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IT shop fixes legacy system integration problem with BPM package

Learn how workflow automation and a business process management (BPM) tool integrated legacy systems and reduced manual data entry at one medical school.

Like many midmarket organizations, the oldest medical school in the Southeast, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), runs some key programs on legacy systems. Yet the challenges of legacy system integration left the school running its grants program on such disparate, disconnected systems that the school used couriers to deliver data from one system to another. Moreover, manual data entry then resulted in an error rate of more than 80% on the 20,000 document changes requested each year.

What to do?

Systems integration via middleware? Implement a modern ERP system? Go the business process management (BPM)/workflow automation route?

Here's a look at how the medical university, founded in 1824, weighed its options and decided how to end the backlogs and delays in its grants systems, which serve as a primary means of funding for medical research on the 3,000-student campus.

Extending the life of legacy systems

Years of software and systems purchases left Charleston-based MUSC with disparate software, unnecessary modules and systems that did not integrate, including the 1990s-era legacy applications. It wasn't that IT wasn't trying to improve things; it was just that the improvements didn't go far enough.

"We have attempted over time to buy or build enhancements to extend the life [of the legacy systems]," said Stewart Mixon, chief operating officer. "For example, our HR system, Geac SmartStream, did not have an applicant tracking system in the version we operate. Thus, shortly after I arrived, we purchased a software solution, PeopleAdmin, that provides that functionality for us. The result is that this low-cost purchase extends the life of SmartStream."

But Mixon said there were still a number of challenges that prevented MUSC from operating more efficiently.

"We had to hire couriers to hand deliver paperwork so that information could move back and forth between the two systems," he said.

Indeed, many organizations have legacy systems held together by "spit and bubblegum," as Dale Vecchio, an analyst specializing in IT modernization and legacy systems at Gartner Inc., puts it.

In most cases, Vecchio said, the preferred approach is some form of migration, reusing the systems by leveraging a service-oriented architecture, BPM or another packaged environment. "These are immediately consumable," Vecchio said -- especially important in today's economic environment, in which time is most definitely money.

"If they're running on mainframes in the midmarket, for example, a lot of IT executives are saying, 'The cost of IT is killing me,' and with the economy the way that it is, cost has been an even bigger concern over the last six months," Vecchio said.

But just as big of a concern with aging legacy systems are the aging legacy system experts who built and/or maintain them. "It may be the case that 30 to 50% of your staff is eligible for retirement," he said. "And in the midmarket, where the IT staff may just be a handful of people, this is a big percentage."

At MUSC, the IT department first tried an internally developed middleware system, which ended up being a cumbersome and frustrating process, according to Mixon.

It also investigated implementing an ERP system, and a committee was formed to look into the feasibility of an ERP purchase. "My opinion at that time was our institution did not have the dollars or the institutional will necessary to buy and implement a new ERP," Mixon said.

My opinion at that time was our institution did not have the dollars or the institutional will necessary to buy and implement a new ERP.

Stewart Mixon, chief operating officer, Medical University of South Carolina

Finally, it evaluated a BPM package that would let it keep using the legacy systems -- and in fact use them for more things -- through workflow automation. It chose Lombardi's Teamworks, because of features such as the ability to build in business roles, and its quick and thereby lower-cost implementation.

"It's not pocket change, but it's comparable to the folding money in your wallet -- you don't need millions set aside for this," Mixon said.

MUSC decided to implement Teamworks in three phases, across different parts of the grants process.

"Even had we had the money to purchase the ERP, in my view it still would have taken close to two years or longer to implement after we had moved through the purchasing process, developed implementation teams and finally implemented the new product." Mixon said. "We needed solutions that would allow us to respond much more quickly than that."

Within six weeks, the first phase of the BPM implementation brought the 85% to 90% error rate on the 20,000 grant changes a year down to 20% to 25%, and reduced it to 2% to 3% after employees met the learning curve.

"I am very pleased," Mixon said. "With the success of the system we save time, we're much more efficient and as a result, we work more effectively."

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio-midmarket.

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