Spreadsheet vs ERP: Which Is Right for Your School Financial Accounting?

Man looking at whiteboard with pros and cons drawn on it using symbols instead of words.

When it comes to handling financial data for an organization as complex as even a smaller school, what is the right software to use?

Some say ERPs, or Enterprise Resource Planning software systems, are the way to go.

If you aren’t familiar with ERPs, read the green section below, or click here to read our article defining and explaining ERPs. If you already know about ERPs, feel free to skip past the following green section.

An ERP is a comprehensive, scalable software system that takes your Financial data and connects it with data from other departments, all in one database. By bringing multiple departments together in one system, ERPs give schools increased precision, accuracy, convenience, and speed.

While there are ERPs for nearly every type of business and organization, for our purposes we’re referring to those made specifically for Education institutions. (Although some schools use ERPs built for businesses, all of Harris School Solutions’ ERPs are designed just for Education institutions.)

But what about spreadsheets?

School CFOs and their teams sometimes wonder if using simpler software, like a basic Excel spreadsheet, acts as a counterbalance to the complexities of the data itself. In other words, “The data is complicated, so we should pick a straightforward software solution to handle it. That way, we will cut down on the overall confusion.”

While seemingly logical on the surface, does that assertion hold up as true during practical use? Should simplicity be your aim when choosing School Financial Management software?

Let’s take a look at the School Financial Data Management process from start to finish and find out if spreadsheets are right for your school, or if you would be better off using an ERP.

Speed: How You Enter, Manipulate, and Compile Your Data

With spreadsheets, data is entered in one place and is exported from one place. Sounds straightforward, right?

Unfortunately, it’s only straightforward on the surface. It actually can be chalked up as “easier said than done.”

To begin, spreadsheets require you to manipulate and compile the data manually. This consumes a ton of time because of the sheer volume of data the Financial team must handle every step of the way.

Other departments then have to re-enter the same information and continuously check with the Finance department to make sure they have accurate data.

It can get very confusing, which only further bogs down the process.

ERPs, on the other hand, make the processes of data entry, manipulation, and compilation fast and convenient.

Since you only need to enter the data once and then that data is automatically shared across the system to all modules, you save a ton of time on data entry alone.

On top of removing data re-entry, the automation and real-time integration of ERPs allow team members and departments to work together quickly, easily manipulating and compiling the exact same up-to-date data from various access points.

(In fact, with cloud-based software, there is no limit to where or how your team can access and work with the real-time data in an organized way.)

Point: ERP.

Compliance: How Often You Enter, Manipulate, and Compile Your Data

The next stage of School Financial Data Management is ensuring that your numbers add up as they’re supposed to and that all your reports are formatted the way the state/federal government, authorizers, or other entities want it to be.

In short, you must ensure that everything is accurate and compliant.

Here again, while some may believe spreadsheets present the raw data in a very obvious way, that’s actually not the case. Not only do spreadsheets make how you manipulate the data slow (as discussed above), they also increase how much manipulation you have to do.

Since all your work is manual, basic spreadsheets require heavy data manipulation before the numbers can be analyzed by the School Financial team, let alone sent out in an official report.

More data manipulation means more chances for errors and inaccuracy to occur. This is especially true when users entering information into a shared spreadsheet aren’t seeing the document in real time, which means they’re each working on slightly different data.

Then, once you have manually entered and manipulated the data, you still have to manually compile it for your reports in the way the state requires it to be formatted. Since there are no checks or balances in a manual process, you may not find possible errors until it’s too late (which is to say, when the state finds the errors for you).

ERPs, though, decrease the amount of data manipulation you have to do by automating parts of the process of formatting raw data into usable reports.

This means that you are less likely to make an error when compiling the report, since you aren’t manually manipulating the data as much.

Harris School Solutions’ ERPs, in fact, go even further than automating the data manipulation. We work with many state agencies to create built-in reports in accordance with the individual state’s laws, regulations, and guidelines. With built-in reports, our ERPs are able to automate much of the reporting process for users.

For example, our Pa-optimized version of SmartFusion comes with all the required Pennsylvania reports built in, out of the box. That way, when you want to compile those accurate numbers to send to the state, you simply hit a few buttons and the system places your data into the pre-built report.

Once again, the point here goes to ERPs.

Decision-Making: How You Use Your Data

Once you’ve gotten your reports in order, the final step is to analyze those reports to glean insights and make smart decisions for your school, district, or program.

As mentioned above, analyzing the data in a spreadsheet seems like it should be obvious. After all, everything is right there, right?

Unfortunately, the best a spreadsheet can offer is a complex series of pivot tables that, again, you or your team will need to set up. Then, even if your own team understands the data, other departments, personnel, and the school board will require extensive explanations in order to make sense of it all.

ERPs, on the other hand, generally have their own automated rules for taking the raw data and presenting it in an easily understandable way without too much extra effort.

The best ERPs even make automation rules customizable so that you can build reports how you want and then re-use them, rendering the up-front effort (if there is any) a one-time deal.

Using our own ERPs as an example once more, Harris School Solutions’ NextGen BI platform (for the NextGen ERP) actually transforms the raw data automatically into something more than a simple report: it creates a visual experience for you.

Where standard reports still require a lot of explaining to whomever you’re reporting, NextGen BI loads it all into graphs, charts, and other visual representations that are easily understood by school boards, authorizers, and other entities at a glance. The system even allows users to grant “read-only” access for agencies, school boards, and authorizers to delve into the data without risking the data’s integrity or security.

With regard to your own team’s internal decision-making process, these at-a-glance data representations provide a way to quickly make an assessment. That means the bulk of your time can be spent determining what steps to take next, rather than trying to understand what the data means.

Another category, another point for ERPs.

Security: How You Protect Your Data

Securing your data at each step of the School Financial Data Management process is critical. If your data is compromised, the rest of the process breaks down.

With the lower-tech, basic spreadsheet solution, anyone who has access to your reports can edit the data.

This exposes your entire organization to possible security breaches each time the spreadsheet is shared.

ERPs, however, come with built-in security features.

WIth an ERP, your data is contained in a central repository where non-editable reports are standard. You also can restrict access to specific users. These functions allow you to share information safely, without the risk of tampering.

Plus, ERPs log entries (who entered data, when they entered it, etc.) so you’re covered any time you want to perform an in-depth data audit.

All of this comes standard on a good, school-focused ERP. Spreadsheets, unfortunately, don’t feature these types of built-ins.

Advantage: ERP.

Support: Who Helps You With It All

At the risk of piling on and running up the score (which is currently Spreadsheets: 0, ERPs: 4), there is still one last comparison that needs to be considered: Support.

ERPs are backed by the Support teams of the companies that design and create the software.

At Harris School Solutions, for example, we not only help our clients when they have questions, we offer proactive support. That means we host user groups, send out regular communication, and touch base with our clients to make sure they’re continuing to feel comfortable with the software. We also regularly update the software to stay ahead of our clients’ needs.

Plus, we have entire teams of professionals dedicated solely to the initial implementation of our software in our clients’ buildings, including setup, training, consulting, and more. Not only do our teams have knowledge of schools and their processes, we even physically go to our clients’ schools to offer hands-on help.

While you certainly can find resources and postings from other users online to help you understand Excel or other spreadsheets, can you imagine a Microsoft representative visiting your school to provide in-person guidance?

Besides that, it’s worth thinking back for a moment to the original reason some School Financial teams choose spreadsheets:

Spreadsheets are supposed to be the simple, straightforward solution for your School Financial Data Management process. That was to be the primary benefit of choosing spreadsheets over a comprehensive ERP system. So, if you end up needing support for the “simple” solution anyway, then why choose it in the first place?

The final tally?

Spreadsheets: 0; ERPs: 5

Want to see a great ERP option?

Click below to learn about SmartFusion.