Well, I’m almost done. For the past three months, I’ve been implementing a client-server student records management system to replace our home-grown legacy system. Looking back on the whole process, I’m beginning to feel like I just gave birth.

Notwithstanding the fact that my wife, who is due in January, says there’s no comparison, I can honestly say that this conversion has been the most challenging thing I’ve had to do in my career. I’d also be lying if I said that I fully comprehended the complexity of such a project when I first started. In fact, it was a long and tedious road with technical challenges, political pitfalls, and resistant colleagues lurking around every turn.

Those of you contemplating a student records system conversion will soon see that the technical issues are the least of your problems. These are the ones that you have the most control over. It won’t be long before you realize that the issues which are not quite so controllable—like job descriptions, workflow, and technically challenged employees—can make even the most complex technical problems look like child’s play.

The fact is, your student records system is the heart of your entire operation. No other collection of data touches, and is touched by, a broader range of people. Simply put, it plays a role in almost everything that goes on at the school. Thus, uprooting and replacing this system will have a huge impact on a large number of people in your school.

Many people who have limited technical skills will find this change daunting, and since all people naturally resist change of any kind, a project of this magnitude is going to have repercussions almost everywhere.

The news isn’t all bad, however. While a student database conversion offers unprecedented challenges, it also offers some unique opportunities to evaluate data and revise procedures. To take advantage of these opportunities, though, project leaders and technology directors must carefully evaluate products to find the one that fits best. Additionally, they must anticipate some of the human, as well as technical, challenges that invariably will present themselves.

Here are some issues that bear consideration when you’re choosing and implementing a new student records management system:

When evaluating a product for purchase, form a committee of end users and visit sites where that product is being used. Most vendors will be happy to share a client list with you, but don’t rely solely on this. You’re more likely to root out unhappy customers by posting to listservs and searching the web.

If you begin your planning well enough in advance, you can make several visits at the most opportune times, such as the day they build the schedules, the day they print report cards, or the day they send out mass mailings. This will give you an intimate look at the product, with all its warts.

Here’s where your team members should ask the truly valuable questions of their counterparts at the demo school, such as, “What was the biggest challenge in the conversion of your old data?” and “What do you wish the system could do that it doesn’t?” Questions like these will give you first-hand information from the people that use the product every day, allowing your end users to compare how such a system would fit into their own world.

See if you can attend the vendor’s training workshops before you actually make the purchase. Not only will this give you a “hands-on” experience with the software; it will also give you insight into the methods the company recommends that you use with its product. In such a setting, you can ask the instructor how he or she would handle a situation unique to your schools. You might even be able to model the instructor’s advice in the workshop to see if it would work in your case. These are great opportunities to identify red flags about the compatibility of a particular system and your institution.

Identify key features that are important to you. Internet connectivity, wireless networking, bar coding, and telephone integration give schools the ability to have faster access to student data, store a wider variety of information, and streamline communication between students, faculty, and parents.

Consider more than the technical merits of a product. Obviously, the product has to be technically sound, but be very careful that the solution you choose isn’t more cumbersome to the end user than the one you already have in place. The amount of time you’ll spend managing the system is relatively small compared to the amount of time the end user will spend working on it. Look carefully at the procedures for scheduling, printing report cards, and entering attendance, and involve others in the evaluation and decision-making process.

Use add-on essentials to negotiate price by asking for free training or free support. Also, negotiate price on the last day of fiscal quarters, when sales reps may be under pressure to meet quotas.

Make sure you completely understand what is, and is not, customizable. Some packages offer custom report capabilities, but their report-writing software will only work on exported, rather than live, data.

Realize that if you are purchasing shrink-wrapped software, it will never completely match your current way of doing things. You must either be prepared to change operational procedures, or write some simple programs yourself to fill the gaps.

Choose a vendor with a proven track record for customer support. Be sure to understand the policy for resolution and escalation of issues. Call the company’s support line during peak hours to see how long they keep you on hold.

Sell your decision to your users and administration. Identify and promote areas of the product where users will save time immediately despite initial learning curve challenges, such as Scantron attendance or report cards that can be printed for windowed or carbon envelopes.

Before implementing the new system, map out the workflow under your current system. Track all the data that is entered by identifying who inputs each piece of data and in what order. Identify each type of report or output that is currently produced and why. Use this information to identify where workflow will need to change and where new features might lighten workloads.

Try to unify as many databases as you can. When data is entered more than once, the chance for error increases exponentially. Some schools have one data management system for guidance, another for lunch, still another for schedules and grades—and perhaps up to seven or eight more systems. Try to find a system that can assume the function of those other databases, or see if you can automate the replication of that data from a single, central location and share it among all your databases.

Scrub your data before brining it into the new system. For example, when we were bringing our emergency contact information over from the old system, some of our data conflicted, and we spent a lot of time clarifying which parent was the primary contact. In other cases, we had to sort out different last names listed for the same person whose marital status had changed. The end result was much more reliable data, but it took a bit of work to clean it up.

Contract with your vendor to provide “just in time” training for everyone who will use the new system. If training will occur at the vendor’s location, see if you can have your staff trained on a sample of your own data. Be sure to ask trainers about scheduling and grading issues that might make your school unique.

If you’ve recently done a student records system implementation and would like to share some challenges you dealt with in the process, you can drop me a note at tshaw@sbp.org. If you work at a private school and are considering such an implementation, and you’d like to read my review of the product we use, you can find it at http://www.sbp.org/tshaw/bbaud.