By Linda Weiford, WSU News

In the early 1980s, the groundbreaking Commodore-64 home computer with its 64 kilobytes of memory was released and “ET: The Extraterrestrial” was becoming one of the brightest stars in film history. That same period, Washington State University launched its new technology system for human resources, payroll and finances.

Now, nearly 40 years later, WSU has grown from a single campus in Pullman to five campuses statewide. And if E.T. came back to earth, he could phone home with a 256-megabyte smart phone.

But at WSU the underlying technological infrastructure for critical administrative systems remains largely the same, though that’s now about to change.

The university is getting a technology makeover.

During the next three years, the Modernization Initiative will thrust the university’s payroll, human resources and financial services well into the 21st century.

“Our current system was custom-built using 1980s mainframe technology. At that time, it was considered cutting edge and that investment served WSU well for decades,” said Matthew Skinner, associate vice president of WSU Business and Financial Services. However, almost four decades later, “it’s archaic and at risk of failing,” he said.

System failure would mean WSU couldn’t pay its employees or keep track of its spending and federal research dollars, or budget for staff and faculty positions, he explained.

Without a large-scale upgrade, “we could lose the ability to support the basic functions of the university,” he added.

That’s why the WSU Board of Regents this summer approved a critical part of the initiative: a new $30-million software package called Workday. The cloud-based system is used by higher education institutions such as Ohio State, Arizona State, the University of Washington and Yale. Workday also serves large corporations such as Amazon and Johnson and Johnson.

“The money spent ultimately will save WSU money by streamlining processes and making day-to-day operations more efficient. The system is well suited to support our multiple campuses and growing academic and research enterprises,” said Skinner.

The new system will be implemented in phases and will include consultations with WSU colleges and campuses and employee training sessions. Its streamlined processes will start being used in 2020.