How Educational Institutions Can Leverage Automation for Improved P2P Workflows

October 18, 2023


In his work as an educational consultant at Unimarket, Christopher Rust helps clients improve their P2P processes to realize cost savings while freeing up staff to make a greater contribution to the institution.

He recommends taking a thorough look at the impact of change management, both to the department and the institution overall. Moving contract management, procurement and AP into an electronic P2P environment relieves a lot of stress on the team and the typically heavy volume of transactions they must manage. The end goal is improved control of spend management, and for institutions that are research-based, improved compliance. 

Rust provides suggestions about how to get started, including who to include on the project team and which functions to automate first, with the end goal being a free flowing, continuous improvement workflow in place of existing, disjointed manual processes. Tune in to this podcast to find out more about his strategy for tuning up P2P workflows.

Christopher Rust, APPM

Christopher began his career as a Tax Officer with the Irish Revenue Service in Ireland including serving in the Passport Office at the Embassy of Ireland in London all before emigrating to the United States. During his career in the US, he served as an Accounts Payable Manager, Operations Manager and Purchasing Manager working in multiple industries including manufacturing. For the past 22 years he has been working in Higher Education serving as Director of Procurement Services at Connecticut College and prior to that at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 2020 Christopher was presented with the Presidential Staff Recognition Award for Inspiration in Building Relationships and Motivating Others to Higher Levels of Performance by Connecticut College. 

During his career in Higher Education, he was responsible for setting and implementing the strategic procurement initiatives at both Colleges including the administration of Uniform Guidance compliance, Export Control, Contracting, institutional procurement policies and procedures as well as operational oversight of eProcurement at both institutions. 

He is a Past President of the NAEP New England Board of Directors and was a member of the Board of Directors of E&I Cooperative Services. He was First Vice President, New England Chapter of International Accounts Payable Professionals 19957-1997. In March 2021 he retired from Connecticut College and relocated permanently to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Christopher holds a Procure-To-Pay Manager Certification APPM, from the Institute of Finance and Management. 

Christopher’s role at Unimarket is to engage with the Higher Education market; HE professional associations; share Procure-To-Pay insights; provide consulting services related to P2P; and to deliver programming designed to illustrate the automation and transformation possibilities available to Procurement and Accounts Payable professionals. 

One of his objectives is to champion procurement professionals and key influencers (Information Services, Finance Executives, Accounts Payable, Presidents, CEO’s), to support the vital role they play in helping the people within their organizations to fulfill their purpose and do their best work.

Grace Chlosta
Content Manager, IOFM

Grace Chlosta joined the Institute of Finance & Management (IOFM) in 2022 in a new role for the team as the Content Manager. She is responsible for the planning, organization, development, and implementation of all the content for IOFM’s digital products and (virtual and in-person) events. Grace is committed to ensuring that IOFM’s content stays timely, relevant, and actionable for all financial operations professionals, and works closely with a team of content developers, industry leaders, and subject matter experts to guarantee this happens.

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Grace Chlosta: Welcome to the IOFM podcast. This is a podcast for accounts payable and accounts receivable professionals who want to stay in the know with current AP and AR trends and ideas. We'll be interviewing professionals in this space on a wide variety of subjects, including automation, artificial intelligence, career growth, compliance, leadership, and much more.

Today we have an interview with Christopher Rust, APPM. Christopher began his career as a tax officer with the Irish Revenue Service in Ireland, including serving in the Passport Office at the Embassy of Ireland in London, all before immigrating to the United States. During his career in the U.S., he has served as an accounts payable manager, operations manager, and purchasing manager, working in multiple industries, including manufacturing. 


For the past 22 years, he's been working in higher education, serving as Director of Procurement Services at Connecticut College, and prior to that at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. In 2020, Christopher was presented with the Presidential Staff Recognition Award for inspiration, building relationships, and motivating others to higher levels of performance by Connecticut College. During his career in higher education, he was responsible for setting and implementing the strategic procurement initiatives at both colleges, including the administration of uniform guidance compliance, export control, contracting, institutional procurement policies and procedures, as well as operational oversight of e-procurement at both institutions.

He is a past president of the NAEP New England Board of Directors, and was a member of the Board of Directors of E&I Cooperative Services. He was first vice president New England Chapter of International Accounts Payable Professionals from 1957 to 1997. In March 2021, he retired from Connecticut College and relocated permanently to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Christopher holds a Procure-to-Pay Manager certification (APPM) from the Institute of Finance and Management.


Christopher's role at Unimarket is to engage with the higher education market, HE professional associations, share procure-to-pay insights, provide consulting services related to P2P, and to deliver programming design to illustrate the automation and transformation possibilities available to procurement and accounts payable professionals. One of his objectives is to champion procurement professionals and key influencers — information services, finance executives, accounts payable, presidents, CEOs — and support the vital role they play in helping the people within their organizations to fulfill their purpose and do their best work. He will be interviewed by me, Grace Chlosta. I'm the content manager here at IOFM. I joined IOFM in 2022 in a new role for my team, as the content manager, and I'm responsible for planning, organization, development and implementation of all content for IOFM's digital products, and virtual and in-person events.


I’m always committed to ensuring that IOFM's content stays timely, relevant and actionable for all financial operations professionals, and I work closely with a team of content developers, industry leaders, and subject matter expects to guarantee this happens. And on to my interview with Christopher. Welcome, Christopher. How are you doing today? 


Christopher Rust: I'm doing well, Grace. Thanks very much. And you?

Grace Chlosta: I'm doing great. Thank you so much for joining us. I'd really love to just get into the conversation with you. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey, immigrating to the U.S. from Ireland, and kind of your career in higher education, and how you eventually got involved with Unimarket?


Christopher Rust: Sure. Well, I worked for the Irish Revenue Services in Ireland, and then I did some foreign service at the Passport Office at the Embassy of Ireland, in London, all before immigrating here to the United States. Then I started my career really covering the role of accounts payable manager/operations manager/purchasing manager. Ultimately, after leaving manufacturing, I went into higher ed and really spent 22 years in higher ed, working as director of procurement services at two institutions: one, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts; and the second as Director of Procurement Services at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

And then, from there, when I sort of retired from higher ed, I started working for a company called Unimarket, which is a e-procurement solutions provider particularly servicing higher education. I didn't stray far from higher ed at all. 

Grace Chlosta: That's fantastic. In our original conversation, we talked about how you also do a little bit of consulting work on the side. Can you tell me a little bit about that and how that kind of fits into your day-to-day?


Christopher Rust: Yeah, the role is associated with Unimarket insofar as having sat in the seat of director of procurement services, I go in, in a pre-implementation consulting role to help them navigate and prepare for the transition from technically a paper-based environment to an electronic e-procurement procure-to-pay environment. So I'm very familiar with mostly their basic setups for how it used to be to where they're going in the future. We wake a close look at current state and then we talk about future state — future state being, in fact, that procure-to-pay e-procurement environment.


Grace Chlosta: Awesome. So, doing that, how are you able to balance kind of understanding needs of your customers and then kind of matching along with the goals that Unimarket has as a solutions provider?

Christopher Rust: Well, I think the first part of it is really listening: listening and understanding what the strategic objectives and initiatives are that are at play at the institution, and tying back the e-procurement environment to those goals and objectives, so asking lots of questions and then figuring out, through a process of analyzing their data and their business processes, simplifying them such that they lend themselves well to an e-procurement or procure-to-pay environment, and then identifying cost savings — not just financial savings, but also time savings in terms of adding value to the time that staff have to do other, higher-rewarding activities in the institution.


Grace Chlosta: Yeah, that's so important. We've been talking a lot at IOFM about those higher-level, different tasks that you are able to accomplish once you've been automated, so I think that's a really important topic. And in terms of transformation and automation, how do you kind of deal with that on a client-by-client basis? Are there certain things you look for when it comes to a company that's ready to automate? What kinds of steps do you take in that consulting process when it comes to automation?

Christopher Rust: Typically, our client would have already engaged with our regional sales team and identified which modules of an e-procurement environment they want to begin with, whether it's an e-marketplace that's a branded marketplace where our company provides what we would call "guided buying," meaning suppliers that are on contract, suppliers that have punchout catalogues that the staff can go and select the goods that they want to acquire, and then bring them back in.


The night thing about when they bring them back into our environment [is] it then goes through an approval process so that the spend is actually preapproved before it occurs, rather than after the fact, and that's quite a dramatic change in high institutions in the past have done business. Typically, a lot of users might've had a purchasing card or a P card and gone out and spent, and then after the fact update the records to reflect that, "Hey, I acquired such-and-such goods," and then apply the GL string (or FOAPAL, as we would call it, a fund org account) to that transaction, and then reconcile it by submitting paperwork back into financial services.


Instead of doing that now, it's all preapproved in advance. The seven-month piece of it can be by whatever the institution determines, whether they want to ACH or a virtual card or your standard check. However they want to move that process forward, that settlement piece is still coming typically through the ERP system. 

Grace Chlosta: Interesting. That's fantastic. Along with that, I feel like, comes a lot of change, and people, especially in our industries, aren't maybe the most receptive to change sometimes. So kind of getting into this conversation, when we first spoke, you talked a lot about change management. Kind of diving in, do you have any best practices that anyone listening could apply when it comes to change management, when they're going through their big changes at their companies?


Christopher Rust: For me, change management has also been — I've viewed it as a relationship rather than what you would typically think of as a very structured process and how you overcome resistance, how you break down barriers. Really, it's engaging in the relationships with the campus community to dispel fears, to highlight what is possible in bringing changes to your campus, while still staying focused on the strategic vision. You still have to champion the change that's going to take place.


I was fortunate to have some really wonderful mentors in my career, one of whom always said, "Christopher, analyze, simplify and save," and then you can overlay sort of that pyramid of three points to what you need in an organization. You need to be agile, you need to be responsive, and you need to be attentive.

I like to always count it, even if I just go into a meeting, have maybe just three topics or three items on the agenda. It's a lot easier to cover three items than have a list of 10 or 12 and never get to them. Staying focused on that methodology has really helped when sitting down with campus community to say, "We're going to be adding maybe contract management, procurement, accounts payable, and sourcing and bidding." 


Those are sort of the independent modules are all tied together in this procure-to-pay environment. That's typically what we start with, and then we can branch out from there and look at expense reporting and payments down the road, but I think you've got to start somewhere. There's a lot of detail inside of that triangle when you bring those four modules into play, but they all tie very well together. 

Grace Chlosta: That's fantastic. I really love that: agile, responsive and attentive. Kind of dwindling it down to the top three things I feel like would really help a lot of people. We've also seen a lot that fear can really be a barrier to the change. Aside from what you just talked about, how do you kind of address and overcome fear when introducing new processes to clients, in tandem with what you just spoke about?

Christopher Rust: I look at it from: What's the original environment? What's happening today on campus? What's the department impact and what's the institutional impact? Campus users can be selfish and think, "Well, how is it going to affect me? Forget about everybody else." When you're presenting to the community, you have to think of it on both sides, just department and institutional.


If that's the original environment, what's the change management environment going to look like — again, from a department impact, the individual users, and the institutional impact for the administration, for risk management, visibility to obligations? Clearly improved control of your spend management, and then a better understanding of how compliance plays in for institutions that are research based, where they have federal agency grants that are very regulated, and they have to follow very strict protocols and procedures. 


So, again, keeping it sort of simple (original, change, department and institutional) in each of the areas that you're going to look at from the [respect] of, say, the contract management, procurement? Accounts payable, obviously. The goal for us is to take some of that tactical activity that's happening and move it into an electronic procure-to-pay environment, relieving some of the pressure and stresses, particularly in accounts payable where it's a heavy volume of transactions. 

Grace Chlosta: That's so true. Absolutely. How do you pinpoint and identify and work with the key stakeholders at these places to drive that change? And once they kind of make the decision that they want to go ahead and go through with these changes, how do you kind of lead them through the process from there, and how do you identify who to work with in this process?


Christopher Rust: Well, typically, we ask them to put together a project team of key individuals. Typically, in that makeup, you would have the director of procurement services, controller, accounts payable manager or director of AP and their support staff, engage with them early and have them part of that project team.

Obviously, the IT folks need to be involved because now we're going to be touching multiple points of their ERP system, as well as requiring sort of the ability to pass through information that they have to have a high level of confidence that's secure, that is protected (particularly if it's in the cloud) and that we meet their SOC 2 compliance — all of the regulatory aspects that you would typically associate with an IT group looking at: "Hey, we're going to be letting this particular supplier touch our platform, and how is it going to be managed? What exactly is the data that's flowing back and forth?" 


Because that's really what it's all about is the electronic movement of data from an e-procurement platform, where your requisitions, your purchase orders, your change orders, your invoicing are all flowing back and forth to the ERP system. That's, for us, always sort of the technical aspect of it. Those are typically the key players. 

And then you have the executive-level supporters. That would be your chief financial officer, your chief information officer, who technically you can usually identify as the key sponsors within the campus community. 


Grace Chlosta: Looking at some of those higher-level folks that you just chatted about, what do you think are their leadership qualities that really make them more responsive and adaptive to this sort of change? What do you see with the common attributes within them?

Christopher Rust: They really know their business. They really know and have a hands on and a finger on the pulse of what's happening in their community from an institutional perspective. They are in alignment with the institutional strategic goals and initiatives. They're technically part of the presidential cabinet that make decisions for the university or college and are best positioned to understand how those savings that somebody like a Unimarket platform identify as what the return on investment is.


We have to be able to justify a legitimate return on investment. It's not just a financial investment. It's the time and effort of their staff across the institution that are going to be engaged in it. What will that change bring for the institution? Will it, in fact, create tremendous savings? Will it leverage or help improve their visibility in terms of their counterparts, where they're always talking with one another? That's the one difference I think I learned when I went into higher ed: there's a tremendous sharing of information across institutions. They're not overly protective of one another, but they're willing to share and give insights as to what was successful and what wasn't versus that business-to-business type relationship. I think that's something to recognize in higher ed is the volume of sharing that takes place. 


Grace Chlosta: Yeah, that's fantastic. Looking at the other end, if you're at a higher-ed institution, but you're maybe not the decisionmaker, how do you think you could advocate for yourself and your team for change and for automation? I know we hear that from a lot of the folks here at IOFM, that maybe they're not the key stakeholder or decisionmaker. What kind of conversations can they be having with the person that is, that could maybe help them facilitate this change?

Christopher Rust: Well, I can only speak to the approach that I always took, which was to develop a relationship with that person, try and have a seat at their table on a regular basis (at least once a month), have a set agenda that you review what's happening today, what the issues are, and resolutions. From that relationship, bring forward ideas that you have a high level of confidence that your counterparts in other institutions have employed, whether it be an e-procurement platform or engagement with other institutions in collaborative purchasing.


I think that's the one thing that I learned right away. Higher ed have a number of consortia that engage in bringing together numerous contract opportunities for institutions to leverage their spend by consolidating it across those contracts, which is aggregated maybe by 10 or 15 or 20 institutions. An example of that would be the E&I Cooperative Consortia, which are really focused on the higher-ed environment. 


Other ones, like Sourcewell, OMNIA Partners, these are consortia that are highly recognized in higher ed. Bringing those ideas to the table, but you've got to get to the table first off so that at least you can be presenting them. And thinking about how you want to present that, point to the successes that other institutions have had. It's always been successful for me in that direct, one-to-one relationship, and that direct, one-to-one conversation with a decisionmaker and executive, but you have to get in front of them, first of all.

Grace Chlosta: Yeah, it's so true. We talk about getting a seat at the table, and then, once you're there, what to do. I feel like that's really great advice.

Christopher Rust: There's two sides. You have to listen, too, [laughter] because they might have a different agenda. Get into the habit of listening and capturing those ideas and then coming back the next visit and saying, "Hey, I remember we talked about this, and I made some notes about a point that you made," it really just enhances that relationship yet again, particularly when you then have to go and communicate it on a campus-wide basis, because you're supporting your executive.


Grace Chlosta: That's so true. This has been wonderful. I really love hearing about successful automation changes and how to really take a positive approach to change management. Do you have any final thoughts, or any other advice you could give to our listeners, about any of the things we've covered today?

Christopher Rust: I do. I think one of the successes that I would point to is when you look at workflow. When you look at your particular workflow and how sometimes disjointed it is and it goes back and forth. My colleague and I at Connecticut College put together an e-procurement workflow and, when we were done at the end of the day, it looked like a Formula 1 racetrack where it had a start and a visit, but it keeps going, because we had the mindset of continuous improvement.


It doesn't stop with just one pass-through. It had this really nice flow. Yes, there were curves, and we were able to identify sort of where the pitstops were along the track. It really gave that striking view. Wow, what a difference from the disjointed, old, manual process to this free-flowing workflow where, clearly, you had identified all the pitstops, whether it was when the supplier was engaged, when the PO was sent to the supplier (or how it was sent to the supplier), all of that and how you incorporated different technologies into that process. 


I don't think there's a reason to be afraid. I always felt [like], hey, if you don't stick your neck out [laughter], it's not going to get chopped off. But if you have confidence in what you're presenting, I don't think that fear is genuine. I think it builds confidence that you really know what you're talking about technically. If you're a director of procurement services or a director of accounts payable, you've been hired for a fiduciary responsibility that you've clearly shown in the selection process you're the right person for the job. So have confidence in that and take that and move it forward, knowing that you can impact your institution or your company in a very meaningful way.

And reach out to colleagues, to counterparts, and gain their support because without mentors (and being a mentor to others), it's going to be difficult to really overcome obstacles. With mentors, you break them down. You break down those barriers. That's sort of a summary wrap-up of what we've been talking about, for sure. 


Grace Chlosta: That's fantastic. I feel like there's so much great advice and a really positive spin on everything, like I said. I hope everyone who listened feels empowered to now go back and conquer their fears, fear of change, and apply some of this advice.

Christopher Rust: One of the last things, when you mentioned something earlier, was at Connecticut College I think one of my largest achievements was the Presidential Staff Recognition Award for inspiration and building relationships and motivating others to higher levels of performance. Just that alone said volumes of how relationships can really be impacted. To be recognized for that, I think that's stepping out, stepping forward, and really and truly having an institution recognize that is really a lasting achievement that I can wrap up with.


Grace Chlosta: I can absolutely see why, and I feel like that should be recognized more because it's so important.

Christopher Rust: Yeah, anybody that doesn't, I think they're losing out by not recognizing their staff and the wonderful work that goes on day after day after day. It's really important.

Grace Chlosta: It absolutely is. Thank you so, so much again. We're so happy to have had you today, and we hope to have you on again soon.

Christopher Rust: Thank you, Grace. It's been a pleasure chatting with IOFM. I'm a big promoter.

Grace Chlosta: Thank you so much, Christopher. We'll talk to you soon.

Christopher Rust: Take care now.

Grace Chlosta: You too.

Thank you so much for listening to the IOFM podcast. Remember to head on over to the Member Forum to discuss today's episode and provide ideas for our next one. And to stay up-to-date on IOFM's current events, both in-person and virtually, head on over to

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