Feeling the Pain

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 2004-06-08 Print this article Print

Feeling the Pain

At times, enterprise resource planning vendors can be slow to recognize the pain their software can cause customers. PeopleSoft, the market leader in higher education with more than 700 customers, was sued in January by the state of Ohio after a botched installation at Cleveland State University. PeopleSoft had no comment on the lawsuit, but senior vice president Jim McGlothlin says the company is proud of its work at Stanford and notes that PeopleSoft software is more robust than it was in 2000. He says PeopleSoft "can now look customers in the eye and come up with customization figures of 5% or less."

Oracle, meanwhile, says it has 70 higher education customers and is now rolling out a new student-administration module called the Oracle Student System that forms the core of its software. Oracle senior vice president Ron Police says that while it was Stanfords choice to customize Oracle Financials, the university has since made "management changes" and is now happy with its progress installing Oracle.

By the time Handley was hired to oversee the Oracle and PeopleSoft projects, Stanford had decided to change itself rather than the software. This meant relinquishing forever the convenience of technically superior mainframe software customized for Stanford. "If you needed an extra three days in August to close the books, we could give you that," recalls Dick Guertin, a Stanford developer who helped create the software in 1970. "Vendors [wont] devote time to giving you those bells and whistles."

But Handley contends that Stanford should distinguish itself through teaching and research, not unorthodox administrative processes that software vendors could standardize and ultimately make cheaper. He also stopped using vendors as consultants, selectively hiring outside firms to maintain what he calls "the appropriate distance" between the two roles.

So far, however, each installation of Oracle and PeopleSoft at Stanford has been different enough that its hard to establish best practices. The university must cope with what Handley calls "version upgrade gridlock"—installing Oracle v. 11.5.9 requires changing PeopleSoft v. 7.6, upgrading to PeopleSoft v. 8 requires changing Oracle v. 11.5.9, and so on.

Learning From the Past

In 2000, the information technology department got the general-ledger portion of Oracle running. They also started on PeopleSoft Student Administration, which includes Stanfords student records system, but introduced it gradually in a series of nine phases spaced two or three months apart. This schedule turned out to be too tight for Stanfords technology staff , which had three PeopleSoft projects going. But the software tended to creep up on users, who felt PeopleSoft was being forced on them and they had not been adequately prepared, Handley says.

Stanford changed tactics a year later. Officials installed PeopleSoft Human Resources Management System in only two phases. But the university found it had gone live with "new software and old processes," Handley says. Student-aid checks, for example, printed in departmental rather than check-number order. After the printer went down during the first big printing, the staff had to figure out which checks were missing.

By May 2002, computer users at Stanford were getting upset. Minutes from a meeting of the Faculty Senate on Jan. 23, 2003, cite "a significant uprising within the user base," along with a lack of appreciation for Stanfords developers. In Handleys view, the campus-wide Systems Governance Group that resulted to oversee information technology was a way of letting the universitys schools feel as though they had more control over the projects.

Nevertheless, in the summer of 2003 Stanfords Systems Budget Group temporarily denied funding for all technology projects. "What bad thing is going to happen if we dont do this?" information technology finance director Bill Clebsch remembers committee members asking about what he thought was a routine workflow project. He was told: "Unless you can show costs or benefits to the institution, we cant keep funding this stuff."

Stanfords most stressful experience still lay ahead. This time it was with Oracle Financials, which finally went live on Sept. 2, 2003. In what is known in information technology circles as a "big bang," roughly 4,000 users went live at once. That way everybody could move simultaneously to the new chart of accounts, which records the account names and numbers used in Oracle General Ledger.

The campus spent months trying to prepare for potential problems, such as the need to translate account numbers into the format accepted by Oracle. Still, transactions were delayed, data was missing and system performance was slow. Handley says the experience exposed weaknesses in project management because the team missed deadlines and "got swept away in all innocence" into supporting the software without enhancing the code. Calandra says the central offices—accounts payable, procurement, and so on—were learning the software along with the schools. When the schools bypassed the overwhelmed help desk and called for advice on processing transactions, they got inconsistent answers.

Next Page: A new curriculum.

Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.


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