School System Implementation – Before You Start

School System Implementation – Before You Start

In this short series I will try to look at  the process of implementation of an IT system in a school (e.g. music school, dance school, art school, etc.)/preschool/enrichment center/tuition center environment. I will go through the areas and processes to consider – when choosing the right system for you as well as during the implementation phase. I will also try to look at many common misconceptions as well as some reasons for mismatch between expectations of a client and IT provider.

Of course, as with anything else there are many ways to slice the apple and I will try to focus on our experience, on what has and has not worked for our clients and us. Since the education industry practices are varied and very much dependent on the specific school – a football school will have slightly different requirements from a preschool – you may find some areas more relevant than others. It’s good to focus on what makes sense in your situation, but to also be aware of the options and possibilities in areas you may not yet be needing.

Zero Implementation

Ease of implementation has, along with customer support and other aspects become a part of the marketing rhethoric, branding and it’s an important part of the sales pitch. You will often hear sales people touting a 3 hours implementation or zero implementation. And it makes a lot of sense too – was there any implementation or training involved when you downloaded WhatsApp, taxi booking app, newspaper or magazine app or your favorite game? In less than a minute you are messaging with people all around the world, booking a taxi or reading newspapers. Gone are the times of user manuals or training. And while most of us like this fast and easy helpers that we use on daily bases, few would agree that running a school is as easy as booking a cab or opening newspaper or even playing Angry Birds (as sofisticated and challenging as they have become).

Our least complicated client does tuition for a single JC class (subject). He has a handful of students that stay with him for 2 terms. After they pass this subject in school, they have no reason to see him again. Everybody pays the same amount, there are no discounts, he doesn’t care about attendance – if you miss a class it’s forfeited… And yet, running this business is more difficult than sending an SMS message. The main reason for this is that his clients are students – more specifically humans. And as humans they like to break all the nice rules. They don’t pay on time, they want to join midterm and they very often miss classes and come on different dates and times. Sometimes, even he needs to change the class timing and needs to inform 30 people – the students in that specific class. And of course he needs to produce some financial data for his accountant. With growing number of classes, teachers and students, these problems tend to grow exponentially. Managing them is much more complex than booking even 50 cabs or reading Facebook posts of all of your ‘friends’.

Simple or Complex System

Put simply, to manage a complex business you need a complex system. It should be easy to use but it should also be flexible enough to handle much of the complexity and nuances of your business. Put bluntly, if your school offers 20 courses in several levels, offers various pricing options based on the timing, teacher, etc. with different sales packages that result in 70 different pricing options – this is exactly what your system will have to reflect. The more complex your processes and business rules are, the more complex the system will be.

School/preschool/enrichment center/kindergarden is a fairly complex business – right from the sales process that includes membership/registration, deposits, classes and very often also merchandize or services, through the set up of the classes, time table, class pricing down to the attendance taking and dealing with make ups rescheduling. What makes it worse is that there isn’t any established ‘industry standard’ or ‘best practice’ to follow. Based on our experience, each school has their own way of doing things – sometimes even different branches of the same school do things differently. In this kind of a complex environment, the manual process may seem easier and more flexible as any rule can easily be bent or adjusted. It’s easy to let the student attend even though he didn’t purchase a class and just scribble the name to the attendance sheet. It’s easy to sell any number of classes for any price with extended or shortened expiry and just scribble the ‘new rules’ on the receipt. And of course if nothing is really fixed any changes in the schedules, or make up classes can be arranged via SMS. While all this is good and well for a small school with one or two teachers having a handful of students, with the growing numbers and longer history to remember this ‘system’ becomes unmanageable very fast. The result is a seemingly simple process with an only a few rules but with hundreds of exceptions and exceptions to those exceptions. As such it may seem that it’s as easy as booking a cab or working with Facebook.

Which brings us to step 0 of the implementation, in  fact, you should do this step even before you choose the right system. To see how simple your process really is, consider the following areas. Try to list down how each of them looks and works in your business, what works well and what issues you face.

Step 0 (before you begin)

A usual school management system will need to cover at least the following areas:

Corporate structure if you have multiple branches – which data should be shared and which not – usually the set up, such as the courses, products are shared but the sales, attendance, timetables are not
CRM information about students and parents, important communication tracking, mass communication via email or SMS
Class set up structure of your classes from the subject matter perspective
Class pricing pricing structure for different numbers of lessons, packages of multiple subjects, package validity etc.
Timetable set up day and time schedule arranged as , rolling classes, etc.
New student registration registration/membership fee and membership number
Enrollment of students to classes or course sale this is a combination of the class set up, pricing and timetable – student buying either a single class or multiple classes valid for a number of weeks, a term or renewed at specific dates, prorating for students joining midterm, handling of deposits, etc.
Renewals of students when and how students renew their packages bought in the previous step
Attendance taking and management recording of attended students as well as dealing with make ups, rescheduling, etc.
Merchandize set up and sales products and stock management
Any other services offered e.g. birthday parties, library, etc.
Payments management daily reconciliation, ageing and follow up of outstanding payments
Reporting what are the most important reports that you rely on, KPIs or metrics to monitor progress
Accounting what reports you need for external accountant or do you need the system to handle accounting

We will be looking at them in more detail in the upcoming instalments.

Time Factor

There is one more important factor to consider. Everybody understands that as the business evolves and grows, the system requirements change as well. If you’re a small company just starting out you may be unnecessarily overwhelmed by a full scale system. Also your focus will most likely be on bringing new students and figuring out the best way to handle the operation. That means trying out new things and ways, keeping what works and quickly discarding what doesn’t. Implementing a system during this volatile time may needlessly strain your resources – adjusting all the existing data and system processes – especially if it’s only for trial period.

On the other hand, as the business matures and relies on more people working together, the benefits of automation of stable processes and easy access to up-to-date information easily outweighs  the cost of maintaining the data. With different people handling different parts of the process (admin handling new enrolments, teachers attendance, accounts payments, management handling classes, timetables, teacher allocations, etc.) the system will need to handle more and more aspects of the business.

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