“We are really good at doing the things of IT, but we were really bad at doing the business of IT,” shared Bennett Ulmer, Operations Analyst and Manager of Analysis and Audit for Penn State University. Phil Bunnell, Solutions Consultant for SAP Concur, spoke with Ulmer to learn how he harnessed the power of an already successful travel and expense program to improve their central IT processes, functionality, and business management.
Piggybacking modernization for holistic improvement
Ulmer is all about scaling improvement. When he learns about innovations in one area at Penn State, he gets scrappy and wonders how he can leverage it in other areas of the institution.
"And so, that's sort of my focus. One of the things I think is really critical for us to sort of drag this lumbering institution into a modern world is taking a holistic look at: How can we make financial transactions easier? How can we make processing these things better within our own shop at Penn State IT, while bearing in mind the implication it can have across the university engine?”
As one of the longest-running customers of SAP Concur, Penn State University has been constantly improving it’s spend management program for more than seventeen years. Through trust and collaboration, teams at Penn State leverage each other’s best practices and successes continuously.
“So, it's not something that we in central IT own and manage, but it's a different group that we had to build a relationship with and come and say, ‘As you're building these new pieces and this new functionality within SAP Concur [solutions], we think that there are ways that you can help us and that we can build additional functionality, and processes into the tool that will streamline things here for us, and for others,” shared Ulmer.
Relationships for the win: Relentless problem-solving at scale
Collective problem-solving through developing trusting relationships is par-for-the-course at a top university like Penn State:
“Because of the kind of size and breadth of the university, you really have to seek it out. And ‘relationships’ is really the right word, I think. We had to, in this instance specifically, we had to reach out to the director of the team that was managing the SAP Concur product and relationship with SAP and plead our case. We had to kind of introduce – we knew each other generally – but these weren't folks that we worked with on a day-to-day basis. So, we really had to negotiate a way to prove that it was going to be the right thing, not only for Penn State IT, but that it was something that could bring value to the larger university,” shared Ulmer.
After he had won the team over, he continued to solve these large-scale IT and business challenges through an ongoing pursuit of thoughtful and strategic collaboration. “And so, I'm sort of relentless in that kind of problem-solving space where we brought it to the team and we said, ‘Hey, we know that you guys are really busy in the middle of this implementation of the new version of SAP Concur [solutions], but this is something that we really think can benefit, not just us, but a lot of folks. And can you please squeeze time into your project plan that you haven't already planned for? And let's see if we can build this out.’ That team was great to work with,” shared Ulmer.
Tightening the budget screws: When spend visibility becomes essential
This type of resourcefulness is not just nice to have, it’s essential to running a successful program at any Higher Education institution. “At a Higher Ed, you're always asked to do more with less. I mean, budgets are always tight, and you always sort of have to figure these things out…If the university is already paying for this thing, can we find a way to join into that? Or to team up with this group that already has this thing instead of going out and buying and paying for or building something ourselves?” shared Ulmer. Plus, the need to document and justify how every dollar is spent is only increasing; institutions are shifting to accommodate hybrid work and educational environments.
Scaling pre-approval functionality in one department for the benefit of others
Here’s where the innovation comes in: Penn State University identified user experience comfort across the university with the digital process to approve travel in advance, so they applied this foundation to their corporate card program. Ulmer shared the thought process, “Because we're already familiar with the look and feel of [SAP] Concur [solutions] – having done travel and expense management in the same system in the past – [the team] didn't really have a great learning curve that they had to overcome in order to start doing this pre-approval process in the same tool.” The quick win here was that Penn State had successfully built upon its user experience familiarity to create and manage a totally new program.
Excitement to keep the innovation ball rolling continues to accelerate throughout Penn State University and the higher education community at-large:
“We have had more and more people start to come to us and say like, ‘What are you guys working on? How have you made this work and is it something that we can do?’ The pre-approval request process that we worked with the SAP Concur team to build in – which for your listeners, is not a travel expense – but any kind of other expenses that our staff need to incur. We have built into the system to collect that preapproval. Yes, I know that I have a budget. I know that I have the funds for it, but we require, in IT, an extra layer of: ‘Am I authorized to go and spend these funds?’” shared Ulmer.
“Folks were really excited about it. It was fun to see that it means that this thing, this idea that we have, and this thing that we built really is starting to catch some seeds,” continued Ulmer.
Centralized data forall
Having one place to look for answers that inform day-to-day or strategic decision-making is crucial. That’s why Penn State University’s program is such a model for other institutions. On this, Ulmer shares,
“That data is really flowing seamlessly…I think that's a big piece of understanding the integrations as we look at all these different systems and where that data is flowing to. Having that integration between the request and the expense report is really helpful. We know that it makes it a lot easier and a lot more streamlined for our staff to create those expense reports, which then flow downstream into the financial ERP system.”
Taking advantage of the downtime to optimize
While the global pandemic presented many challenges, the Penn State University team stayed busy optimizing all their programs. Ulmer shared, “This is really giving us an opportunity to look at the kind of entire life cycle of how we spend money at Penn State, and how we do it responsibly for the university and how we do an efficiently…We've got a lot of stuff that we're really hoping to streamline over the next couple of years, and this time has really given us some time to think about that.”
For a good time, follow central IT at Penn State
It’s music to any employer’s ears that teams are having fun, and Ulmer, the ideal IT and Business unicorn manager, leads a team that finds joy in their work. “I think doing what we did in SAP Concur, gave us a win, and gave us a little kind of credit under our belt to say, like, ‘This is how we're looking at things more broadly.’ And this is how we, as our team here in our central IT unit are starting to think about things in a way that can benefit the whole university, and if you want to come along with us, we think you'll have a good time,” shared Ulmer. More efficiency AND fun at work? Yes, please!
Iterative improvement: The PSU-SAP Concur legacy
As with all great partnerships, there are great questions required to continue the growth. Bunnell shares, “If I could almost sum this up, we've had a great relationship… we've done a lot of things together and have that great history, but a lot of it has been:
- How do we make things easier?
- How do we make things better?
- And how do we keep that innovation going?
- how can we continue to optimize these processes?
- How do we keep that innovation going?
- And how do we keep this simple for our end users?
That's what I think what we all need to be thinking about constantly. Technology is advancing every day, and that would almost be my final thought here is just to say, keep that innovation going, keep the end users in mind, keep simple, and where it makes logical sense to not have multiple steps to do things.”
Include IT early!
Parting advice from these thought leaders was to make sure to include IT early in the decision-making process. On this, Ulmer shared, “I'm a huge advocate for having your kind of operations and business analysts involved early, both on the business side and on the IT side, basically, because that's what I do. And just kind of making sure that you've got all the people at the table as early as possible in those processes. And that's where I find that we have the most success is when we're really working well together.” A long, healthy, and happy marriage of IT and business are key ingredients to the secret sauce of what keeps the Penn State University expense management system growing and thriving today.
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