Wrangling Processes in the IT Wild West: An SAP Concur Podcast Conversation with Penn State University

When it comes to information technology, there are specialists that focus on operations, software, development, and logistics and then others that focus on business – but few that can do both. We spoke with one of these unicorn IT and business subject matter experts at Penn State University. “Historically, it's sort of been the wild, wild west in terms of process…And so, one of the things that my group in central IT is interested in is sort of building out better ways to do things that we can identify here in our own shop to kind of get our own house right. But then also provide those examples, and resources of how we're doing process improvement out to other units, and groups within Penn State,” shared Bennett Ulmer, Operations Analyst and Manager of Analysis and Audit for Penn State University. Listen to this podcast interview, hosted by Phil Bunnell, Solutions Consultant for SAP Concur Solutions, for insights to inform your own business and IT process. 

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Transcript:

Phil Bunnell:

All right. Well, welcome Bennett from Penn State, we're going to be talking to Bennett Ulmer today from Penn State University. I mean, just to start off, my name is Phil Bunnell. I'm a Solutions Consultant here at SAP Concur, and I speak with a lot of our customers on a daily basis, and see some of the things they're doing, and how they're benefiting their organizations. And we have the pleasure of speaking with Bennett today from Penn State University. Bennett, do you want to give a quick introduction here?

Bennett Ulmer:

Yeah, sure. I am the Operations Analyst and Manager of Analysis and Audit for Penn State Information Technology. We cover a lot of the enterprise technology infrastructure, and applications that serve the entirety of students statewide, and employees kind of here at University Park and across the Commonwealth at our Commonwealth campuses. So, I'm kind of glad to be here and glad to talk to you folks.

Phil Bunnell:

Awesome. Yeah, we're definitely glad to have you. And for those that don't know Penn State University, it's one of the largest universities in the country. But with that, the alumni we get there, work at some of the most recognized companies in the world, and there's celebrities and others. And when we take a look at the history of Penn State, and looking at it from your perspective, Bennett, within IT, and then looking at it from my perspective with SAP Concur, we have a long history that really dates back to 2006, which is, Penn State became one of our first, very large, higher ed institutions that we had as a client. And over the years, we've expanded that relationship, brought new technology and reducing a lot of the manual efforts that were there years ago.

And then more recently, Penn State, you guys implemented a new instance of Concur. We did a lot, years ago, and expanded that process and made everything easy for users in the back office. But you grew tremendously. Then you were looking at a new ERP system and then partnered with our parent company SAP for the S4 HANA ERP, and really found a way to rebuild and make this process easy for everybody, and found even different, interesting ways to utilize different solutions at Concur. And from there we've seen... We got this from others within the university, but we've seen this as well, where the Penn State University is really on the cutting-edge when it comes to innovation, and really have that longer-term user focus, as well as making sure these things are easy to use. So I guess if you could, Bennett, maybe at a high level, expand a little bit on that innovation when it comes to different processes within the university and that focus on the end-user satisfaction as well, and things that you've seen at the university.

Bennett Ulmer:

One thing I'd say is that I think it's important to know as we talk through this conversation, that Information Technology at Penn State, finance at Penn State all of these, kinds of administrative functions are distributed across the university. We have central offices that sort of, do coordination. Then there are units within all of the academic colleges and all of the administrative units here at University Park. And then additionally at all of the Commonwealth campuses, which are locations that we have across Pennsylvania. The reason that I think that's important to note at the very beginning of this is that, historically, it's sort of been the wild, wild west in terms of process. IT shops, financial shops, everybody sort of did... We have policies that we have to follow, but how we meet those expectations has always sort of been kind of every man for himself, historically.

And so, one of the things that my group in central IT is interested in is sort of building out better ways to do things that we can identify here in our own shop to kind of get our own house right. But then also provide those examples, and resources of how we're doing process improvement out to other units, and groups within Penn State. And so that's sort of my focus, that's one of the things that I think is really critical for us to sort of drag this lumbering institution into a modern world is sort of 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, but bearing in mind the implication that that can have across the university engine.

Phil Bunnell:

And I think some of that ties back, Bennett, to some previous conversations that we've had. And I think I got this quote, right, but one of the things you said is that you do Information Technology great for the university, but there's maybe some hesitation on the business side of information technology. And I think that's kind of what you're saying is...

Bennett Ulmer:

...the way that we normally put it, is that we are really good at doing the things of IT, but we were really bad at doing the business of IT. And so we just sort of floundered for a long time in old paper processes, and saying, "Well, we'll just sort of do this however we want", and me and my team have been working towards making improvements in that space. And so I don't want to kind of jump into details too quickly, but that's really what brought my team to the SAP Concur team at Penn State. The product and the relationship with SAP is managed, that's actually outside of Penn State IT. It's in that distributed model. It sits in the Corporate Controller's office and Corporate Controller's organization at Penn State.

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, 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."

Phil Bunnell:

I think that's a good thing to hone in on for a second there, is thinking about as technologies change and grow, and everybody's moving to cloud software, mobile apps, different ways of doing things. And you have something like a Concur that's managed in the finance controllership area, where there is IT involvement, but maybe there needs to be more IT involvement sometimes to make sure that we can get everything flowing and all the data we need. How do you manage that within your organization? I'd love to say coming from Concur, that Concur made that glue in and connected everybody together. But when you're out there managing multiple departments, whether that's finance or directly with some of your faculty and staff in different departments to know what systems are out there, what processes are out there that you can help optimize or get involved in. I mean, how do you kind of build those relationships across the university?

Bennett Ulmer:

It's not easy. 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 couldn't bring value to the larger university.

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, but this is something that we really think can benefit, not just us, but, 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.

Phil Bunnell:

Awesome. We spend a lot of time, I'll say, Concur, talking to travel managers, accounts payable managers, more the finance accounting teams, and maybe we'll bring in IT at the end, when we're working on different opportunities and enhancements, what have you. And hopefully from the beginning of this podcast, we still have some of those people listening and they didn't turn off because we're having this IT conversation, right? But I guess from that perspective and more on the finance side, I mean, we see things over the last 18 months, we all know what's been going on, but we see budgets being very tight, things being scrutinized, and wanting a level of visibility when I'm sure whether that's from a finance perspective or IT, have you seen things from that perspective? And we can say this around Concur or any system where you've seen those screws being tightened, if you will, around budgets to where we can help users help give that more visibility.

Bennett Ulmer:

Yeah, absolutely. and I think that's why my group is really interesting in this is that we, because we are Penn State IT finance, we sort of sit at that intersection, between things. 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. But what I've seen in the last couple of years is really an interest in not going out, and just building things for the sake of building them, building my own little thing that I have to hire developers and hire all of these analysts and people to run and maintain, but a slow, and gradual turn towards enterprise solutions that are free for kind of the end user, right? 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.

And so as our budgets have become increasingly more stressed, and tight over the last 18 years, or it feels like 18 years, but it really has been only 18 months. Yeah, absolutely. 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, it 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?

And so a lot of university units don't require that additional pre-approval step or haven't in the past and are really starting to get to that point, given budget constraints. So, this week, actually, I was asked to come and present our solution and our tool in SAP Concur to the financial officers for all of the administrative units at Penn State. And so we just had a really great conversation two days ago about this very thing. And looking at the kind of flexibility of the form and looking at how we can just collect all of the required information, assign approvers, send it through whatever the units individual approval policy might look like and collect all of that data in one place. And folks were really excited about it. It was fun to see that it means that this thing that this idea that we have, and this thing that we built really is starting to catch some seeds.

Phil Bunnell:

No, that's great to hear. And I, and I like how you kind of, and I don't know if it was purposeful or not, but set that up is to say we want to make sure that, that people aren't just going out and looking at these different systems just to solve something that's right in front of them, but how can this help everybody where it sounds like you've almost taken that pre-approval that Concur Request piece and taken that, and expanded, and grown on it because there's other uses across the organization. So, and I think from that perspective, the end user aspect as well, this is something, it might be a couple of different steps within the system, but it's something they already know. So, from that perspective, I know you've had some additional meetings, but from where it has been rolled out, have you seen some just general efficiencies from that perspective, just on the user side of not having to roll out these large trainings around it?

Bennett Ulmer:

Generally, it's sort of been a nothing burger. We rolled this out and we walked folks through it and we did some video. We did some Zoom trainings, we put together some documentation and recorded a couple of things. And really, I haven't heard much about it over the last six months or so. We went live at the beginning of the year. And we worked with our teams and did some training over the first couple of months. But because the, especially, the administrative support community within Penn State IT, we're already familiar with the look and feel of Concur having done travel, and expense management in the same system in the past, 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.

Phil Bunnell:

And one of the things I have found really interesting is, I know there was an effort to also start looking at automating the P-Card process or the requisition of I need to get a credit card for the university and bringing that into some of these processes. I don't know if you can talk to that a little bit.

Bennett Ulmer:

That's really not my space. That lives wholly within the Corporate Controller's space. I can speak to it just from the fact that I walked through it once when I had to request a new P-Card for my own purposes. And it, too, has that same look and feel. And so, for me, it was pretty simple, but in terms of the kind of process changes, and efficiencies that they've gained, adding that piece and that I don't have any connection to that.

Phil Bunnell:

Gotcha. No problem. I guess, from that piece when we look at whether it's really any aspects of Concur, really, any system, but there's always other systems that need to be spoken to. We need to send data from here to there. We need to make sure the right people are getting the visibility they need. And just curious how you've managed that, again, whether it's Concur or other systems, but just looking to ensure that the systems that we are putting in place either contain all the data that we need and can get it out to the people, or if not, how do we get that information to all the appropriate systems and people?

Bennett Ulmer:

We've done a little bit of reporting out of it just by kind of creating some queries directly in the user interface, and pulling that data out. And we've been able to look at some trends data. To be perfectly honest, I haven't done a ton with the SAP Concur data. We really use it as a fallback for justification, for expense, but not really looking at kind of trends in that data. The actual expense management happens in SAP4 HANA. And so my team works a lot with, with that SAP data to do analysis, and build out some dashboards and build out some reporting things. But that piece doesn't... We don't do a lot with the Concur data.

Phil Bunnell:

Yeah. And understand that, but I think that that still shows a good point there, like where you have your broader ERP system, where you're getting a lot of that data. And when we look at different solutions, systems, processes, where maybe you don't necessarily need to pull all that data out, or that data is specific to that financial controllership group, but you still have all the data you need in your ERP system. And that data is really flowing seamlessly and 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.

Bennett Ulmer:

Yeah. I'd say having that integration between the request and the expense report is really helpful. We know that it, 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. And so the I don't have hard numbers on it, but anecdotally, I know that we have fewer bumps in the road and, "Oops, I keyed the wrong thing in here. And we assigned that to the wrong budget," when we're processing these transactions because that data flows directly through.

Phil Bunnell:

Yeah. And I think that's important to point out when we think about tying even the two processes together of requesting to go somewhere. And then when I do go somewhere, I'm going to incur expenses and I need to do my expense report. To tie all that together, from that user experience is one of, "I have all the stuff that it was pre-approved, let me just turn that into my expense report and check a couple of boxes to say I'm compliant, make sure I got my receipts in there and I'm good to go." But then, on the back-end of that from the finance back office team to see is there variances in what they were approved for, and what... And ultimately got paid. And to your point, we don't have fat-fingered numbers and we have the right data attached and we know what's happening.

Bennett Ulmer:

Yeah, exactly. I think in a normal year, we would've had a lot more expense. We would have a lot more travel, and we would have had a lot more data to look at. And we just haven't been there since we went live with this. So, I think if you were to ask me these same questions in a year and a half, I would have a lot broader answers for you, because we've just... Where we've been in the pandemic and having locked everything down, both expense and travel wise, we just haven't been doing it.

Phil Bunnell:

And I'm curious when you say that, too, because I've talked to a lot of our other clients specially in the higher ed space as well of and it sounds like you have taken that opportunity of that downtime. Not that you haven't had a plenty of other responsibilities, but to look in how can we optimize some of these processes? How can we get notifications out there? How can we get trainings, and whatever the case may be?

Bennett Ulmer:

Sure, sorry. I mean, we really have... It doesn't all land in the SAP space, by any means. There are a lot of ways in purchasing and procurement that we're really looking to make improvements. And I got to be honest, had we not had some of that downtime and had to make some of the organizational changes that we did during it? I don't know that we would be looking at it this closely, but yeah, 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 ideas, and hopes that, that I think are going to be coming in the next couple of years, that we can build out this a scalable and a repeatable purchasing process for IT hardware, desktop, and device stuff, generally, that happens in a whole bunch of systems all over the place, across the university. IT asset management is also happening kind of in spreadsheets in some places, which makes my head explode. But 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.

Phil Bunnell:

Yeah. And that's great. I appreciate that. And as I'm thinking through all this, you've taken the time to optimize the processes within Concur within SAP. And it's great to hear that that's not where we're stopping, right? And I'm not going to sit here, plug for business, more business for SAP, but just thinking about that, holistically, I like you talking about some of the other processes that we're going to continue to make this...To optimize as much as we possibly can here. And I think if there's anything to take from this it's, yes, we've done some great things in Concur and it's great to hear that's going to be a big portion of our audience here, but just thinking about that across the entire organization of just constantly having that mindset of how can we make things better through the different technologies that we have?

Bennett Ulmer:

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.

Phil Bunnell:

Awesome. I like that.

Bennett Ulmer:

The one thing I did want to go back to, and sort of mentioned a little bit more about integrations. I think I sort of touched on this, but I feel like I maybe skimmed over it. One of the things that we're really driving at is doing things in their native system instead of duplicating and replicating things all over the place. Financial approvals I think is the big thing that, that my team is working on through kind of our, in a lot of these kind of changes that we're hoping to make. So, we don't use SAP for our IT service management platform. That's all done in a separate tool. We want to stop asking people to go to Service Now to make approvals for IT computer transactions and SAP, to go to financial approvals for things that go through a separate request system, and SAP Concur to go to this place, to do pre-approvals for this thing. And so, what we're really hoping to do is kind of come up with a strategy that we can kind of leverage the backend data to make requests in the original, in the appropriate space.

So, if IT is running this software for desktop and device request management, that's great. We know that SAP is the sort of system of record of financial approvers and who manages, and who's authorized to approve expense on different budgets. And so, we want to build those integrations out in a way that will allow us to just push that... Run out to SAP, grab those approvers, push the approval into that system, and then once that approval is collected, then we can do our fulfillment management over here in the other one. And so it's sort of this like spaghetti monster that we're trying to untangle right now. But I think that kind of speaks to the complexity of what we're really hoping to get here.

Bennett Ulmer:

So, we've got all of these different systems that do kind of similar things that, sure, one has this functionality, and one has that. We're really trying to identify what... This financial ERP system is where we are managing our finances and it's where we're managing these things. So let's stop trying to do that in other systems, in shadowy kind of ways. And let's leverage the kind of data integration and technologies that we can in order to make that happen.

Phil Bunnell:

I love everything you just said, Bennett. I mean, I think if I go back, and maybe it's just trying to make myself sound smart, but what I wanted to introduce Penn State is everything we've gone through. It's been that focus on innovation, but still that end user experience as well. And what I'm seeing there. And if I could almost sum this up, we've had a great relationship, Penn State, SAP Concur, and 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?

And I think we've done a lot of that within SAP Concur with SAP S4 HANA as well, but you're still, they're looking at 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? If I could sum up those three things are huge. And that's what I think what we all need to be thinking about constantly. And 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.

Bennett Ulmer:

We just want it to be easy for folks. We don't want you to have to jump through six different systems to get one thing done. That's really kind of the driving factor. The fortunate thing for me is that, I mean, there are just systems upon, systems upon integrated systems everywhere at Penn State. And so it's untangling, all of that provides me with a lot of job security I hope.

Phil Bunnell:

For sure. And I mentioned before, we spent a lot of time talking to travel managers and finance folks. I mean, this has been a great conversation to really see a little bit of the other side of it. I mean, we do get IT involvement, but to really see it through your lens of, of those webs, you need to untangle, and the processes that you need to take into consideration as we look to innovate and optimize. So I can't thank you enough for everything you shared, if there's any final thoughts you want to share, happy to hear that still.

Bennett Ulmer:

The only thing I'd say is, if you've got people that have stuck around this long towards the end, it's that final thought of making sure that you're including IT in as early as possible, because I've seen so many integrations and so many implementations that have happened around our institution reach these critical points where assumptions were made. And people spent a whole bunch of money getting to a point where then technology has to be kind of re-imagined and reconfigured, and lots of time lost. 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.

Phil Bunnell:

Awesome. That's great to hear great advice. And again, I mean, we can't thank you enough for the time. I think this has been just great information, a great conversation. It's a partnership that's lasted a long time and we want to see it last a long time into the future. And this is how it's done is by considering these innovations working together. And for those that are listening, work together with your IT teams and it's the recipe for success to work together with your IT teams, your partners, whoever needs to be involved with us. So, again, can't thank you enough Bennett for all the time.

Bennett Ulmer: 

Yeah, thanks for having me

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