Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hokey but Easy

Do you remember Windows for Workgroups? FoxPro? Or pretty much any application built using Visual Basic? What do you recall about the user experience? Personally, I think of huge, super-hokey clip-art buttons and blue screens of death...

Many of the applications that my team is currently replacing as part of our implementation project owe a debt of gratitude to those earlier systems; at least one actually has to be run in a Windows 98 emulator, but many of the applications ported to the web carried the design theme with them. Even applications engineered during the last ten years have a circa 1996 look-and-feel.

The knee-jerk reaction to seeing these dated interfaces is a chuckle followed by an insult, with the presumption that a slick, modern user interface will make everyone happy. But one must be cautious: hokey does not always equate to bad. 

As I recently blogged, I have taken on the role of academic advising for a handful of freshmen this semester; as a result, I attended training for the role and have become a user of the "advising network portal" system currently in place. This system has many deficiencies, especially related to timeliness of data, completeness of data, lack of key features such as automated degree audit, etc. I have zero doubt for the benefits that will accrue from the deployment of PeopleSoft's academic advisement module and a tailored self-service experience for advisors and students. It should be a slam dunk. 

But I observed some important things as I learned my new role. First of all, the full day of training for advisors must focus on everything other than the IT system. Grand total, they spent 5 minutes showing the software, because they needed every minute to talk about what mattered -- cases studies into realistic advising situations, interpretation of placement scores, how to counsel students on course selection, where to turn if students were in trouble, what resources were available for tutoring or counseling, etc. With several hundred advisors volunteering their time to the cause, there is simply no room for complexity. 

Wearing my new user hat, what quickly became apparent was how easily I could access the most important functions -- viewing placement scores, entering journal notes. The icons may be hokey and dated, but they are obvious. Given the business objectives, any design that diminishes the primacy and visibility of these actions will fail, even if it is pretty. The most important thing is that our system is fit for purpose, not that it wins accolades for visual design. 

This has also served as a great reminder for me of how important it is for implementers to be users, if possible, and to emphasize the early engagement with real users -- they may actually like to preserve some of those hokey icons!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Non-Conference Jitters

The emails are flooding into my inbox: join us at Booth 1234 for exciting news and giveaways, I'd like to schedule a meeting with you and my VP of Sales, please mark your calendars for our three awesome concurrent sessions, don't forget to register for our special customer appreciation event on Monday night, etc. 

That can only mean that the big fall slate of conferences is nearly here. Oracle Open World once again takes over San Francisco for a week of red-hued excitement, and EDUCAUSE convenes its annual meeting of higher education technologists to discuss the latest in pedagogical innovation. 

These are two of my favorite events, places where I fill my brain with data, build a backlog of great ideas for the future, meet new colleagues and break bread with old friends, capture pages upon pages of notes to post to my teams at home, and otherwise expand my universe. But alas, I'm not going to either event this year. I must confess, I'm getting a little jittery about whether I made the right decision. 

The sad scenario began with a simple logistical problem: the conferences are simultaneous. This is a novel problem -- typically Oracle Open World takes place several weeks before EDUCAUSE. But conference scheduling being what it is, the latter event was moved up more than a month earlier than typical, thereby creating a predicament. Given my primary job these days is the student information system, and most higher education / SIS folks will choose EDUCAUSE instead, and I have excellent technical leads to send in my stead, I made the call to drop OOW from the schedule. Besides, Orlando isn't such a bad place to go... Perhaps a tacked-on trip with the family to Disney World was in the cards... 

But then the realities of go-live began to weigh heavily upon me. Could I really afford a week away at such a crucial time? The team can live without me -- I've always said that no good team can be so dependent on their leader that they cannot function for a week without him/her. The question was more whether I wanted to be away at such a crucial time, and the answer was a resounding no. That last week in September is a pivot point toward proving  our first release and I want to be a part of it. 

So I'm bummed to miss the great presentations. And condolences to the vendors and friends I'll have to miss this time around. See you next year (and hopefully while making a presentation about our resounding success!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Oracle Usability Board - July 2014

An activity that I've been thrilled to add to my professional life in the last year has been membership in Oracle's Usability Advisory Board (OUAB). This is a group of Oracle customers across industries and applications platforms that comes together several times per year (each member organization is supposed to attend at least three events annually) to review what customers are doing and what Oracle's application teams are doing in the broad (and burgeoning) field of usability and user experience.

A few weeks ago, I attended the New York City event with customers in industries as far-flung as shopping malls, PVC pipes, butter, medical devices, and electricity. (And higher education, of course). We spanned the product spectrum, too: PeopleSoft Enterprise, JD Edwards, E-Business Suite, Hyperion, Business Intelligence, etc.

I was part of the entertainment this time, presenting the work we have been doing to create a modern user experience for students and faculty as part of our Campus Solutions deployment and previewing efforts on the horizon across a broader swath of enterprise systems at the university. I presented alongside Oracle, who have provided helpful guidance to my nascent UX program and conducted a full-week of user research with faculty members last fall. The presentation went well and spurred a lot of business card exchanges and dialogue during the breaks. Despite the fact that others have been members of the board much longer than we, it seems that basic user research and usability testing remain on the sidelines at many organizations. This is both comforting and disconcerting.

While I'm always happy to present, I don't go to talk; I go to learn. And I learned quite a lot. Some of it I can't talk about, but let me share a few things that are definitely not protected under non-disclosure terms.

I have tended to ignore business process models delivered by Oracle, assuming that such things depended upon a product that none of my clients or employers have owned. So how surprised was I to learn that many business process models are available for free to customers for many current products, including PeopleSoft Campus Solutions (MOS login required).  These models, while obviously not tailored to the unique quirks of each customer, could save hundreds of hours building such process flows from scratch; these documents (available as Visio files) would be a great jumpstart for my business analyst team to adapt and extend. It was a relief (in some ways) that I was not the only person in the room surprised to learn of these diagrams or the robust approach Oracle is taking to describing process models -- from conceptual context at the top, to the specific screens and buttons at the bottom. These are the things big vendors do but seldom advertise well enough for customers to use and give them credit for. I am all about learning how we can squeeze optimal value from those annual maintenance dollars!

The most interesting hour of the day for me was the case study on Oracle's own effort to create the Fusion / Cloud Apps UX after the PeopleSoft acquisition. That project had such staggering scale and complexity that it made my project's challenges seem rather cute and quaint by comparison (though no less real for me...)

Although I have read about card-sorting, I had never actually participated in a hands-on card-sorting exercise.  Prior to the workshop we were asked to select two business process areas to research at our own institutions -- for example, how have we defined "roles" for procurement. The exercise required us to separate a stack of functions / tasks (on index cards) into roles. We did this in pairs, and it wasn't easy -- turns out that roles vary just a bit from company to company... However, it was excellent practice as my team is now going through this exact exercise to create more precises sub-segments of students, faculty, and staff for our SIS program. Always nice to walk away from a conference with something tangible that can be put into practice immediately upon return.
We ended the day with a discussion of "wearables" such as Google Glass, Fitbit, digital watches, digital rings, and the creepiest device I've yet heard of, the "Narrative Clip." (The latter is a camera you wear around your neck that takes a picture every 30 seconds so that you can have a visual story of your life.) The interesting part was the discussion and how our knee-jerk reaction to most devices was skepticism, discomfort, and certainty that these devices were irrelevant to our businesses and IT shops. But as the facilitator pointed out, tablets weren't taken seriously for a long time, until the iPad broke through. I have certainly been pondering Google Glass, though its current limitations around authentication / data entry limits its utility for my specific project. Definite food for thought. 

My next OUAB event will be a November day in Chicago, and I'm looking forward to everything that I'll learn then!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Advising Freshmen

At my institution, freshmen students are advised, by and large, by volunteers from the university staff community. There are professional advising staff at various levels, as well, and upperclass students have more specialized advisors in their fields. I have never served as a freshman advisor until this year, and it has already proven an enlightening experience. 

My primary motivation, of course, is to engage talented undergraduates and provide whatever help I can as they navigate the waters of their first year. I believe that my personal experiences at the university provide a strong foundation for this service. Time will tell, and only my advisees will be able to judge my merits. But there was another motivation, a more practical one, the existence of which may undermine the altruism implied by the first. Namely, my job is to implement a brand-new advising system for the university and there is no better way to ensure that is done well than to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the current system (that last word not only referring to the IT systems in play, but to the ecosystem of information, reference documents, organizational architecture, etc.) I'll have more to say about this in future posts... But for now let's focus on what I've observed in the last few weeks...

First, these students are smart. Really smart. This should be no surprise. What I remember most vividly about my early weeks at Harvard was realizing that I was literally surrounded by incredibly smart people. It is humbling, even for someone who thinks highly of his/her own intellect. Oh, to be so young and so smart... I live vicariously. 

Second, there is a lot to think about. The blank canvas of four undergraduate years stands before you, and you've got a palette loaded with gorgeous oils and a bucket packed with fine brushes, but the first strokes can be the hardest, even though you know that you can always paint over an error and that you certainly cannot plan every stroke in advance. Less metaphorically, how to balance picking classes, meeting people, engaging in activities, getting a job (for now and then forever), etc. How do choices  today affect choices tomorrow? One can never be sure, but the question is always in the back of a planning-type's mind.

Third, the place is complicated. Not only is there a unique vocabulary to learn, but there are many sources to consult. It's just a big, complicated place, with lots of nooks and crannies. 

Fourth, not much has changed. Despite being almost old enough to be their father, I actually know many of their classes from the inside. Roughly 75% of the classes that I took in college are STILL OFFERED, and in most of those cases by the same professor. Not much has changed about the facilities, the food, the clubs, the physical signatures, etc. In search of change, I note that the basketball team is much better than it used to be, it is far easier to study abroad, and they have discontinued chickwiches at the grill (sniffle, sniffle).

Fifth, did I mention how smart these young people are? Damn.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Confessions of Scrumbut

I'm somewhat ashamed to confess we've got a bit of a Scrumbut going on. You know, where you're following Scrum BUT where you're not. Strictly speaking, this is not permitted under the "rules." You're either Scrum or you're not. Scrumfall. Wagile. Scruterfall. There's no end to the portmanteaux one might create.

The biggest indicator of our wagileness is the traditional integration testing phase we're about to enter (in one measly week). In a true agile environment, every iteration thus far would have produced code that was fully tested and ready for release. In "true agile" you wouldn't dedicate eight weeks to testing at the end. This is definitely true, but early on it became apparent to me for a host of reasons that we would need this phase -- to overcome testing shortcomings in early sprints, to meet stakeholder needs, to assuage the financial auditors, to accommodate the non-agile schedules of our partners, etc.

I must admit that it gives me some comfort to see a huge diagram of the end-to-end information flow for this upcoming go-live, clearly articulated, color-coded, with external dependencies neatly flagged, and soon to be simulated from soup to nuts in four "iterations" until we're sure every step works as desired. This is our initial launch, after all, and every future success hinges on enjoying a quiet stabilization period that permits the development teams to direct their attention toward the next chunk of functionality in the backlog.

And so the teams keep standing up, and tracking testing stories in their backlogs, whether permitted or not, and focusing on the only success factor that really matters over the next few weeks: flipping that proverbial switch on November 24th... 11 weeks from today!