Thursday, February 24, 2011

About Concur I do not concur

Michigan recently adopted the Concur system for travel planning and reimbursement management. The system consists, as that description suggests, of two integrated but conceptually separate parts: one is an online travel planning system similar in spirit (though not in ease of use) to Kayak or Orbitz and the other is an online reimbursement system for both travel expenses and other expenses such as books or journal subscriptions.

Prior to the arrival of Concur, a UM employee would make their own travel plans, and then submit the receipts, along with a short written explanation, to a staff person when s/he returned the trip. The staff person would then process the documents through the university system, and payment would show up via direct deposit a few weeks later.

The Concur system was advertised as having three advantages relative to what it replaced: cheaper prices for travel due to volume discounts, faster reimbursement and less time spent on getting reimbursed. Let me consider each of these in turn:

1. There is no question that reimbursements are a couple weeks faster. This has no value to me but I can understand how it might matter to credit constrained graduate students who get university funding to attend a conference or course.

2. Less time spent on getting reimbursed. So far, I am spending about three minutes more per reimbursement on average; I think I spent about seven minutes per reimbursement under the old system. I suspect that after I finish paying the learning costs this will fall to one or two extra minutes per reimbursement. Under the old regime, the time cost consisted of assembling and then making paper copies of the receipts (in case they got lost) and then typing up the explanatory cover letter and carrying it down to the main office. Under Concur, the time costs consists of assembling and scanning the receipts, uploading the receipts to the system, entering data from the receipts into the system, and then making the inevitable corrections required by the nit-picking anonymous "Concur auditors", who appear to get paid based on the number of irrelevant inconsistencies they find. Why the Concur auditors are not empowered to simply correct obvious and unimportant errors on their own is beyond me. The net effect of Concur is to reduce the time spent on reimbursements by university administrative staff while increasing it for the Concur auditor and for faculty and graduate students.

3. Lower travel prices. I have compared flights on three routes - DTW to DCA, DTW to SYR and DTW to MIA - as well as hotels for a couple of different locations. In all but one case there was no price difference from what was on offer on Kayak. In one case, Concur had a fare that was lower by about $10 on a base of about $600. This is not sufficient, at least to me, to compensate for Concur's more awkward user interface.

The bottom line from my perspective is that if you are at a university or other institution that is thinking of adopting Concur, it is likely worth putting up a bit of resistance, but not much. Concur might be a little better for some users, a little worse for other users in the end. The best argument for avoidance may be the non-trivial institutional transition costs. The transition at Michigan was a full scale celebration with powerpoint files sent by email, personalized instruction by department staff and even a paper star on the door of one colleague who somehow achieved the elevated status of "Concur all-star".

In hindsight, I suspect that the actual institutional attraction for the system is to please university lawyers worried about reimbursement scandals. Maybe that is a good reason, but it would be good to be up-front about it at the time of adoption.

1 comment:

Dimitriy said...

The Concur DROID phone app is pretty good. It allows you to be good to your future self by storing the receipts as you generate them (using a camera). This is a lot more fun that doing them all at once later.