When most business think about archiving records or customer relationship management, they think in terms of years. But for the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority, they need to keep meticulous records of burial plots, memorial gardens and other assets for decades - and, in some cases, for ever. I spoke with Tony Saulters, the head of customer strategy and communications for the Adelaide Cemerteries Authority about the technology behind this fascinating business.
The authority is responsible for managing four cemeteries around Adelaide. Unlike most of the other states and territories, South Australians don't purchase burial plots for eternity. Depending on when a family purchased a plot, they have tenure to that plot for a period of between 25 years and forever. When the time period for accessing the plot is nearing its end, the authority has to contact the person responsible for managing the plot to determine whether a renewal is required or if the plot can be reused.
Having to maintain accurate records for this length of time poses some serious challenges.
"We need to keep records in perpetuity," explained Saulters. "And we have to keep records within records. Sites can change dimensions, shape, location or garden over generations".
When the tenure period for a burial location is over, it's possible that the area in the cemetery is reused in a different way.
Saulters said the organisation needed to review its old business system as it was not meeting the Authority's needs. The system they had in place was installed in the late 1990s - it wasn't even GST-friendly and integration with various elements of their ERP was problematic. This lead to a review with the Authority considering every option from a full replacement of everything to a piece-meal replacement where only specific components were replaced.
"When we went into this process we had a very agnostic approach to the system we'd use. We were very open as to whether it was cemetery-specific or not, something in the marketplace or something that could be built for us," said Saulters.
The authority put the job out to tender, recognising that they needed external input. As well as the Cemetery Management System (CMS) which managed the specific processes associated with the Authority's role, Saulters and his team wanted a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system which was something they didn't have before.
"We went to market with a set of 15 use-cases - normal everyday activities that happen around the authority," he said.
This covered everything from accounts payable queries to more complex matters such as plot re-use. The focus was on solving specific problems and doing away with ineffective workarounds. Also, the South Australian government has a "cloud first" policy and this meant Saulters could look at solutions that did away with the heavy infrastructure component the previous system relied on.
This approach made the tender process quite light, said Saulters. Rather than telling vendors how to solve the problem, they left that to the potential respondents.
Part of what Saulters wanted to achieve was being able to stay in more regular contact with families who own plots in one of the Authority's cemeteries. When the tenure period for a plot is nearing its end, there is a process that is followed for reconnecting with families to determine what will happen with the plot. A CRM, said Saulters, will help maintain more regular contact with families, he said.
One of the key requirements was existing customers could still access the Authority's sophisticated mapping system.
"We didn't want to go backwards on that experience," said Saulters.
By the end of the tender process, Saulters and his team settled on working with Axiom Business Systems. Axiom had worked with a number of other cemeteries around the world and was able to put together a solution that took into account Saulters' needs.
Anne Field, a director of Axiom, started working with cemetery operators in the 1990s but the company has grown from that start to be a global leader in cemetery systems.
Axiom's solution delivers cemetery-specific systems that integrate with Sage's ERP system. So, common back-office functions such as CRM, finance and HR are covered with Sage while the CMS software is built by Axiom and integrates.
The project, Saulters said, took over two years to execute, from the point of initiation, through to selecting a software partner through to implementation. And while he said the tender process went very well, he said the Authority underestimated the time the project would take. Some of this was due to unexpected issues and complexity such as delay caused by challenges when replacing a fibre that was required for associated network improvements.
With the need to take such a long-term view - Saulters said he needs to take a 20, 30 or 40 year view of systems and data - the need was to not only meet today's needs but to look ahead to where they want to be.