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Sharpen your pencil

Sharpen your pencil

Critical thinking could be your most powerful tool and the first thing you should take before starting a major systems replacement is a reality check.

The University of Waikato used to run a student management system designed for a February-to-November academic year. But, like most higher-education institutions, it had already diversified its offerings to include summer sessions and short courses throughout the year. The Ministry of Education was also demanding in its reporting requirements; it wanted data that could not be easily gathered using the old system. Meanwhile, more students were enrolling from overseas.

“The existing system reached its end of life in terms of technologies that were being used, and the data structures were limiting our business,” says Derek Postlewaight, director, information and technology services division of the university. “We wanted to move to an application that was designed for the web world, rather than modified for us.”

Postlewaight says the main driver for the replacement of its Sears program with Jade’s product was finding a system that would support the university’s strategy of full web-enablement and all aspects of administration. “We’d reached the limits of how much web-enablement we could comfortably add to our existing application.”

From the onset, the university was cognisant of the project’s significance. “Student administration is the lifeblood of a tertiary organisation,” says Postlewaight. “It’s the record of the students’ progress from their application to enrolment through to graduation and postgraduate work. Student administration systems also support all of our academic processes.”

Eye-openers

The university actually went to market for a student management system in the late 1990s.

Waikato reviewed several options, and assessed systems being rolled out in New Zealand and Australian universities. It ended up with a short list of three preferred vendors. Two things held it back: The state of technology and the experience of other tertiary institutions.

“We decided the whole student administration market was quite immature and the risk of going ahead with the project was too significant for the institution to undertake, so there was a deliberate decision to put the whole thing on ice for eight months and assess what had happened,” says Postlewaight.

The university had also observed how their more technologically optimistic counterparts were “getting through the ghastly experience of actually using the product”.

In 2001, the university went to market again and evaluated several systems in the United States, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

It took a cost benefit and risk analysis, and decided the software developed by New Zealand company Jade best fit its needs. The university also estimated the application would deliver a likely return on its capital investment within five years.

A parallel run

The development and phased implementation of the student management system began in August 2001 and continued through September 2002, in time for the start of the 2003 school year.

But, to check whether the system could deal with the pressures of enrolment week, the university opted to do a parallel run of the two systems. “The students saw only the Jade system, and the other one was kept up to date behind the scene,” he explains. “We couldn’t afford to risk loss of services to students.”

So from September 2002 to February 2003, the university ran the old and new systems simultaneously, using Brio, a third party reporting tool, to compare the results.

This parallel run was a one-off project. “That was quite deliberate, to mitigate the risk,” says Postlewaight. This summer, the enrolment will run on Jade’s application alone.

In late February 2003, the university completed its first peak enrolment week, and processed between 30 to 50 per cent more student enrolments each day compared to recent years.

This was significant because, for the past five years or so, there has been a noticeable shift in student behaviour – more and more of them are waiting until the last minute to enrol.

“Most students tend to leave things to the last possible moment, so we find enrolment has a much more physical amount of work going on that we would have otherwise,” says Postlewaight.

The university has an average of 14,000 students each academic year and the paper chase and extra staff needed at the start of each term placed considerable pressure on the system.

Postlewaight says the university is still implementing a number of additional modules, but has replaced all functions of its previous Sears system. This additional work is expected to last a year. “We probably have 70 per cent of total functionality,” he says. “It’s not a big bang implementation.”

The university offers both web and in-person enrolment because of the different needs of the students, says Postlewaight. “Some like to speak to academic staff and get advice on their program of study.” The staff also had to work with distance students who wish to enrol online.

The entire enrolment process, however, was much faster under the new system because of the increased automated checking functions. While temporary staff are still needed during the peak enrolment season, fewer of them are required now.

A complex project

Asked what the most challenging aspect of the project was, Postlewaight replies, “All of it.”

He points out: “A student administration systems implementation is the equivalent of a full MRP [material requirements planning] implementation for a manufacturing organisation but, in terms of effort and impact, it is more than four times as complex.”

Postlewaight was involved in a manufacturing MRP implementation prior to his role at the university. “I was equating the size, number of functions available and number of people included,” he says. “We interact with all customers, and they interact with it. It touches almost all of your staff in one way or another. This, in no way, could be described as a small project.”

The processes involved were formal and thorough. “Through the selection process, we had satisfied ourselves we were buying product that had good functionality now and in the future. We had satisfied ourselves with the vendor’s ability to implement and deliver. We got expectation across the organisation about what we were going to get, and then we all had to settle down and do the hard work and manage the changes.”

One major success factor is the fact the people recruited for the project came from different business units. The core project team had 14 members and only three of them were from IT. The rest were from business areas of the university, he explains. “They really understood what was going on.”

Within the project there was a multi-layered approach. The steering committee was drawn from senior management. The core project team was supported by a number of module teams.

During the planning phase, when the different departments were defining the expectations, the group also co-opted a student representative.

The “easiest part” of the project, he says, is getting the support of the board and the vice chancellor (CEO). “There was a recognition of the need to change the way we work in order to take it to being internet-enabled. We had support before we began.”

The predominant challenge was managing change inside the organisation, because of the number of people involved and the duration of the project. Thus, during the migration, a lot of time and effort were spent on helping the staff. “The impact on key staff was very, very significant. Most of our staff had to deal with their existing workload, the overhead of a new system and the changes that were made to that system. We looked after them as best as we could.”

He says staff were encouraged to take their holidays, a deliberate move. “We knew it was a long haul and you just can’t do that to people.”

If there is one major success Postlewaight can share from the rollout, it is: “Do your homework and don’t underestimate the impact on your people. The more you’ve done your homework, the less surprises there are and therefore the least emergencies,” he says. “These include making sufficient time for stress testing, function testing, and insisting staff take holidays so you don’t get the emergency leaves. I would rate this as no different from day-to-day management of a complex division.”

Rate your challenges

When interviewing IT directors, MIS asks them to rate the most challenging elements of managing a project. Here, Derek Postlewaight, director, information and technology services division, rates his project management challenges in implementing the student management system at the University of Waikato.

Most challenging

Getting and maintaining support of other stakeholders

Strategy and planning

Selecting vendors

Finding and motivating the right staff

Getting projects on time and on budget

Managing emergencies

Managing vendors

Getting support of the board and CEO

Least challenging

For Postlewaight, maintaining the buy-in and ongoing support from the general stakeholders proved the toughest challenge as the project involved validating what staff was doing and change management in general. “As part of that change, you are asking all the organisation to critically look at and validate long-established work practices. If this is not handled properly it can be very threatening to some people. Another aspect of buy-in required was that with a project the size of this we had to postpone some other projects.”

Selecting vendors also presented a distinct set of challenges. You have to do your homework, he says, and check “that they can do what they say they can do, getting as much possible of the risk covered by contract and also agreeing mechanisms on working together. If you selected them correctly, you agree on the mechanism, you are both committed to the outcome and you know what it is, it becomes a true partnership.”

Getting key staff into the project is likewise important because, “You can’t draw good pictures with blunt pencils.”

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