Tech makeover works wonders at Saskatchewan school division

Lower operational costs, higher efficiency, and faster, more streamlined financial processes – the South East Cornerstone School Division gained all that and much more by consolidating its financial data within a central data warehouse.

And accomplishing that was quite a feat for South East Cornerstone that serves 39 schools, nearly 8,000 students, and is spread over 33,000 square kilometers.

South East Cornerstone was formed in January 2006, with the amalgamation of six boards.

The newly formed Division, it inherited several disparate systems as a result of many smaller boards coming together, according to Justin Arendt, manager of information systems at South East Cornerstone School Division.

Using these fragmented systems to engage in regular financial and administrative processes – such as funds tracking and management – was daunting, to say the least.  

The administration system was a “clunky” Web-based product with a built-in financial application that nobody knew how to use, Arendt recalled. What’s more, it wasn’t user-friendly, so training new employees on it proved to be a challenge.

Lack of unified funds management was our biggest concern, said Arendt.

He said a new public sector accounting principle was put in place in the province that required all schools to track all funds. This proved to be a huge challenge, as the division had several unknown bank accounts and a plethora of financial applications.

These disparate apps couldn’t properly track money coming in through fees or fund raising initiatives. By the time the accounts were finally identified, nearly $1 million was found floating around.

South East Cornerstone also didn’t have a system in place to monitor purchase orders – ensuring they had been received, and tracking their progress.

To resolve all of these issues, the school division decided it was time to deploy a new centralized warehouse, Arendt said.

The idea was to integrate data from several disparate sources/locations in a single, centralized warehouse.

With the assistance of Habañero Consulting Group, an IT consulting firm with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Regina Sask., South East Cornerstone deployed a new system that streamlines its purchase orders and reporting.

As the new centralized system minimizes redundancies, operational costs have been greatly reduced.

The three-pronged system serves as a purchasing application, Web-based funds’ management tool, and data warehouse – all rolled into one.

The consolidated data warehouse could take advantage of Microsoft software that the Division already had, reducing implementation costs.

Dramatically improved reporting is a key benefit of the new system.

Accurate and timely reports help South East Cornerstone management make better decisions, Arendt said. He said the new system will improve the way money is managed across the board.

For instance, the system has lowered overhead costs.  Also, because funds’ management is centralized, there’s no need to hire a permanent accountant – and cost savings from this alone are $60,000 annually.

Each school in the Division has the ability to report on its own budget and track finances independently with the warehouse.

Training costs were also minimal thanks to the new system’s easy-to-use, intuitive interface

A guidebook and a “how-to” video was all that had to be created, said Arendt.

The user interface design was a key element in the overall cost-saving strategy, according to Tim Peterson, regional director of Saskatchewan for Habañero Consulting.

“We wanted the system to be as easy to use as buying a book on Amazon,” he said.

South East Cornerstone also cut costs by slashing the time it took for employees to dig out data and make appropriate phone calls to fill in the gaps or ensure the system was up to date.

Cost advantages from centralizing and optimizing data storage at a single location are generally significant, says a Canadian analyst.

Putting data in one spot provides a “single version of the truth” and can also enhance data quality, suggested Gareth Doherty, research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research.

He said poor data quality carries a huge cost. “I’ve seen studies that show it’s as high as $6 billion – or five per cent of the GDP.”

The reverse is also true, he suggested. High-quality, accurate data has several benefits.

For instance, having up-to-date records are imperative when using business intelligence applications to study performance trends.
Improving data quality also leads to better, more reliable analysis.

He related how an Illinois university used centralized data storage and analysis to its advantage.

It collected data on student use of facilities, such as the library and health centre, Doherty said. It then analyzed these numbers – associating them with records of grades to discover the impact of library and gym use (for example) on student performance. The university then developed programs based on the results – advertising gym use for higher grades.

Doherty said businesses can use data warehousing to improve services to customers. But again, he said, it would only be effective if “records are up to date and within easy reach.”

The main disadvantages of data warehouse storage are time and cost, the Info-Tech analyst said. It’s a big project that requires significant investment of both time and capital.

He said companies may have to buy an entirely new server to manage transactions, which can be expensive if they have a lot of data.  

Doherty said customers should opt for a data warehouse only after they’ve assessed their need for this technology.

He offers a few considerations to help with that decision:

  • Do you have more than 15 data marts (smaller version of data warehouses)?
  • Do you have more than one billion records? Data marts are sufficient for millions of pieces of data, but when you get into the billions – they may not be adequate.
  • Do you have historical data that is more than five years old?

While data warehouses work best for enterprises, he said, a growing number of mid-sized, data-intensive businesses are adopting the technology.

And they’re finding it boosts their productivity, efficiency and cost-savings.

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