Sydney Anglican Schools finds way to better reports

Cutting-edge technology isn't always desirable for financial administration.

There are some parts of the business where cutting-edge technology and application innovation are desirable -- but financial administration isn't always one of them. For Sydney Anglican Schools Corporation (SASC), this simple truth has led the organisation through years of long change as it works to modernise its administrative systems.

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Owns and operates 14 schools, serving over 10,000 students, on behalf of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

With hundreds of thousands of transactions worth more than AU$125 million travelling through its systems annually, SASC -- which operates 14 Christian schools serving more than 10,000 students across the Anglican Diocese of Sydney -- relies heavily on its back-end systems to keep its financials in order, as well as to manage day-to-day information about its student body.

This task, however, had become increasingly difficult by the time current chief financial officer Greg Bridge joined the organisation six years ago. The previous Unix-based financial system, which also incorporated student administration functions, had been developed by a small local software house that had customised the package extensively -- so much so that SASC was at the company's mercy to make any changes.

"It was old technology, and was only upgraded when I pushed and prodded the provider," says Bridge. "Their philosophy was that they wanted to produce tailored solutions for individual clients -- but from the point of view of accounting systems, I think that's fundamentally wrong and short sighted. Accounting systems are accounting systems."

Initially determined to make the most of the previous system, Bridge and the SASC team spent his first two years at SASC trying to work with it. However, despite numerous restructuring projects and report customisation, it soon became clear that more radical change was in order. An extensive market search led SASC to systems integrator AzTech Solutions (subsequently purchased by Acumen Alliance), which began working with the organisation to lay plans for its next generation back-end systems.

Separate but equal
One of the first considerations during the project was whether SASC could get all the functionality it required from one of the many integrated student and financial administration packages available on the market. This question soon exposed an internal philosophical rift, since financially oriented staff were looking for a predictable, lower-risk and proven accounting system while student administrators wanted a more cutting-edge system with new capabilities.

The latter school of thought was prevalent enough that many believed the organisation should buy the student administration system, then add in the accounting functionality as needed. It soon became clear that a dual-pronged approach was going to be required, with two separate products implemented and linked together through appropriate integration.

"The requirements of each almost precluded them being one system," says Bridge. "We wanted the best-of-breed in each, and it was clear that if we went with the best in one category, the other was going to be a compromise."

It has freed up time for us to be able to analyse the numbers rather than focusing on just getting the numbers in and out.

With the assistance of AzTech, SASC ultimately selected Microsoft's Dynamics GP Financials as its new accounting platform and the Web-based Edumate online system for its student administration capabilities. Dynamics GP is built around Microsoft server applications including Windows Server 2003, Share Point Services, and SQL Server 2000.

Although the dual-pronged structure still required integration, this work helped SASC avoid ending up with an installation that was strong in one area and had cobbled-on functionality in the other. Instead, says Bridge, it provided the organisation with a solution that has allowed it to leverage the fruits of Dynamics' extensive third-party development ecosystem.

For example, the implementation also integrated school-specific templates handling tasks such as processing of voluntary donations, bond tracking and refunds, and BPAY and direct debit payments. Ready availability of such capabilities, says Bridge, is a major step forward from the past system, which was only improved based on SASC's ideas and upon its behest. "I'm constantly on the lookout for ways to do things better," he says. "With Dynamics, there are developers adding new features all the time."

Better school reports
Three years later, Bridge's intuition has paid off handsomely for SASC's central processing centre (or "group office"), whose employees have seen a significant productivity boost from the ready availability of financial information.

Instead of having to produce reports by cutting and pasting information into ad-hoc spreadsheets, the new and consolidated system has enabled rapid production of standardised reports and pivot tables using data from a variety of sources. "It's a lot less effort to get the numbers out," Bridge says, "and it has freed up time for us to be able to analyse the numbers rather than focusing on just getting the numbers in and out."

A growing collection of standardised reports provides for easy visibility of schools' financial activities. More importantly, the new system has provided the invaluable ability for administrators to manage each of the 14 schools as independent financial entities, but easily journal intercompany transactions between those entities -- and produce consolidated financial statements in just a few minutes.

Given that Bridge used to spend up to a week to assemble those statements, these efficiencies alone have made the change worthwhile. Yet that's only the beginning: now and in the future, SASC is making the most of both of its new systems and their best-of-breed integration.

Upon reflection, Bridge says, people have been the most challenging element of the change. "Like a lot of people, we underestimated the project management and change issues, such as the unwillingness of staff to do things differently than they used to do," he concedes. "Part of the problem was that I adopt change very easily and willingly, and three years ago I didn't realise that I was the weird one."

Staunch persistence has helped the organisation move past initial user foot-dragging, with demonstrated improvements in efficiency helping Bridge win support for continued change that is seeing SASC still adding new functionality regularly. The Dynamics environment has been upgraded twice, with the latest upgrade last month further confirming that the two-pronged approach was the right way to go.

Although productivity improvements speak volumes for the benefit of such systems, one of its other major benefits is much harder to quantify. And that benefit, says Bridge, is peace of mind.

"We had simply lost faith in the reliability of the previous product," he explains. "It wasn't down for huge chunks of time, but there were often times when it was crucial for the system to be up. That just meant our capacity to rely on the system was diminished. And while I've seen other people buy similar packages from suppliers that are now in liquidation, this is a solution I know will be around for the long term."