College undergoes a rocky transition to Oracle finance system

By SOPHIA MCDERMOTT-HUGHES

Middlebury is optimizing and modernizing its administrative systems with a new finance program called Oracle — the implementation of which has caused many difficulties and inconveniences for Middlebury staff, faculty and students.

This change occurred in collaboration with the Green Mountain Higher Education Consortium (GMHEC), which includes Middlebury, Champlain, and Saint Michael’s colleges. All three institutions are working to improve and reduce costs for common administrative services.

Through an initiative called Project Ensemble, GMHEC plans to implement a new Enterprise Resource System (ERS), a software system designed to integrate each college’s various administrative processes — finance, human resources, advancement and, potentially, student records — into a unified structure. At Middlebury, this new ERS will eventually replace Banner, the computer software the college currently uses. Phase one of Project Ensemble is projected to cost Middlebury $4.6 million, according to Mike Thomas, the vice president for finance and the college’s assistant treasurer.

As part of this effort, the college adopted the information system Oracle Cloud and began using its financial system in April to help track and manage the day-to-day financial transactions of the college. 

Instead of running financial operations on-site, Oracle is housed in the cloud, which helps prevent against data loss. Like Banner, it is browser-based, and employees can access it through by signing in to an online portal.

According to Thomas, one benefit of this new system is that the budget office can approve purchases and expense reports from a computer or mobile device.

“Before Oracle, nearly every purchase we made at Middlebury involved a form that a person had to fill out and send to someone to then manually approve. Now, all of that happens through automated workflow,” Thomas said. 

The switch has also helped Middlebury take advantage of the GMHEC for technical support, supplier management, accounts payable and more.

However, the change caused significant issues for Middlebury staff, who received minimal — and at times, incorrect — training in the system, according to a staff member who asked to remain anonymous. 

“I wish we had gotten real training,” she said. “It felt like our work isn’t important enough to take the time to invest in it. We do an important job and it didn’t get the sort of attention that it needed.”

According to Thomas, Middlebury hired Hitachi Consulting — a firm that had minimal experience with Oracle, a system normally used by for-profit companies — causing significant issues with the roll out. With no people experienced with Oracle on campus, Information Technology Services was forced to learn and troubleshoot on the spot, the anonymous staff member said. 

“At the beginning, people weren’t getting paid at all. Several departments, especially around commencement, were having trouble getting speakers paid. People didn’t even want to come to campus … It has hurt a lot of our relationships with people who have done business with the college over the years,” the staff member said.

The switch has also caused issues within the budget office. There were many bugs in the early stages of implementation, which took time and effort to troubleshoot and led to delays in processing payment and difficulties for employees, according to Thomas.

“We realized that we underestimated the required post go-live support from our implementation partners. It was definitely a lesson learned as we look at other modern systems,” Thomas said.

The change has also created extra work and complications for the Student Activities Office (SAO) and student organizations, according to Derek Doucet, the senior associate dean of students. 

Most student organizations receive an annual budget of between $400 and $4,000 from the Student Government Association (SGA), which they spend and manage through the SAO. The SGA expects to allocate approximately $1,100,000 this academic year, according to Kenshin Cho ’20, director of the SGA finance committee.

Student organization leaders need to track budgets and expenditures closely, but the Oracle system has limited capabilities in tracking individual transactions. Student organizations also require regular, detailed budget reports, which the program does not provide, according to Doucet. 

“The new Oracle system is frustrating as a treasurer that manages a relatively large budget and spends frequently, because we no longer get monthly expense reports with our operating account balance,” said Raechel Zeller ’22, treasurer for the female-identifying club frisbee team.

Pranav Kumar ’20, co-president and treasurer of club tennis, said he worries that he will accidentally exceed his club’s budget and be forced to foot the bill. 

“We’ve built alternative systems to help alleviate these problems, but they remain a significant challenge for student org treasurers and have created significant additional work for the student activities team,” Doucet said. 

According to Doucet, the transition to Oracle caused many Middlebury businesses to stop accepting charges directly from student organizations. Instead, student leaders increasingly must pay for organization expenses out of pocket and wait for reimbursement from the college, something that many students cannot afford to do.  

However, Doucet said that the issues posed by the change has also created opportunities as the SAO explores alternatives. For example, the office is currently piloting a program in which student organization leaders can sign out credit cards, which he believes will be a better system than off-campus charges. 

Moving forward, the administration hopes Project Ensemble will continue to improve the financial system and the overall function of Oracle through an “optimization phase,” which will include “a mobile expense app, a supplier portal where our payees can go to update information, and optical character recognition for invoice processing,” according to Thomas. 

This spring, Middlebury plans to transfer Human Capital Management to Oracle, a move that was originally planned to take place this fall but was delayed in order to not repeat the mistakes with the financial system. 

“Because it was pushed back so much and not rushed like they did with the finance one, people are a little more comfortable,” said the anonymous staff member about the transfer.

“But people are still nervous . . . because it’s our pay and our benefits going through that.”

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