Striking a balance between user friendliness and functionality in software can be a difficult task for many organizations. For the Fort Vermilion school district, however, a long-standing partnership has given them the right mix.

The Northern Alberta organization participated in the development

of Vision HRM Software Inc.’s human resource application geared for school boards and recently upgraded to a new version.

“”The decision really centred around looking for a powerful Windows-based system that was easy for our users — those types of users who are trained accountants,”” says Russell Horswill, secretary-treasurer for the school district.

The district has 16 schools, about 550 employees and an annual operating budget of about $35 million. With one manager and two staff overseeing the organization’s HR responsibilities, it was important to find an application that was suitable for secretaries, teachers and principals, not just accountants, Horswill says.

Vision, which has been developing payroll and HR applications for Navision Software (a division of Microsoft), began working with the Fort Vermilion district through Calgary-based Open Door Technologies, a financial software and services company partnered with Navision.

The school district approached Open Door to help revamp its financial systems, and was approached by Vision to develop a school-board specific HR application. After about three years of development, the implementation went live in January.

The end product, the Vision School Board HRM System, is based on Vision’s payroll and HR software, which is part of Navision’s enterprise resource management offering. The school board system is built specifically for North American boards.

At the start of the project, there was a “”huge problem on the HR side,”” says Ken Rylance, Vision’s chief operating officer. Time schedules, attendance, self-service and government reporting capabilities were all important features that had to be built into the software.

“”Our school’s HR systems are pretty complex beasts,”” says Horswill.

“”It’s gone very smoothly.””

Working to help develop software from scratch was a new experience for the school district, according to Horswill.

“”This is the first time we’ve been involved in developing a support application.””

The partnership helped the organization review its own processes and wasn’t simply a product development exercise. The project also gave Fort Vermilion “”the ability to look at our problems in another way,”” Horswill says.

Having Vision staff available on-call was also a boon.

“”They really are just a phone call away.””

Rylance estimates that the HR project ultimately cost between $70,000 and $100,000, which includes consulting and support services.

“”All of us have a considerable amount of time and energy built into this project,”” he says.

Rylance says the initial challenges were minimal for the application, which will include greater self-service capabilities in its upgraded version, as well as providing tax slips and vacation information for employees.

The Fort Vermilion board, which was running version 2.6, was to have completed an upgrade to version 3.6 in early June.

Horswill agrees that the process ran smoothly, although it required a bit of tweaking.

“”School systems have a slightly different way of doing accounting,”” he says.

However, that doesn’t mean HR systems are set in stone.

“”Just because our previous system worked one way doesn’t mean we have to stay with that at the end of the day.””

Horswill points to growing bandwidth demands for staff and students alike as a bigger problem for the district. He says a new fibre-optic network planned for the summer should handle the load, estimating that about 3,700 students are now online in the area.

“”That’s an ongoing challenge for us in Northern Alberta.””

There are also potential long-term rewards for Vision, according to Rylance. While Navision was acquired by Microsoft Corp. in July 2002, its five-year agreement with Vision (signed in 2001) has continued unchanged.

“”We’ve got a real opportunity here,”” he says.

“”They really want to drive this into the vertical market.””

Rylance estimates the Canada and U.S. school board market is worth about $7 billion dollars. Through its work with Navision, the company should have a leg up, thanks to a tailor-made solution with strong ties to the world’s largest software company.

For his part, Horswill says other organizations, including the provincial government, are beginning to take an interest in the Fort Vermilion project.

“”I think the market is waiting to know we’ve finished the development phase,”” he says.

Upgrades to the Vision software will see new features, including integration with Microsoft applications, “”gap analysis”” (which makes it easier to identify holes in staffing positions), as well, as greater self-management, according to Rylance.

The latter will see employees be able to access and amend information online. This includes such things as name changes and altering the number of dependents.

According to Horswill, it’s important to have “”smart”” technology that doesn’t add to administrators’ workloads.

“”One of the big pressures all public school boards are facing is keeping your admin costs low,”” he says.

Having the right software allows managers and employees themselves to access and update personal and financial information. Automating parts of the HR process should free up more time for everyone in the end.

“”We receive an incredible number of e-mails from employees every day,”” Horswill says.

For Rylance, this is only the beginning.

“”We’re on the cusp of something big here,”” he says.

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