The University of Pennsylvania's Online Computing Magazine

PENN PRINTOUT April 1993 - Volume 9:6

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Cornerstone: Architecture for tomorrow's administrative systems

By Linda May and Robin Beck

Penn's next generation of administrative systems will be founded on a principles-based information architecture that links technology to business needs. Selected administrative activities will be "reengineered" for effectiveness before systems are acquired. What's involved and what does this mean for Penn?

Form follows function

"The 'architecture' metaphor in computing is at least 20 years old, but we're only now starting to use information technology in an intrinsic--rather than extrinsic--way. For the first 20 years of the computer revolution, information architecture was driven by technology. With 'principles-based architecture,' we turn this around and base the architecture on principles by which the enterprise is governed. This is an application of the great building architect Louis Sullivan's dictum, 'Form follows function.' When form follows function, we acquire systems that are responsive to our needs. The systems we now have are hard and brittle. We call them 'software,' but they aren't flexible. When we try to bend them, they break. We have been forced to ask people to accommodate their work habits to these inflexible systems.

We have reached a plateau in technology and are preparing for a paradigm shift into a distributed computing environment. We have the opportunity over the next four or five years to rebuild our administrative systems to take advantage of more cost-effective technology that allows us to streamline administrative activities and provide users with both operations and decision-support data. Penn is resisting the temptation simply to reimplement the old systems in this new technology. If we're going to do it, let's do it right. And what's right?' You build systems according to the principles that govern the organization.

Penn is the second university to do a principles-based information architecture and will probably be the first to implement one."

--Peter C. Patton, Vice Provost for
Information Systems and Computing

Clean-slate thinking

"Business process reengineering is clean-slate thinking that can lead to radical improvements in Penn's work processes. The Division of Finance strongly believes that all major administrative processes should be analyzed for cost-effectiveness and responsiveness before software is acquired to support them. Since September 1991, the Division has used Total Quality Management techniques to improve a number of business processes incrementally. We are now ready to move beyond incremental improvements to more fundamental changes. In business process reengineering, broadly conceived administrative processes, such as 'accounts payable' or 'procurement,' are analyzed across organizational boundaries. Improvements in central activities as well as activities in the Schools and administrative units can yield substantial overall cost savings and increase administrative quality."

--Selimo Rael, Vice President for Finance

The goal and the building blocks

The goal of Project Cornerstone is a new generation of administrative systems that increase administrative quality and cost- effectiveness and provide information for operations and management decision making. Business requirements for the first system, a comprehensive financial management information system, will be completed in fiscal year 1994. Acquisition of the first financial application is also expected in fiscal 1994, if approved by the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President.

Project Cornerstone, comprising the building blocks outlined below, is sponsored by the Provost and Executive Vice President and led by the Vice President for Finance and the Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing. The interrelated building block of business- process reengineering is sponsored by the Vice President for Finance. In partnership these intitiatives are directed to the University's business priorities.


The architectural starting point is a set of basic principles, or beliefs, about the use of information technology to achieve University goals. Developed in discussion with the Penn community, the principles will serve as guides to action and as a mechanism for clarifying and resolving conflicts. The principles--which deal with data, applications, infrastructure, and organization--help identify the right questions to ask but do not by themselves answer all those questions.

Three example principles:

Cost-effectiveness. Information technology must contribute to the cost- effectiveness of the business functions it supports and must be cost- effective from the perspective of the University as a whole.

Investment criteria. Investment decisions (even those not to take action) must be based on business needs, cost-effectiveness, and consistency with standards and models.

Multiple uses. Penn must plan for multiple uses of University administrative data, including operations, management decision making, planning, and ad hoc reporting.

Architectural models

Architectural models, based on the principles and building on one another, provide a structured framework for administrative information technology decisions:

Information Architecture. Categories of data the University needs to do its business (e.g., "employees" or "facilities"); the activities that use the data (e.g., "pay employee"); and the interactions among data and activities.

Business Systems Architecture. The comprehensive set of business applications and data stores that are implied by the information architecture. Example applications might include "payroll" and "student registration."

Technical Architecture. The guide to choosing the hardware, software, and communications products to be used in deploying the next generation of administrative systems. Alternative technical approaches will be evaluated against an agreed-upon set of criteria and analyzed for costs and benefits, with recommendations to the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President this summer.

The architectures are living documents, reevaluated and maintained as part of the University's planning process.

Policies and standards

The long-term effort of developing the specific policies and standards that will give flesh to the principles and architectural models begins this year, with the active involvement of the Penn community. First priority will be the desktop computing, networking, data, and business application policies and standards that will have the greatest University-wide impact on productivity and cost efficiencies.

Administrative information and systems plan

A long-range plan to acquire an integrated set of administrative systems to provide operations and decision-support information and facilitate the redesign of administrative processes will be submitted this summer for the approval of the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President. The plan will identify and prioritize--with scope and timetables--bases of current and historical information to be developed or enhanced, specific business applications to be replaced or modified, and data-access strategies.

For more information

For information on Project Cornerstone, contact Robin Beck, Project Cornerstone Program Manager ( or 898-7581). For information on business process reengineering, contact Janet Gordon, Associate Treasurer, ( or 898-7256). Your input is actively sought.

LINDA MAY is Director of Planning for the Office of Information Systems and Computing. ROBIN BECK is Executive Director of Applications Development for UMIS and Program Manager for Project Cornerstone.