Sometimes it can be easy to forget that twenty years is a long time – and that’s especially true in the world of education technology. When SIMS Financial Management System (FMS) was first introduced, the landscape for managing and monitoring school finances was very different to today.
Back then, there was far less responsibility placed on schools to take control of their financial performance or delve deep into where their money was going with some local authorities still retained a strong hand on the purse strings.
When FMS was created it met the needs of schools very closely, but since then it has been updated, and amended in an effort to keep up with the changing needs of its users.
Fast forward to 2018 and things look very different in the school finance office – for a start, the rise of the academy system and, therefore, multi-academy trusts (MATs), has completely changed the way that schools address their budgeting and their invoicing, working across potentially large groups to drive cost-savings and increase buying power.
With that change in structure comes a new approach, a more commercial vision where every pound has to be accounted for and every penny closely watched.
As a result, it would be fair to say that the needs of academies have advanced quicker than FMS can handle, which made the requirement for a completely new solution greater than ever, which is why we’ve developed SIMS Finance.
When I first started working on FMS back in 2011, we were focused on trying to get the best from it and keep it relevant for academies and academy trusts – after a while that felt a bit like plugging gaps and it became clear that something more bespoke was needed to fit the needs of a highly varied and dynamic group of users.
It’s safe to say that since FMS hit the market, a huge amount has changed in the way schools access and utilise their data – we’ve seen the arrival of mobile and tablet devices, cloud-based storage and single sign-on access, all of which we’ve accommodated into SIMS Finance.
One of the key findings of our investigations into the needs of our finance customers was the wide range of skills, experience and knowledge among the school staff who would be using the software on the front line. This variety creates a challenge when designing software and it’s a balancing act between creating something powerful and detailed enough to give users the tools they need, while also avoiding making something so complicated that you can never actually find or use the functions you need.
That balance has been at the heart of our work on SIMS Finance and, by working closely with our User Acceptance Testing (UAT) team, we’ve tried to make sure that SIMS Finance is intuitive and easy to pick up, while also meeting the powerful and detailed reporting needs of senior financial decision makers. We know that many accounting or financial solutions can be extremely complex, so we’ve tried to avoid making a Masters in IT a pre-requisite.
Perhaps one of the most requested features of SIMS Finance is its ability to provide a consolidated view of academy or MAT finance, meaning that users can quickly and easily find out what’s been spent where across an entire group. In the past, this would have required access to all the databases at your group’s disposal, before undertaking some work to bring it all together. Now, SIMS Finance does all the hard work for you, leaving you to interpret the data and identify where to make savings or drive efficiencies.
Add to that the ability to dive deep into individual orders and access details from invoices and there’s everything needed for forensic levels of investigation in expenditure.
That said, we know that change can be challenging, so we’ve worked extensively with our pilot groups to check that the essential, day-to-day procedures needed by school finance office teams are as familiar as possible, so you can stay on track with key tasks such as managing your purchase ledger.
One feature of SIMS Finance that has received a lot of positive feedback during the pre-pilot phase is the use of in-built workflows. This means that where authorisation be required for a transaction a request is automatically sent either via email or on the authorisers homepage before anything is sent to the supplier, cutting down administration time and ensuring that the right individuals sign off their stage of the process.
And in the modern culture of greater security, closer control of data and increased security, it is more important than ever to make sure that your financial matters are kept in the hands of only the right people.
As the environment in which schools operate continues to evolve, providing solutions that meet the changing needs of senior leaders and finance teams remains a challenge, but one that we’re confident SIMS Finance has the functionality and flexibility to address.