Building a strong foundation

Faced with an explosion of new business, the Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation decided to overhaul its entire IT infrastructure and move toward a leading-edge technology environment. Here’s how they did it.

Forward-looking investments in information technology and conservative investment of contributor’s money have made Canadian Scholarship Trust Foundation (CSTF) the biggest Registered Education Savings Plan provider in the country. With 250,000 clients and over $2.3 billion under management, CSTF is a non-profit company that manages savings and distributes funds to thousands of students across Canada when they attend college and university. Distribution of the plans across Canada is handled by 700 sales representatives of CSTF’s wholly-owned subsidiary, C.S.T. Consultants Inc.

CIO Gaby Andari came to the Toronto-based company in 2000 with a mandate to rebuild the entire IT infrastructure after the Canada Education Savings Grants brought an explosion of new business. “We wanted to standardize technology and get on the leading edge of the industry,” Andari said.

Mission critical applications were consolidated into Oracle technology and tools. “We adopted Oracle Financials and Portal 9iAS release 2, and we were the first company in Canada to release Portal in French and English for internal and external users.”

At that time, Andari said, few organizations were deploying extranet client online services. “That was early for self-service and it was a very painful process,” he said. “I had been implementing Oracle since the early 90s, and we were the guinea pigs. With all the dedication both internally and from Oracle, they made sure that we did succeed.”

The result is a single information repository that makes every piece of information and interaction between home office and clients and the sales force available in near real time. “It was very, very ambitious because we used to have almost eight months of backlog for scanning, and right now for the last three years with the adoption of bar coding capabilities, we are up to date,” Andari said.

Clients can now interact with CSTF in real time. They can update their address information or banking information, provide their Social Insurance Number, or check their account information. “We see students checking the status of their funds at two or three o’clock in the morning. They want to make sure they are going to get the cheque that will allow them to pay their tuition.”

Because CSTF is a small organization, IT project governance was managed by Andari, the Chief Financial Officer and the President. “In effect, the business plan and the milestones it indicated became the governance structure,” he explained.

Any five-year IT project will inflict some pain, and this one was no different. But because Andari had a previous relationship with Oracle, he believed it would succeed. “I knew we were taking a risk but the rewards were huge in terms of the investment. I knew Oracle consulting would come through. They put the right people on the project.”

His biggest personal challenge was putting in long hours both for himself and his team during the implementation period.

For CSTF itself, there were inherent challenges in working with a large, multinational provider. “How can you tailor your thinking down to a smaller organization? This is the biggest challenge because if you are going to keep the large organization concept in your mind, you will never succeed,” said Andari. He added that as a smaller organization with a smaller budget, CSTF could not afford to reinvest after a failed project.

After implementation, Andari reported “zero” problems. “That is the beauty of Oracle,” he added. “If you do your homework, it is super solid.”

Andari pointed to enhanced information as the major immediate benefit. But looking forward, he said the implementation will help CSTF support joint marketing initiatives with partners like Aeroplan and HBC to offer rewards and other incentives. “If we want to venture with other partners as well, we already have that framework around external ventures. And this is where we are moving to the next level of infrastructure and reducing risk,” he said.

The next major project at CSTF this year is an upgrade from Oracle 9i to 10g portal infrastructure. The company is also going with Oracle Fusion middleware, which will assist its relationship with organizations such as Aeroplan and HBC. CSTF is also in the early stages of putting in the building blocks of Service Oriented Architecture.

Andari’s advice to other CIOs who may be looking at doing similar projects? “Do your homework. Don’t look at it from a technical point of view – look at the business in general, in light of both long- and short-term planning. And don’t ever forget that you have a business to run.”

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– Richard Bray

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