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Fulton County Schools: 4 Key Tactics for Building Platform Integration and Driving Departmental Collaboration

platform integration
(Credit: Roman Lacheev / Alamy Stock Photo)

What they don’t tell you about a technology implementation project is that there’s an element far more important than the technology itself: your people.

Nothing — not the most state-of-the-art technology, intelligent consultants, or newest strategies — matters as much as the people on your organization’s implementation team.

I found this to be especially true for a project as massive as the one my school district underwent, modernizing IT systems for more than 14,000 staff members across 100 schools. The Fulton County School System, located in the Atlanta metro area, spans nearly 80 miles from end to end and includes over 90,000 students. It’s one of the largest school districts in the United States.

When we began our ERP transformation project, we prioritized having the right people involved and tried to anticipate all the potential upstream and downstream impacts. Fulton County Schools’ annual budget tops $1.6 billion — incorporating state, federal, grant, and other funding sources — so we knew our system needed to be well-integrated and quickly capable of handling large expenses and complicated transactions. Maintaining a smooth and continuous operation was vital.

Today, our school district is equipped with a state-of-the-art, future-ready system from SAP that allows our fantastic team to focus on what’s most important to them: empowering teachers and their students to embrace educational and personal growth. It wouldn’t have been possible without a unified front and a team of dedicated experts from all functional areas, including Finance, Human Resources, Operations, and Information Technology. There were also a few key strategies we strove to follow, which ensured the team got the job done — and got it done right.

1) Embrace a Team Mindset

Our biggest philosophy during our implementation project (which was called ‘Atlas’) was simple. If anyone on this team has a problem, then we all have a problem.

To live this out, it was vital we eliminated siloes and segmented operations across the board. If a negative payroll impact took place, for instance, that couldn’t be just a payroll problem. The problem had to be viewed for what it was — something that could quickly snowball and affect everyone, from top to bottom.

This meant digging out any and all problems from the root so that our end result would benefit our entire team, whether they were in IT or not. Encourage weekly stand up meetings with this group. Build a room of project champions who meet regularly to drive success together which will make a world of difference in getting your project across the finish line effectively. Another way we maintained a focus on this was through our steering committee.

2) Designate a Steering Committee

I highly, highly recommend instituting a steering committee at the top of your technology implementation project. It’s the quickest and most comprehensive way to encourage organization-wide collaboration and teamwork from the jump. Include key company chiefs, from HR to IT to Finance, to make certain every business segment has a full understanding of what’s being done. This will guarantee your most valuable decision makers are not sitting in ivory towers as the implementation project is carried out — and that they are deeply engaged in the day-to-day of active problem solving and project momentum.

Require a regular meeting cadence for the steering committee and invite business process owners to report on success and challenges in the work. This will help not only in solving problems more quickly but in determining their root causes so they can be squashed immediately leveraging a top-down approach.

3) Paint a Full Picture

Everyone in your organization — whether they’re on the steering committee or not — must understand the business needs and requirements that are central to the implementation. More so, they must have a full, readily accessible picture of what’s actually happening at all times. Whether it’s a regular newsletter or updates at landmark project moments, this imaging is vital to reinforcing you’re all in this together.

This matters in both broad and specific ways for people across the organization. For instance, our Number One success metric during Atlas was that our people were being paid correctly and on time. That was our North Star. If this isn’t maintained and executed effectively in a massive school system like ours, there will quite literally be protests in the streets.

More narrowly — and technologically — we also needed our IT efforts to meet the thousands of business requirements inherent in a new ERP system. Our team did tons of hard work at the front end, identifying what we did with our previous ERP, what we needed the new one to do right away, and what we wanted it to do over the next decade. Thanks to this hard work, we were able to maintain a disciplined and organized project from beginning to end. That’s why I often tell people: Even if there are 4,000 business requirements to review, you should do so, one by one, if that’s what it takes to satisfy your stakeholders. Because only once you fully and deeply understand — and account for — everyone’s needs can you effectively maintain the structural integrity and vision of the project as it carries through to its completion.

4) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there is nothing more important than the people you hire to oversee a transformation project of significant scale. First and foremost, they must be clear and concise communicators who understand what they — and the entire business — are trying to accomplish. They must be open and willing to discuss what works and what does not. And they must be vulnerable when there are failures or areas for improvement.

One way to represent this is by elucidating what you don’t want. A colleague of mine told me about the mindset of their HR team at the outset of a massive transformation project. It was simple: “If it’s not an HR problem, it’s not our problem.” This kind of siloed thinking must be eliminated. Remember: If so much as one person has a problem, then we all do.

A final word

Thanks to our approach during Atlas, we’ve now reached a point where our operations are running more smoothly than ever — and where our administrators, teachers and students can focus on what truly matters. Simply put, they don’t have to concern themselves with IT problems; they can worry about math problems instead.

Dr. Emily Bell is the Chief Information Officer at Fulton County Schools.

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