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Opinion: One born every minute

Opinion: One born every minute

There we go again. 'Technical glitches in a $52 million installation of PeopleSoft Inc.'s applications at Indiana University have left thousands of students without access to promised financial aid . . . '

There we go again. "Technical glitches in a $52 million installation of PeopleSoft Inc.'s applications at Indiana University have left thousands of students without access to promised financial aid . . . " What is the explanation? According to university spokeswoman Norma Holland, "The glitches were not caused by the system proper."

From this statement I would gather that Holland seems to think that software is the "system proper." She doesn't realize that a system is the amalgamation of software, processes and people.

Any project manager worth her work-breakdown structure knows that for a system to be successful, it is imperative that the work processes be aligned to the system processes and that users be trained in a timely manner -- far ahead of the delivery of the technology. As part of due diligence for any proposed system, the project manager must ask the following questions:

- What degree of change will the new system bring to the processes currently being followed?

- Will the users be willing to make the necessary changes?

- Are the users ready to make the necessary changes?

- What is the latest time by which the users must be made ready?

Obviously, either these questions weren't asked, or if they were asked, no follow-up plans were put into place at the university. As a result, with classes looming, the IT team ran out of time for system testing and user training.

Was the date for the start of classes an unknown? If the team had any project management sense, it would have established "runaway triggers" for system testing and end-user training. Those would have made the project manager aware of the impending delays, and the team could have done one of the following:

- Speed up the project to finish the system testing and user training in a timely manner.

- Implement contingency procedures and work-arounds.

- Suspend the project in an orderly way until the next window of opportunity -- the following semester.

Obviously, IT staffers didn't have a systematic status-tracking process in place and simply ran into the start-of-classes wall. Then they blamed the wall for being there. And apparently they waited until the end of the project to start training the users. Smart project managers (and sponsors) know that user training must begin well in advance of the system implementation.

But there's more. Another university spokeswoman, Sue Williams, said, "Most problems were caused by interface issues between the PeopleSoft application and the loan systems at lending institutions. . . ."

Is one to believe that the interface was unexpected and sprung onto the university's PeopleSoft system out of left field? The data interface with external systems, a perennial problem, must be investigated as a part of the project planning process. These questions should have been asked:

- What is the quality of incoming data?

- What volumes of data will need to be handled?

- What will be the frequency of data transmission?

- Will there be any media/infrastructure incompatibility?

- Will the data be available in a timely manner?

- Are there any cross-system data dependencies?

Obviously, none of that took place or this fiasco wouldn't have happened.

Williams says the financial aid module is "big and complex." That is what scope parsing is all about: chunking a big project into smaller, progressive scope modules. Why didn't the sponsor (if there was one) make sure that the complex project was broken into smaller chunks? Instead, the IT team brought all eight campuses live in a single cycle, knowing very well the inherent complexity of the endeavor. As a result, 3,000 students, many of their parents and hundreds of landlords were left in the lurch.

How many ways did this project violate project management best practices?

1. Poor or no due diligence.

2. No user training.

3. Absence of system status alerts.

4. System interface problems were ignored.

5. The complex project wasn't broken down into progressively delivered smaller chunks.

If after all the missteps the university is still a "happy customer," as stated by PeopleSoft, then it should step right up and buy a ticket to see the genuine two-headed double-talking happy monkey from Mars.

Gopal K. Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif., and author of Project Management for Information, Technology, Business and Certification (Prentice Hall, 2004). Contact him at www.gkapur@center4pm.com.

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