U seeks fix for complex software

The school launched the new $60 million accounting program in 2008.

by Conor Shine

When the University of Minnesota launched its new finance management system in 2008, the move led to anger and confusion among school employees and reports of people quitting their jobs out of frustration.

Two and a half years later, much of the initial turmoil caused by the switch has subsided, but a laundry list of problems still exist with a system described by faculty and staff as “difficult,” and “almost universally reviled.”

The Enterprise Financial System, software that encompasses all things money at the University, has not been the improvement the school had envisioned. Almost three years ago, the University spent $60 million to replace the aging system that had been in place since 1991, but now an additional $2 to $3 million in upgrades are needed.

The system is used to track budgets, place purchase orders and monitor research project funding.

But for one researcher, the initial months under EFS were turbulent. Tom Jones, an astronomy professor, said he couldnâÄôt get reports on how much grant funding was left for his research projects.

“I had to carry a mental image in my head with how much we had spent, and how much we had, and hope that I was right,” Jones said.

Things are a little better now: “It gives me enough info to know whether IâÄôm solvent,” he said.

But the reports still arenâÄôt helpful when making spending decisions and tend to make things more complicated than they should be, he said.

“ItâÄôs not particularly user-friendly, and there are a number of quirks,” said Steen Erikson, an executive secretary in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences.

Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter admits there are problems and said more should have been done to prevent them during the initial installation.

“I think thereâÄôs clearly been a productivity loss,” he said, “and itâÄôs cost units, time and people.”

Erikson, who also serves on the Senate Committee for Finance and Planning, said his main interaction with EFS is when he processes purchases for his department. Erikson said he often has to split charges among multiple financial accounts, which meant entering dozens of account numbers âÄî each of which stretched up to 40 digits.

“ItâÄôs really easy to transpose a number,” he said. “You miss one and whoops, itâÄôs not right.”

Other departments have come up with creative ways to do their budgeting in spite of EFS, using “shadow systems” âÄî often series of spreadsheets created in Excel âÄî to keep track of their finances.

Complaints about the system abound, including that it is too slow and too complex, making it hard to get information critical to guiding budget decisions in a timely fashion.

Dozens of minor fixes and improvements have been made to the system over the past few years, but faculty and staff are still unhappy, and administrators are working to address those concerns.

A team of finance, IT and research officials have compiled an ever-growing list of needed changes and is holding meetings around campus to get feedback from employees.

Fixes should be in place in six to nine months, Pfutzenreuter said, but to get the work done quickly, the University will have to hire outside help. He said the three main priorities will be improving the reporting system, addressing structural issues and working through the dozens of technical fixes reported by users.

Budget Director Julie Tonneson led four discussion sessions around campus that have drawn about 40 people each. Several more are planned, she said, and the concerns expressed have centered on simplifying the system and adding new tools to help analyze and summarize data.

The tone of the meetings has been positive, she said, and lack much of the anger that characterized the early days of EFS.

“ItâÄôs more of a shared understanding that weâÄôre ready for some improvements.”