The fall is always a challenging time for college staff. However, the start of the 2015 school year was an uncommonly stressful season for IT leaders at community colleges across Washington State.
August of that year was the pilot go-live date for an ERP project, dubbed “ctcLink.” The software went live on three campuses across the state.
However, the effort, which was three years in the making, ended up $10 million over budget. It also resulted in high-profile lawsuits, costly settlements and even costlier setbacks, which are still proving difficult to overcome.
What exactly caused the Washington community college ERP failure, and how can you avoid making the same mistakes? Let’s find out.
A Large Governmental Entity's Failed Implementation
The Washington Community College ERP Failure: What Happened?
In 2013, a Colorado-based IT company, called Ciber, signed a contract with the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.
The goal? To implement Project ctcLink at all community colleges across the state system and to train college staff how to properly use it.
The new ERP system was intended to handle nearly every administrative aspect at the colleges, including:
- Student enrollments
- Financial aid distribution
- Administration support
- Staff payroll
While the Board operates 34 colleges across the state, ctcLink was rolled out as a pilot program first. This way, the project team could thoroughly test the system and work out any kinks.
The Community Colleges of Spokane and Tacoma Community College were the first three to receive the new ERP software. The remaining colleges were slated to be upgraded in phases over a five-year period.
Not long after it got off the ground, the pilot project began experiencing problems.
First, the anticipated go-live date was delayed by an entire year. Then, when it did go live, users quickly noticed bugs and issues that made it exceedingly difficult to:
- Enroll new students
- Create and edit class schedules
- Perform critical accounting functions
- Administer student financial aid
- Distribute staff paychecks
In response, the Board put plans in place to address these issues before continuing with the other rollouts.
However, by January 2016, they were informed that the project was $10 million over its estimated $100 million budget.
Later that year, Ciber sued the state for $13 million. Then, in 2019, the state’s IT teams upgraded the pilot colleges’ administrative software system to PeopleSoft 9.2.
3 Lessons Learned from This Higher Ed ERP Failure
Any time an ERP failure occurs, there are lessons to be learned. Let’s take a look at the main reasons why this effort ultimately veered off track and what you can take away from it.
1. Project Governance is Key
Lack of governance is a major shortcoming and something that implementing organizations should address as soon as they notice it.
The best way to address this issue to build a project team. We recommend building a strong and dedicated team of experts who can effectively manage every aspect of the software upgrade.
The ERP project team you select should include employees who can bring a unique perspective and sense of ownership to the project. Team members might include:
- IT team members
- HR team members
- Change agents
- Training managers
From Ciber’s point-of-view, the Board didn’t provide anywhere near the required level of oversight and management it should have. Had this support been in place, it would have been easier to notice the budget overruns.
2. Prioritize Organizational Change Management
Another reason the initial ctcLink project failed to get off the ground? Ciber also explained that the effort lacked support from end-users, explaining that some of the schools were unwilling to adopt the ctcLink platform.
More specifically, Spokane Community College was hostile from the beginning, fueled by leaders who refused to participate in the necessary changes.
This level of change resistance doesn’t stay isolated. When executives push back on a change, this attitude trickles down to their workforce.
If the project team had invested in organizational change management, this resistance could have been mitigated. Change management ensures employees across every level understand and embrace new technology and processes.
3. ERP Data Migration Should be Carefully Handled
Prior to Project ctcLink, the IT systems at the colleges were more than 30 years old. While moving from legacy systems to modern systems is a data challenge in itself, this challenge was exacerbated by an interesting decision made by the project team.
The team’s plan was that each individual college was going to run its own version of the ctcLink software.
However, when developers attempted to perform ERP data migration, they quickly realized how difficult it would be to convert, validate and map existing data onto the three pilot systems.
They ended up missing valuable data connections that resulted in various mix-ups.
For instance, some students didn’t receive the correct amount of financial aid that year. In addition, certain employees realized their paychecks didn’t arrive on time. Finally, college credits were lost as employees scrambled to make sense of the new system.
A Master Class in Avoiding ERP Failure
Diving deep into this failure, we see the importance of project teams, change management and proactive data migration.
While the Washington community college ERP failure recently pivoted in a new and better direction, Board leaders note that it will be a long road to go-live.