Large, commercial enterprise systems that handle functions such as campus finances and human resources are notorious for being costly, inflexible, and often hard to manage.
That’s why a small but growing number of institutions are turning instead to open-source alternatives developed collaboratively “by universities, for universities” through the nonprofit Kuali Foundation.
The effort began in 2004 when a handful of institutions—including Indiana University, Cornell, and the University of Arizona—joined together to develop an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that was less costly and better met their needs.
Nearly a decade later, some dozen universities are now using the Kuali Finance System (KFS)—and the Kuali Foundation has launched a number of other software projects that total about 100 users in all.
(Next page: Why lower costs aren’t the only reason universities are using Kuali software)
“The open-source movement has been gaining momentum in many forms, but this was the first time that we saw interesting developments in the area of ERP systems,” said Randy Ozden, president and chief financial officer of Vivantech, a developer of enterprise-grade, open-source administrative software, describing Kuali’s origins.
Vivantech has been an active member of the Kuali community since 2007 and has helped to develop several Kuali products, including KFS, the Kuali People Management for the Enterprise (KPME), and the Vivantech Kuali DVQE (Disbursement Voucher Quick Expense) Mobile App.
“A lot of people call Kuali ‘open source,’ but I think a more appropriate definition is ‘community source,’” Ozden remarked. “Unlike open-source projects out there where anyone can contribute to the software and modify it, in this case, the community has … functional counsels that determine what goes into the new products or software modules.”
The Kuali Foundation’s participating universities act as a collaborative cohort and share resources, ideas, and even developers to create products they all can benefit from.
“You saw the rise of a lot of universities saying, ‘I don’t want to spend a lot of money, what if universities band together and write it together,’” said Brian Voss, vice president and chief information officer for the University of Maryland (UMD). “It is a community of like-minded and like-motivated people [who] are coming together to create something that all can use.”
The Kuali Foundation is currently home to eight projects, the most mature of which is KFS, which can be hosted on campus or through a software-as-a-service model with the help of commercial support providers.
UMD joined the consortium when officials there recognized that much of their IT staff was nearing retirement age, and they felt it would be counterproductive to train their new hires on the Cobalt Blue ERP, their legacy system that was being phased out by vendors.
Although implementing a community-source ERP would require a significant amount of “people time,” it would allow them to bypass a costly licensing fee, the school’s IT team figured.
“We can make a seven-figure decision, or we can do a tens of millions of dollars decision,” said Voss. “So that was pretty easy.”
But UMD did not join Kuali solely for economic reasons, Voss noted: The chance to transition from its legacy systems to modern financial and administrative systems built specifically for higher education also had appeal.
KFS now helps UMD officials better manage their financial transactions, purchasing and accounts payable, general ledger, and capital asset management, while increasing transparency for faculty.
“We’ve been involved in Kuali for four to five years and saw that KFS was a viable solution that was being implemented at major universities around the country,” said John Farley, assistant vice president for UMD’s Division of Administration and Finance. “For that last four years, we’ve had controllers involved in writing the code. If you’re an investor campus in one of these systems, you have a seat at the table, and we have a lot of input into what Kuali is today—and we’re very proud of that.”
UMD anticipates that the Kuali Financial System will be fully implemented by late summer or early fall. Voss and Farley said the university initially held off on joining the first pilots of KFS, to avoid the early glitches often associated with new technology initiatives.
“We feel very confident about where KFS is today,” said Farley. “Every college needs these systems—they all have these same processes that they need to manage. An individual institution can either pay for this or have a less costly solution that allows them to spend their money on other things.”
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The Kuali People Management for the Enterprise (KPME) software aims to do for HR and payroll what its KFS software does for financials. Iowa State and Indiana are now implementing phase one of the software. KPME is made up of several stand-alone and integrated modules; the Time and Attendance and Leave Management modules are being developed first.
Because KPME is designed by universities, for universities, it addresses concerns that other HR/payroll systems commonly overlook.
“There’s a lot of specific situations that universities have to deal with that the typical HR system doesn’t address—or if they address it, they don’t address it as their primary function,” said Maury Hope, associate chief information officer at Iowa State University.
KPME’s primary focus is to recognize an educator’s ability to fulfill multiple roles within a single institution, and manage these roles and the payroll that goes with them.
“Our goal is to develop a comprehensive human resource and payroll system that is tailored for a higher-ed environment, and the aspects that are a little different for higher [education] deal with faculty [who] have multiple roles within an institution,” said Hope. “They are a teacher, administrator, researcher, consultant, and they have multiple sources of revenues that pay for a salary as well as their staff—and it’s quite a bit different from a company.”
He added: “In a company, when you put together an organization chart, usually a person can draw a straight line to whom they can report to. That doesn’t work in higher ed, because a faculty member can be a faculty member in more than one college or department, [and] they can be associated with a research project [at multiple institutions].”
Kuali Mobile Enterprise
The Kuali Foundation’s latest venture is a joint project with Vivantech, the Vivantech Kuali DVQE (Disbursement Voucher Quick Expense) Mobile App. The app simplifies the management and reimbursement of higher-ed professionals’ travel and non-travel expenses.
Keeping in step with its other projects, the Kuali Foundation built the app on its Kuali Mobility Enterprise (KME) framework, of which Vivantech is a founding member. KME is a platform for optimizing mobile tools for higher education.
“This new DVQE Mobile App handles the coordination of all expense vouchers,” said Ozden. “It routes them through the appropriate succession of personnel for review and approvals, providing all of the information necessary to make informed decisions.”
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The DVQE app manages pertinent documents related to each expense voucher: general account information, the purpose and nature of the business trip, details and background of each expense, and an explanation of why some of the expenses might have gone over the maximum allowance. The DVQE Mobile App also simplifies the approval process for campus administrators. Transaction reviewers have several options: approve the voucher and send it along in the routing process, disapprove the voucher and deny the user’s request, or return the voucher to the user and restart the routing process.
Though currently still in limited release, Ozden believes the DVQE Mobile App will be successful because it meets the needs of educators.
“Many faculty members are constantly on the go, so they don’t have time to log in to traditional ERP systems,” said Ozden. “But every single one of them has an iPhone or an Android [device].”
The KME platform deploys new versions of the app automatically, so users don’t have to update the software themselves through the app store. Various customization options are available, as Kuali and Vivantech understand that educators’ needs might differ.
The Kuali Foundation and its 70-plus members are working on five other software products as well, which are in various stages of development: Kuali Rice, a “middleware” project that enables developers to react to end-user requirements quickly in order to produce high-quality business applications; Kuali Coeus for research administration; Kuali Open Library Environment; Kuali Ready, a business continuity planning tool; and Kuali Student, a next-generation student administration system.
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