Management Conference: BUworks

by Robert A. Brown | April 4, 2008

It is wonderful to be with you this morning to talk about the progress and future of Boston University. Peter Fiedler and his colleagues have put together a very important agenda for the meeting and, because we do not meet often enough, the program is packed. I am very sensitive that I must help keep us on schedule by holding my remarks to a minimum. This will be hard for me.

I want to spend the few minutes I have with you to help set the stage for the presentations and discussions that will follow. My thoughts are a bit serious, certainly heart-felt, and honed by two-and-a-half years at Boston University, and almost twenty years of university administration at first-rate institutions.

Last time we met, I described to you the commitments that have now become the underpinnings of our Strategic Plan, Choosing to be Great. The foundation of our plan is that Boston University today is an internationally recognized, major private research university in a great city, and that through our plans and our actions we will choose to be a great university going forward. The elements of our commitments and our goals are laid out in our plan and I will not go into these this morning, or else I will totally blow the schedule.

There are two points that I will emphasize. The first point is that, to achieve our goals and aspirations, we must, as the plan calls for, “align policies, processes, services, operations, and campus development with our values and goals.” We have moved rapidly to create this alignment and I have been struck by the incredible sense of common cause that is building all over campus. I often hear a sense of pride when people talk about “One BU” when they refer to working across school and college boundaries or to making our student services better. I know that many of you are responsible for this spirit of teamwork and I am personally very grateful.

Second, I do want to focus on the most elemental piece of the Strategic Plan: this is, its focus on people. First are the faculty and students, who are the essential ingredients of a university; without them we simply would have no reason to exist. The faculty lead in the creation of new knowledge and the education of our students. The students are the soul of the academic community that we are striving to create; our success today, and in the future, depends on their accomplishments more than any other measure of our output.

Our administrators and staff (or “bureaucrats” as you and I are affectionately called), are critical cogs in the engine that facilitates the success or failure of our faculty and students. Simply put, our jobs are to make the facilities, systems and programs work for our faculty and students. We rely on faculty and students to succeed at their goals. We communicate their success to our alumni, friends, and anyone else who will listen. Through their success we succeed.

And we are doing this very well. Once again we are closing in on the end of a fiscal year in which we have delivered outstanding performance for the University, measured both in the quality of what we do and our financial controls of the University. Our financial success will translate at year-end into resources that will support the renovation and renewal of facilities such as the practice rooms in the College of Fine Arts, classrooms across campus, brownstones on Bay State Road, and such invisible improvements as the HVAC system in the Metcalf Science Center. (This is invisible unless your office is in the building, where you will truly feel the difference!)

Be sure, we are executing the Strategic Plan. Next year we will grow the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences; add much-needed funds to the library budget; financially help graduate teaching assistants across the Charles River Campus; and recruit many new faculty to the University, each aided by funds for their research and innovation.

We also have launched a new interdisciplinary Center for Neuroscience that is bridging across the Charles River and Medical Campuses and bringing together faculty who are passionate about understanding the workings of the brain and the great mysteries surrounding neurological disorders, such as autism and Parkinsonís disease. Boston University has historically been a major center for neuroscience research and we will be better known in the years ahead.

All of these advances are possible because we have, as called for in the plan, aligned our budgets, capital plans and fundraising with the academic mission of the University. Today we are more focused than almost any institution I know. This is our advantage and we will push it further. It is our focus on the future, on excellence, and our rejection of anything less, that gives us some edge over others.

We can and are doing this together, one Boston University administration, with one mission: to facilitate, aid and support the educational, research and service missions of our faculty and students. I know you appreciate our role. We come to work each morning because of the sense of purpose that is at the foundation of BU, because of the lasting impact of our efforts and our products — graduates, knowledge, and service — on the world.

Now, what does all this have to do with “BUworks” and software systems?

To continue to be a great research university, Boston University must have robust and flexible financial, purchasing, and human resources systems consistent with the very best that technology has to offer. We are embarking on the project to make this concept a reality and BUworks is the vehicle.

Now, I know that some of you are thinking, how hard can this be? Isnít it like loading another version of WORD on your computer? Well it is probably more like switching the University to the Sanskrit version of an off-brand word-processing system.

Our world is about to change.

I cannot begin to tell you what a profound impact BUworks will have on everyone in this room and the entire staff and the faculty of BU. The way we do our work will change. It must. It must for two reasons.

First, it must change to take optimal advantage of the web-based transactions and reporting environments that will be created by the system.

Second, and equally as important, because if we do not change the way we do business, we will be left with inefficient practices and we will waste a lot of money in the process.

And BU does not waste money graciously! More than ever, we cannot afford to waste money today. Our Strategic Plan calls for huge investments in improved physical infrastructure for our students, faculty, and programs. To achieve our goals we must keep a laser-like focus on how much we spend on BUworks and what we are gaining.

How can you help?

Let me give you a way of thinking about the BUworks Project. We are installing system software, what is commonly referred to as an ERP, or an Enterprise Resource Planning system. You have heard before the names of the two biggest suppliers of these systems, Oracle and SAP, either on television ads, billboards, or from friends who work for companies that have implemented one of these systems.

The implementation of ERP systems require enormous planning, detailed specification, and tens of person-years of time to implement, as well as a professional staff to maintain the system going forward. Implementation of an ERP system is like designing, constructing, and maintaining a very major building, a building in which all of us have a critical stake. Get it right and you have a cost-effective place to work for many years to come. Get it wrong and you have a money pit, both during construction, but also forever, because of ongoing issues about maintenance and adaptability.

This is where we all will face the biggest challenge. Successful and cost-effective implementation of an ERP system requires change by all of us in the ways we conduct the day-to-day business of the University. As our experts go about designing the ERP implementation, they will identify processes that we do one way now and that will be expensive to duplicate in the new system because of needed customization.

When faced with the choice of software customization versus our adaptation to new ways of doing business, we will have to embrace change, because every time we do this, we will save precious dollars.

I want to be clear: I do not mean that we will not see the tremendous advantages of a modern integrated ERP system. We will. I am saying that, with your support, these changes will come at a price-tag that we will be proud of and that will allow the University to pursue its dreams of academic greatness.

Remember that our greatness will have many variations. The positive changes introduced by our new ERP system and the work-flow that it supports will be a critical part of our progress in the next several years. Letís make it work.

I look forward to working with you toward these goals and to moving Boston University forward.

Thank you.