Measure twice, cut once -- the Fulton County School District in Georgia took those words to heart when replacing its 1980s-era systems, investing considerable resources in the request for proposals (RFP) process to increase the chances of success.
Fulton County Schools' legacy systems were updated in the late 1990s for Y2K compliance, but by 2005 they no longer met the district's business needs. So two years ago, the district embarked on a lengthy replacement project.
A key to the project's eventual success is the care the organization put into the RFP, according to Charles Sipos, executive director of information technology for the Fulton County School District.
"For an RFP to work in your best interest, you have to make a large investment in the specifications," Sipos said. "Companies are going to propose what you ask for. So if you don't get what you want in the end, then your specifications weren't written correctly."
The district came up with approximately 4,300 specifications, including detailed business processes that the new system had to address.
After considering systems from Falmouth, Maine-based Tyler Technologies' MUNIS Division, Montreal-based CGI, and Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp., Fulton County Schools selected SAP as the software for the five-year, $28.5 million project.
A public entity, Fulton County Schools is always faced with budget restrictions, but it did not make the software choice based solely on price.
"We went with the best value, not the lowest bidder," Sipos said. "We were looking for a complete package. We didn't want something that met 80% of our needs and didn't address the rest of it."
The Fulton County School District is the fourth-largest school system in Georgia and one of the 50 largest districts in the country. It has more than 11,000 employees serving 86,000 students and an annual budget of $735 million.
Almost immediately after Fulton County Schools and SAP signed a contract in late December 2005, another RFP went out -- for an implementation partner.
After considering giants such as IBM and McLean, Va.-based BearingPoint, Fulton County Schools landed on Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Ciber Enterprise Solutions.
"It was a horse race right up to the end," Sipos said.
The district had a non-negotiable requirement that any contract be fixed price, he explained.
"Fulton County wanted to know what the price was beforehand so we could budget and take it to the public saying, 'This is what we intend to do,'" Sipos said. "We couldn't have any open-ended statements that said the price will be determined after three or six months."
The district also had a limited number of personnel it could make available for the project, according to Sipos. For example, it wasn't an option for a partner to implement the software in six months if that would require 100 people from Fulton County.
Ciber met these requirements and also had extensive experience in the kindergarten through 12th-grade education market -- a crucial factor.
The key to selecting the right partner was intense preparation, Sipos said. It is important to go through due diligence when selecting an implementation partner, he stressed. It is likely to be a long-term relationship, so making the effort up front to check references and learn about the companies, what they are proposing, and how they intend to complete the project is time well spent.
Getting approval for the project still took some doing, according to Sipos, not because of any specific problems with the project but because the school board needed a high comfort level on such a large expense.
In order to provide this comfort, Fulton County brought in Atlanta-based CP Assure as an independent oversight partner to ensure that the implementation delivered the promised value.
Sipos felt that the approval process could be smoothed considerably if this type of third-party oversight were included in the initial proposal to the school board.
The project is currently at the beginning of the 13-month Phase 1, which includes core human resources (HR), finance, and materials functionality. After a one-month stabilization period, Phase 2 will continue for seven months and include more HR and logistics functionality.
By the end of 2008, the post-implementation support phase of the contract will begin, officially putting Fulton County Schools' current, 1980s software relic to bed.