Fulton County Schools: Five Lessons From a Massive Digital Transformation

Fulton County Schools CIO Dr. Emily Bell shares advice and lessons learned from the school’s major digital transformation that are applicable to organizations of all types.

Fulton County Schools: Five Lessons From a Massive Digital Transformation
(Credit: Naeblys / Alamy Stock Photo)

Undertaking a technology transformation is no small feat. For our school district, encompassing over 100 schools with approximately 90,000 students and 14,000 staff members, it was a monumental endeavor. The Fulton County School System, situated in the Atlanta metro area, spans nearly 80 miles, making it one of the largest geographical school systems in the United States.

In navigating business transformation, we encountered considerable complexity and financial intricacies. With a budget of $1.6 billion, incorporating state, federal, grant, and other funding sources, we required an integrated system capable of handling large budgets and complicated transactions.

What We Learned

Our primary objective revolved around constructing integrated, intuitive systems that would require less time to facilitate business and more time to focus on student learning. Today, we have made significant progress and are equipped with a future-ready system from SAP, empowering our staff to concentrate on what they do best: educating.

However, our technology transformation has taught us some valuable lessons. Whether you are an administrator overseeing a large or small school system, I am eager to share the factors that contributed to our success and provide guidance to help your organization achieve similar outcomes.

1) Employ Change Management Early and Often

Surprisingly, branding the transformation project played a crucial role in its success. Our staff members chose the name "Atlas," and we proceeded to create various swag and branding materials. This approach fostered an understanding of collaboration and joint ownership among the team.

To achieve effective and lasting transformation, every organization must prioritize building camaraderie during major change projects. When team members comprehend the necessity for change, their commitment to the project strengthens, reducing resistance.

2) Meet the Needs of Adult Learners Right Where They Are

As any school system knows, meeting learners where they are is vital to effective education. During our SAP transformation project, we recognized the importance of adapting to our staff’s learning preferences for technology trainings. Initially, in-person training was favored, but due to COVID-19, we swiftly shifted to a more direct approach with “just in time” job aids and training videos.  

Conducting analyses of your employees’ learning needs before a significant digital transformation project can be highly advantageous. This approach allows you to understand the overall learning curve, driving skill-building priorities for success.  

3) Create a Strong Governance Body

District leaders in HR, Operations, Finance, and IT created a governance committee for the Atlas project, centralizing decision making in advance of the January 2022 go-live date. The committee ensured accountability, clarity in roles and responsibilities, and informed decisioning making.

As the executive sponsor, my focus centered on stabilizing the system, addressing high-impact pain points, and swiftly resolving problems. Our team objectives included reducing costs, eliminating single points of failure, fostering collaboration, and enhancing the end-user experience by identifying and resolving bottlenecks.

Ultimately, we optimized operations across the organization through strong governance, ensuring platform stability and meeting our overall objectives.

4) Create Cross-Functional Teams and Track Work for Sustained Success

As an educator first and an IT professional second, I recognize the importance of active listening in skill-based implementations, especially for platforms requiring complex integrations across departments.

Throughout the project, I asked staff members to participate in regular standup meetings to address any issues. Our mantra became, “If anyone in the standup has a problem, then we all have a problem.”  We also utilized a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to track progress and organized regular checkpoints with stakeholders to ensure everyone was involved in decision-making.

5) Celebrate Wins, Large and Small

At the beginning of the project, change management staff developed a project newsletter and short videos to communicate successes and updates to the team, providing a means to track the overall trajectory of our journey. Crafting a clear and consistent narrative of growth ensures that your project will triumph and win the hearts and minds of its users. 

In addition, celebration should always be prioritized. Our one-year go-live anniversary event was so well received, with nearly 100 staff coming together to celebrate our accomplishments and acknowledge that our business transformation would be a journey, not a destination. 

A Final Word on Digital Transformation

With an unwavering focus on student achievement and a commitment to continuous improvement, FCS has earned a reputation as a premier U.S. school system. Equipped with our upgraded technology systems, our tradition of excellence since 1871 is poised to thrive well into the future. 

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

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