When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in Spring 2020, West Virginia University (WVU) had an arsenal of data, reporting, and planning processes ready to face the financial pressures head-on, but even Matt Tidd, Chief University Budget Officer at WVU, didn’t know how valuable these processes and the Axiom solution that supported them would be amidst a turbulent year.
Budgeting Before Axiom
Like many colleges and universities, WVU compiled and produced budgets the same way for decades. The budget office prepared over 100 budget Excel workbooks and distributed the files to units across campus. They compiled data manually in Excel from various sources, often leading to time-consuming reconciliations and version control issues. After each unit received their budget workbooks, they had to develop detailed budgets and send them back to the budget office in a very condensed time frame.
The risk of human error, non-comprehensive submissions, and version control issues were all a concern. Once the budget office received individual units’ budget submissions, Tidd’s team analyzed each submission and communicated corrections back to the unit. As he recalls, it was a headache. And it didn’t stop there.
The manual process — managed in Excel — required Tidd’s team to review and consolidate all information into a presentable format to share with the Board of Governors. Improving WVU’s processes prior to the global pandemic was both fortunate and essential to adapting to the challenges once the pandemic hit.
Data Empowers Strategic Decision-Making
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many colleges and universities to operate outside of their long-established comfort zones. Budgeting and planning processes required flexibility and agility to meet the demands of a rapidly changing higher education landscape. Timely, accurate data was — and still is — the key.
Nightly data exchanges from WVU’s HR and student information systems made the necessary data readily available to the finance team throughout the pandemic. Near real-time visibility into daily spending and revenue trends helped leadership make strategic decisions, such as establishing spending limitations and implementing a “hiring frost.”
Daily reconciliation with the source system and high-level checks to ensure data accuracy gave university leadership confidence that decisions were based on reliable data.
Reliable, Remote Access to Reporting
As finance team members, budget stakeholders, and other university leaders shifted to a remote work environment in early Spring 2020, they needed access to key financial data to do their jobs. Thanks to Axiom’s cloud-based, remote access to reports, everyone had what they needed at home or on the go.
The ability to write custom reports also proved invaluable. Part of WVU’s Axiom implementation training, custom reporting served the finance team well when in the early days of the pandemic, as they established a daily dashboard of key performance indicators (KPIs) — including tuition, auxiliary revenue, salaries, wages, supplies, and other expenses.
Tidd’s team also created a daily leadership report sent directly from Axiom to leaders’ inboxes. To this day, deans throughout the university receive regular reports from Axiom emailed to them and can log in and view KPIs on their dashboards, regardless of where they are working.
Flexible Planning Accommodates Changing Plans
Just before the pandemic hit, WVU finance leaders were preparing to wrap up the budget process in record time and had just presented fiscal year 2020 (FY20) projections to the Board of Governors. But of course, plans changed. Immediately, WVU refocused on FY20, using daily analysis to guide decision-making in those first few months of significant financial pressure. Ultimately, the university decided to wait and see how fall 2020 enrollment and tuition revenue looked before shifting focus to FY21 and diving into unit-level budgets.
Once the fog began to clear in fall 2020, WVU refocused on FY21 using a phased approach — phase one: tuition and enrollment by major, phase two: labor planning, and phase three: operational budgets. As university and finance leaders went through multiple iterations of the budgeting and planning processes, Tidd recalled feeling confident that the university had a solid understanding of tuition and fees thanks to Axiom. Despite a whirlwind of a year, filled with shifting timelines and changing plans, Tidd and university leaders were well-positioned to tackle the challenges head-on with access to timely, accurate, comprehensive data.
For additional insights on how WVU transformed its budget process, watch Tidd’s session from Syntellis’ Performance Management Summit 2021.