From having multiple groups of vocal stakeholders through to the challenge of maximising user acceptance, there’s no doubt about it - choosing a new school management system (SMS) for your school can feel like a heart transplant.
The decision to re-evaluate or change your school management system represents a significant investment in both time and resources, with the tender and deployment projects capable of taking months or years from end to end – bearing that in mind, it’s important to get the choice right the first time around!
There’s a lot to consider if your school is embarking on the journey. The first steps are to identify pain points with your current system, your key project stakeholders and any ‘must-haves’ your school is seeking in the replacement system. Once these key items are mapped out, congratulations - you’re ready to start the process of evaluating alternative solutions!
Nowadays, there are countless different software packages and school management systems available, all touting extensive lists of features and functionality - so how do you select the right one for your school's specific needs?
Well, look no further - we've put together a list of the top five things for schools to take into consideration when evaluating all the different options.
1. Reliability & Maturity
Your school holds a vast amount of sensitive data, critical to its day to day operations. You entrust your SMS provider with this vital information - and to ensure ongoing smooth operations for your school, it’s important you place your trust in an established and reliable company.
Completing your due diligence is essential when considering such a big change for your school. The wrong choice could land you in a sticky situation if your vendor goes out of business – potentially losing valuable data, and scrambling to find a new solution.
An established company will typically demonstrate a greater maturity in areas such as technical governance or compliance/alignment with international standards (such as ISO9001), mitigating the possibility of 3rd party risks. Additionally, a company with years of industry experience and a sizeable customer base will typically have more long-term fiscal stability – lessening the risk of your school being left in the lurch.
To help you get an idea of whether a company is reliable and stable, you might ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the company have a professional and verifiable profile – a well-put together website, with full contact information and a physical address?
- Are they Australian based – and if not, can you verify where the product was built and is maintained?
This is an important one – you need to know if the product will cater for education scenarios in your country, and if it will meet all your government reporting requirements.
- How long has the company been operating?
- Does the company have a sizeable, established customer base? – are you able to read testimonials, or contact any reference schools?
Using a solution provided by a market leader offers other benefits, too – you will find it easier to employ staff who have had exposure to or experience with the product, saving time on training.
- Is the company using the latest technology – for example, does it offer a fully web-based platform? This will help future-proof your solution, and means less technical debt tying up the vendor’s development cycle.
Closely linked to the above matter of reliability, ensuring the security of your data is essential. The information schools collect about their staff and families - from medical information, to financial details, to contact details – is all information that could cause significant harm if it fell into the wrong hands.
Due to its sensitive nature, the security of this information is paramount – even more so since the Notifiable Data Breach Scheme was introduced in 2017. Under the NDBS, schools are now required to notify any affected individuals - along with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner – in the event of a breach.
To safeguard against this, any SMS you are considering must have stringent measures in place to protect your data and the privacy of your students and staff. Consider asking your vendor what procedures and policies they have in place to protect your data – and for any documentation they have outlining these.
It’s a good idea to get details on the technology used as well as the underlying stack while you’re at it, to ensure that it’s commercially supported and sustainable in the long term – and also to find out if there’s a secure integration methodology in place, to allow safe interactivity with other programs used throughout your school.
Every school is unique and has a diverse, ever-expanding technological ecosystem - with the SMS sitting right at the heart.
With the recent proliferation of educational software there are more and more programs and apps available for schools to use, in both the classroom and the business office.
When selecting a new SMS, it’s important to consider how the potential candidate will interact with your existing systems - can all your mission-critical systems share the data they need, reliably and accurately? It’s also worth considering whether the candidate offers the potential to painlessly connect with any future additions your school might wish to deploy – is there a safe and secure integration strategy in place?
Safe and secure is a key point here – the SMS that you proceed with will be the beating heart of your school’s software environment, and access to the information it contains must be carefully managed. Allowing third-party programs to interact with your SMS via direct database access opens a Pandora’s Box when it comes to your data, in terms of both privacy and security - and can leave your database exposed and vulnerable.
As part of your evaluation process, it’s worth asking vendors if they can offer RESTful APIs for secure integration. A properly developed RESTful API will offer significant benefits in terms of security, privacy and performance – whilst also providing your users with seamless interactions between the numerous systems used in a school such as library management, boarding management, mobile apps, BI tools and many more.
4. Onboarding & Customer Experience
The onboarding experience plays a huge role in the user acceptance of a new system, and customer experience can have a significant impact on perceptions of a product. When used correctly, a new SMS should be able to significantly increase productivity and business efficiency – but in order to do that, your staff need the skills and confidence to use the software efficiently, and to feel supported in their endeavours. A vendor with a proactive attitude to training and accountability will ultimately empower your staff to confidently manage their own information and significantly boost user acceptance, rather than the task falling to a select few product evangelists.
Access to an onboarding professional who knows the ins and the outs of the software in question can help grant those skills and confidence, before the new SMS ‘goes live’ – saving any scrambling on Day One!
As part of your tender process, it can be helpful to ask potential vendors to submit onboarding and training plans. Modern software onboarding starts with understanding the needs of the customer – any vendor you are considering should work with you to understand your current setup and situation, your deployment priorities, and what your key goals and aims for the new software are. Following the initial discovery, vendors should be able to provide you with a detailed training schedule that is closely aligned with your school’s needs and the project timeline.
There’s another good way to get a feel for how a vendor might perform in this area – reference checks! During your tender process, make sure you ask the vendors for details of reference sites you can reach out to – both those who have recently onboarded to the product, and longer-term customers who have witnessed and experienced the evolution and growth of the vendor. These references will be able to share their insights and first-hand experiences with you, and provide invaluable assistance in your decision-making process.
5. Ongoing Support and Updates
Is support available, and through what channels can it be accessed?
This might be one of the most important questions to consider when investigating a new school management system! There’s no way around it - your users will need help with various parts of the new software from time to time, and a robust support offering with a clear and reasonable Service Level Agreement will ensure they can get the help they need with minimal disruption to the business.
It’s well worth having a chat with the staff who will be using the software on a day-to-day basis to determine what’s most important to them when it comes to support. How can they contact the vendor – by email, or phone? Is there a ‘self-help’ option if they just need guidance? Asking these questions of your staff early in the evaluation process will give you a good understanding of what support channels your chosen vendor should offer, and help reduce friction on deployment.
It’s also important to be aware the needs of your school will evolve and grow over time, and a good SMS should evolve and grow alongside you.
Some evidence of this growth to keep an eye out for is regular patches and releases, and the ability for users to suggest future features and enhancements. A strong and regularly updated product roadmap is another good indicator of product continuity and will give you a good idea of the company’s future direction – so you can see how their goals for the software might align with your needs.
As the driving force behind the software, and its reason for existing, schools should have a key role in directing and shaping the functionality behind it – and the vendors should be ready and willing to listen. Your chosen vendor should be able to clearly explain how customers have the opportunity to contribute to the software’s roadmap, and provide past examples of how they have responded to the specific needs of their customers.
Although the project may seem like a daunting thought, it also represents an exciting opportunity for your school and a chance to bring a breath of fresh air into current processes. Evaluating alternative school management solutions gives you a chance to properly explore the needs and wants of your users, and to reach the full potential of your business efficacy.
Overall - take your time, do your due diligence, and make sure that your chosen vendor ticks all the boxes you've determined that you need ticked. You wouldn't rush performing a heart transplant - so there's no reason to rush selecting the perfect new school management software!