For Brigham Young University (BYU), the search was on for a way to streamline the paper-based reports that its Financial Services department distributed to key stakeholders among the university’s more than 4,000 administrators, faculty, and full-time staff. What was originally introduced more than a decade ago as a tool to simplify reporting for Financial Services is now a versatile solution that supports reporting and decision-making needs in departments campus-wide — from sports department reporting to inventory tracking to even parking citations and vehicle registration.
Founded in 1875 and located in Provo, Utah, BYU boasts around 30,000 students, making it one of the largest private universities in the United States. The Financial Services department (the business office) at BYU is charged with ensuring that the university’s various departments have an accurate and timely financial reporting method, as well as supporting the wide-ranging reporting needs of the BYU business users who require access to financial data. BYU sought to put basic financials reporting in the hands of more of these campus users to allow them to access transactions and review data on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis — whenever they wanted.
The Financial Services department turned to the business intelligence (BI) tools of the SAP BusinessObjects portfolio and has since revolutionized what BYU can do from a reporting standpoint. What used to take three days of processing — and several days of hard-copy report printing and distribution — now takes just four hours. Plus, without reams of paper moving around, the reports are more secure than ever.
A small team within Financial Services, called the Financial Solutions team, has created about 500 interim month queries, replaced some high-powered monthly reports, and extended the use of these BI tools to many other campus departments. The end result eliminated thousands of dollars in paper, reduced the total amount of processing time, and cut reporting costs and resources for the IT team and campus-wide. But the tools also drove innovative reporting that various departments — from athletics to campus security — now use for a better view into their activities.
Uncovering Data Faster to Make More Timely Decisions
The story of BYU’s reporting revolution began nearly a decade ago, when BYU updated its legacy accounting solution. “When that happened, we put the data into the new system pretty well,” says Kevin Walker, Director of Financial Solutions, “but then we needed a better way to get it out.”
At the time, most reporting was done monthly and consisted of rewriting a million-line Cobol program — and a process of report distribution that generated 17 cases of paper. As for mid-month queries, while the accounting staff working in Financial Services had them, they were too complex for other campus employees to use. And when the BYU IT team needed to take on new priorities, expanded reporting efforts were put on hold. “We were looking for a solution that would allow us to do some interim month reporting and perhaps some querying of the system data. Our goal was to give people more access to that information, rather than just that once-a-month printed report,” Walker says.
Running Financial Reports Without Burdening IT
The initial drive for Financial Solutions was to replace two under-powered screens that IT had previously created to let business users access financial data.
After evaluating a number of BI tools, Walker proposed an idea to the CFO and Financial Vice President at BYU: He wanted to implement the SAP BusinessObjects suite. “In short, SAP BusinessObjects solutions seemed like something the accounting staff could use and implement much more easily than other tools that seemed to require quite a bit more technical ability,” he says. “And because the IT department was already swamped with new projects, it was also a way to accomplish some reporting without a lot of IT involvement.”
With CFO buy-in, Walker set out to learn more about the technology and see what it could do for BYU. After spending six weeks in SAP BusinessObjects training, he went back to work. “In about three weeks, I had a report written,” he recalls. “Within six months, we were well on our way to delivering to all our campus users some basic queries that allowed them to access transactions on a monthly or yearly basis — rather than waiting for that data to be delivered to them from IT.”
||L to R: Kevin Walker, Director of Financial Solutions,
Ray Daniel, SAP BusinessObjects Administrator, and
Kurt Huntington, Financial Solutions Consultant
Going Beyond a 360-Degree View
Walker’s small Financial Solutions team operates much like an in-house consultancy for BYU financial reporting, alongside but separate from BYU’s IT department. “In SAP BusinessObjects terms, we created a universe and developed a couple of queries that let us see how much we’ve already spent in the middle of a month. Once we had tackled that, we realized there was more we could deliver to the campus using the same universe and the same setup,” Walker explains.
“Once we delivered the basic ability to get some transactional data out of the system — then learned that we could schedule reports to be run and broadcast — it all led us to this grandiose idea that maybe we could replace the big monthly paper-based reporting and do it electronically,” he says.
But others at BYU couldn’t fathom how the team could replace a million lines of Cobol code used to extract and build the campus-wide reports. “I took that as a personal challenge,” Walker says. “It took us a while — a year.” To complete the job, Walker worked closely with Financial Solutions Consultant Kurt Huntington and SAP BusinessObjects Administrator Ray Daniel, who is also an IT software engineer.
Even with a small team, a year’s worth of work is a significant investment of time and money, but the effort had plenty of support within BYU. “On the IT side, our software engineers used to have to run those reports by hand in stages, so they were enthusiastic about replacing the complicated and error-prone process,” Daniel says. And considering what BYU would be saving each month in printing costs alone, “everybody could see that if we could pull this off, it was going to benefit the university,” he says (see the sidebar below).
Linking Various Campus Systems to the Reporting Database
As the Financial Solutions team members gained experience and training, they learned about dynamic linking that lets SAP BusinessObjects tools link to other information sources. Coincidentally, a separate initiative at BYU was already underway to image many of the source documents for various business processes in the accounting office: scanning checks, invoices, purchases orders, and the like. BYU was using a standalone Web application to look up the source documents online.
“We decided to try to link directly into that entire imaging database — and we did,” Walker says. “Now, from a transactional query that I run in five or six seconds on my computer, I can link back to the original source documentation for everything we have available.”
Using similar principles, the Financial Solutions team then turned to enhancing various SAP BusinessObjects reports with detail from other various systems across campus that fed summary-line information into BYU’s general ledger. “Say I’m a professor charging several purchases to my department at our campus bookstore,” Walker explains. “Previously, I would get a one-line summary of my bookstore charges — but not details about what those charges were for. Now, for many of those feeder systems, we are able to either bring the detail out of their system into our reporting database, or link back to theirs,” he explains.
“We are making far better decisions about our business processes because end users have more timely access to accurate information.”
Kevin Walker, Director of Financial Solutions, BYU
Transforming How Departments Manage Their Finances
Financial Solutions realized it could deliver some large summary-type reports that could also drill down into details for other departments on campus. Take, for example, BYU’s well-established Athletics department, which supports a couple dozen sports and earns revenue via all the standard ways, including ticket sales, donors, branded equipment contracts, and television broadcast contracts. BYU’s Athletics department was looking for a report that would consolidate these many revenue sources and expenditures and pull all the information together in one place.
“We were able to create a report that shows, at a summarized level, total revenue and total expenses in a way we never could before,” says Walker. “The report can display expenses broken down by all sports, by men’s and women’s sports, and even by individual sports.”
“SAP BusinessObjects software has allowed us to create this large consolidated report that still has a lot of detail,” he adds. The success within the Athletics department’s financial reporting spread to other areas of the university. “Stemming from the athletics report, some of our controllers across the campus started evaluating their own reporting needs,” says Huntington. “Since then, we’ve done some similar things for other areas of campus, like our student health center, which has to report finances to government agencies in many different ways.”
Sharing the Success Across the University
Because of its success in the Financial Services department, other departments have begun using SAP Business-Objects tools for a wide range of needs. Police and parking enforcement use the software to track citations and vehicle registrations, while individual colleges track students, classes, and majors.
For example, BYU has a large custom-coded student information system called Academic Information Management. “We take transactional data from Academic Information Management and move it into our data repository, where we also house financial information,” Daniel says. “And we bring all this together to report on all kinds of student-related information, including off-campus housing.”
“Because people can see data as it’s occurring, they can find and fix errors before generating statements.”
Kurt Huntington, Financial Solutions Consultant, BYU
Their reporting even touches inventory and procurement. BYU generates an inventory report for its central stores area within Auxiliary Services, which, for example, buys common office supplies in bulk that individual departments use. “We now link back into their system to provide details for billing,” Huntington notes, adding that SAP BusinessObjects software provides inventory listings and location data even for items like the gas cylinder bottles used in chemistry labs.
And it doesn’t seem to end there. Walker adds, “There’s no question in our minds that we can continue to enhance our existing reports and use SAP BusinessObjects BI tools to move into new areas, including business metrics, business modeling, and forecasting.”