility, re-allocating and re-assigning headcount and redefining IT roles to focus on creating competitive advantage to the college. As a result of this, they also tracked the equivalent of more than $500,000 in cost savings and were better equipped to manage change.

Anna Sande, Systems Administrator for the college said, “We’ve had the twin change management realities of rapid student growth, interfacing with changing economic factors that are challenging to plan for. We’ve adjusted from one campus to three and then, in 2012, back to one large one again. We required zero external IT resource help to do it – the change capabilities of the UNIT4 architecture have supported our various decisions seamlessly.”

Education Living in Change

Ms. Sande’s quote brings us back to our opening paragraph referencing “education living in change.” This is a recognizable component of UNIT4’s mantra of embracing change and a variation on its recurring theme of providing solutions for businesses living in change (BLINC). Just like their commercial counterparts, colleges and universities face the reality of constrained resources, economic unpredictability, increased competition (for both students and grants), along with increased compliance requirements and government controls. At the same time, with rapid technology advances, current hardware and software and skills can become obsolete at an alarming rate.

The type of change experienced by Sodertorn University in terms of the expansion and contraction of campuses is certainly not unique. Cranfield University near London has also experienced extensive changes in funding, fees and technical requirements. “It is impossible to understate the massive changes we’ve been through in the past five or six years alone,” said Ian Sibbald, Director of Finance at the university. “Yet, even beyond the scope of mandatory financial, regulatory or economic change components supported by Agresso, the solution helps us to support our own internal process reviews.”

Cranfield University has been able to evaluate the consequences of and undertake a major campus consolidation, closing one of three and moving all academic activities back to the Cranfield campus. “All of this was easily done using Agresso, leaving just the physical building work and moves to be completed.”

Advanced research and grant management is not exempt from this type of change. Mr. Sibbald adds, “Each time a research grant is allocated differently than in the past, that’s a significant reporting change, which we can now support.” Currently Cranfield University is approaching £600,000 in savings with UNIT4 ERP software.


Higher education is not really a new target for UNIT4. It already supports over 400 institutions globally. Over the past 20 years it has amassed knowledge and experience and accumulated many customer testimonials. Sodertorn and Cranfield Universities are just two examples of educational institutions facing the challenge of change.

UNIT4 has responded by changing the game itself, adding new and specialized functionality not typically associated with an ERP solution. By addressing those areas it shifts the focus to that which can provide a unique competitive edge for their customers. And yet, no successful organization can afford to take its eye off the ball in supporting basic functions like accounting and human resource management. ERP is the basic utility that keeps the back office organized and efficient. So colleges and universities seeking to differentiate themselves will best be served by pulling those basics along. Selecting a single integrated solution and one that enables today’s accelerated rate of change makes it all that much easier to keep pace.

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