University challenged: how a 200-year-old institution entered the 21st century

With system delays, a tight deadline and even a cyber attack, one university needed to move fast with Unit4 and Arribatec.

Founded in 1828, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is the 19th largest university in the United Kingdom, with plans to keep expanding its operation in the coming years. The organization is sizeable, with over 25,000 students, in addition to an almost 5000-strong workforce.

For any organization of this scale, not least of all, one in higher education, managing everyone’s data, payments and information cannot be an afterthought. In other words, an almost 200-year-old institution needed to be dragged into the 21st century – something easier said than done.

A catalyst for business delays and inefficiency

Sarah Woolford, deputy director of finance (business process improvement) at UCLan, was tasked to oversee the procurement and update all of the ERP systems, making them more suitable for the fast-paced work environment of a modern, growing university.

“We’d been using the same system for over 20 years,” she explained. “We had Unit4 Business World (Agresso) installed back in the year 2000, and at the time, it was quite the leading edge for our processes, but we’d not touched the system since then. About three years ago, after a few changes and upgrading to Milestone 7, we decided we needed to improve and automate our whole process.”

We definitely didn’t have a system from the twenty-first century – Sarah Woolford, UCLan

The problem was clear for the UCLan team: “We definitely didn’t have a system for the twenty-first century,” as Woolford said. “The average time from submitting a requisition order to payment was ten days. That was the problem. All of our processes had to change, everything had to go out the window.”

In the fast-paced world of university financing and procurement, a ten-day bottleneck could cause potential havoc to delivery deadlines and the completion of critical projects, not to mention the impact that any extended delays of key resources could have on the student experience at UCLan.

Arriva Arribatec

With the priority being to automate the payment processes, the decision was made to bring Arribatec to rebuild everything from the ground up.

Implementation planning started towards the end of 2019, with the idea to upgrade UCLan to a modern Unit4 ERP procurement management module. This was chosen as it gave any university member of staff the ability to input information securely in their web browser while only being able to select budget codes which they are authorized to use. Further solving UCLan’s issues, authorization was automatically sent to relevant authorizers, reducing the number of clicks required to process purchase orders.

“UCLan wanted to achieve some significant business process changes across both the finance and procurement functions in a challenging timescale. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns certainly made the achievement of these goals even tougher,” commented Allan Burrows, Arribatec UK operations director.

“However, both the UCLan and Arribatec project team members rose to the challenges posed by the new ways of remote working, and pulled together to ensure those process changes, efficiency gains and new ways of working were successfully introduced in line with the original deadlines.”

Rebuilding a system from the ground up was not something that could be completed overnight, particularly when impacted by the 2020 lockdowns caused by the pandemic. But after near constant coding, meetings, updating plans and hard work, the project was ready to go live by the end of June 2022.

 

A two-part project

But implementing Unit4 ERP software was only one of two significant projects that UCLan had Arribatec working on during this period.

“The second large project”, Woolford explained, “was smaller in scale but involved rebuilding all our coding structures”. This was within the payment systems, which for an organization the size of UCLan was no mean feat. Due to existing structures, the staff were still manually checking student finance data and physically sending post out, up to thousands at a time.

It was like having to land a helicopter on a threepenny bit.

By Spring 2021, they’d produced the right structure and started working on implementing a test system, ensuring that no required features were missing and that the workflows were leading through properly.

 

From test environment to go-live deadline push

Once it had been built into the test system, the complex, high-pressure process of launching the coding structure on the live UCLan system came. Coming into the launch date, pressure and stress were already high. A cyber-attack that UCLan was the victim of in March 2021, which took its internal services down for two months, didn’t help matters.

“It was like having to land a helicopter on a threepenny bit”, recalled Woolford. “The system had to go live in August 2021, the new financial year, or we’d have to roll back and wait for a year. It was the only time we could launch it. It was quite scary.”

Over a long weekend, Arribatec and the IT team at UCLan worked to get the new coding and payment systems live successfully, and the Arribatec crew was on hand every working day for another three weeks afterwards to make sure that everything was running as intended.

“Go-live weekend was intense. But it worked!” Woolford said, “post go-live, nothing happened that made us think for a second that we’d have to go back to the old system.”

 

Next on the wish list for UCLan and Arribatec 

With the new coding structure in place, UCLan has been looking at the new tools they have at their disposal, including improving their reporting structures and how they can streamline their financial reporting across the university. They are also looking at using Microsoft PowerBI.

Woolford is looking forward to the continued training and knowledge transfer from Arribatec: “We have people in the management accounting team who are starting to talk about formal training from Arribatec and upskilling people in the team so we can stand on our own two feet going forwards.”

For Mark Bloomer, Arribatec UK managing director, the redesign project has delivered real benefits for UCLan across the board: “Arribatec were able to bring together a depth of higher education sector knowledge and experience with technical system integration skills, and our own developed software products, deploying the full range of our capabilities to create a highly effective solution.

“The project has been a real partnership with UCLan and has delivered significant benefits.”

For more on this story, watch the ERP Today Live! with Arribatec.

This is a sponsored article by Arribatec.