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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Gearing Up for San Fran, #OOW11, and Picasso

Less than a week until the first sessions of Oracle Open World. As I mentioned in a blog last week, it has been six years since I attended this massive and overwhelming convention. How many companies has Oracle acquired since then? Twenty? A hundred? Yet some things never change: the sessions I’m most excited about pertain to this mysterious thing known as “Fusion” (cue ominous music).

I have never had the chance to play the “tourist” in San Francisco, and by the looks of the packed agenda for Open World, there won’t be occasion for it this year. My Thursday-morning presentation will hang over my head all week, as will the worry that I will choose poorly among the hundreds of concurrent sessions. I aim to strike a balance between learning tangible things that will help my team immediately with seeking serendipity—stumbling across something novel and innovative that could make a real difference for the institution 2-3 years hence. My example of the latter from six years ago was a session on XML Publisher / BI Publisher which was still shiny and new… (I’m a big fan, and still trying to gain traction with this tool at my institution, but that’s another story for another day…)

San Francisco has a special place in my heart—I spent the first six weeks of my post-college career there, with a cubicle on a mid-teens floor in the Transamerica Pyramid. We were sixty fresh-faced college grads, with aspirations to fly high in corporate finance, psyched about the fancy Motorola SkyTel pagers that for those few weeks served to coordinate bar-hopping rather than signal a crisis. My favorite memory was kayaking in Sausalito, where we basked in sunlight and watched the fog darken the streets of the city.

Thanks to Virgin America—far and away the cheapest direct flight option out of Logan—I actually have a full afternoon on Saturday to relax and enjoy San Francisco beyond the Moscone Center and environs. What shall I do? (Other than put finishing touches on my presentation!) I had been considering Alcatraz, until I saw that the de Young Museum has a Picasso exhibit that was just extended to October 10th. Perfect. (Even better since my wife doesn’t particularly care for Picasso, which means I don’t have to feel lousy that she’s missing it!)

I wonder which will prove more serendipitous, the Picasso exhibit or the random eye-opening Oracle technology or applications session I plop in the 2pm slot on Wednesday afternoon?

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Nature vs. Nurture for IT

A few weeks ago, I read (by way of @corpitguy) an article by Kerry Doyle on "Underrated IT Skills") and forwarded it along to my network. Further reflection made me wonder: to what extent is success in IT a by-product of nature vs. nurture?

Take project management. Nurture plays a role--one does not spring from the womb citing PMBOK. But isn't there also something to be said for intuition? An organized mind? Coping skills? There are people in this world born to manage projects and others for whom no quantum of PMI-accredited instruction would make a difference. Which leads me to the two essential skills (or qualities) missing from Doyle's list: problem-solving and resourcefulness. In my humble opinion, there may be no two more critical elements to a successful IT career. Allow me to explain...

Q: "How'd you figure that out?"
A1: "I read the manual."
A2: "Found the answer on Google."
A3: "Posted a question to a forum."
A4: "I don't know, I just did."

In the world of information technology, complex challenges come with the territory; it is rare that such challenges prove fundamentally intractable or truly unique, never-before-seen-in-this-world. Asking for help is normal, but nothing frustrates me (as a manager) more than when i find an answer to some impossible question upon my first Google search. Such situations belie a dearth of basic resourcefulness. Likewise, the unread user guide: a remarkably common failing in my experience. I understand where this comes from; there is a common assumption that product documentation stinks, but it is a dangerous and expensive presumption. Without a shred of hard data to support me, I would be willing to bet that millions of dollars are squandered each year on the effort of reverse-engineering or otherwise divining answers already made explicit in vendor-supplied materials... (FWIW, this problem is not unique to IT systems...I know I have paid the price for misplacing user guides for my television and DVD player!)

For an actual authority on the benefits of resourcefulness, check out this article from Harvard Business Review (HBR) regarding the criticality of this skill for executives.

The cornerstone of problem solving is taught in elementary school--the scientific method. Identify problem, state hypothesis, test hypothesis, repeat. From this simple building block people grow into talented or deficient problem solver; how much of that talent is acquired through drill and how much stems from a natural gift?

As a manager of a large IT organization, I have to believe development works... What are we doing to this end? Modeling, for one--investing effort in promoting successes and best practices for others to emulate. Advertising successes. Investing in professional training. Yet at the end of the day isn't an elementary-school technique (the scientific method) the most important tool of all?
There is a place for nature, too. In considering my own development, I do not recall explicit lessons in how to solve problems or uncover resources that might help me. I remember independence, the opportunity to shape my own destiny, engage the right partners, scour the Internet, whatever. My primary mission--and source of pride--was to solve problems. And that was something I was born to do.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Bag of (Trick) Questions

Every summer I sit down for 30 minutes with the members of my team—roughly forty business analysts, systems operations analysts, product managers, and project managers. I inherited this tradition from my predecessor and the first time around I found it to be a valuable undertaking—challenging as may be to execute forty-odd sessions in the vacation-rich summer months!

When I was new to my position the approach was rather straight-forward – I simply asked what staff members thought was going well (or poorly) in the department and what they were looking for from me as a leader. In those early months, their suggestions, questions and concerns were huge. And although I had no doubt about the value of repeating the exercise, I was fearful that repeating last year’s “agenda” could be a recipe for long stretches of silence.

I crave staff input – I want to understand everything: motivators and de-motivators, career objectives, opportunities for improvement for the department and the institution. Furthermore, as months upon months of Sunday’s “The Corner Office” in The New York Times has taught me, it is equally important to understand individual likes and dislikes, favored weekend activities, favorite books, etc. And as a part-time cinephile and foodie, I wanted to ask about favorite movies and meals!

Too many questions, too many interviews, and too little time: I needed a system. Being an applications guy, I entertained the thought of building a systems solution myself… Or scouring the App Store. But then I realized (for once?) that technology was not the answer.

Hidden away in a filing cabinet outside my office was a laminator. I blew the dust from the lid, framed out my discussion prompts using an MS Word label template, pre-heated the laminator, ran my labels through, and located a long-abandoned paper-slicing guillotine stowed behind a copier on the second floor. Interestingly, nobody inquired why I was partaking in light arts and crafts on a Tuesday afternoon.

The next morning, I had my first of 40 interviews. The rules were simple: for the first 20 minutes, you draw questions from the bag; we’ll leave the last ten minutes to talk about anything else on your mind; in that time you’re free to turn the questions around or continue drawing prompts.

It worked. The conversations flowed nicely, a neat balance between quasi-interview and idle chit-chat. By the second week, rumors about “the bag” (a very snazzy Whole Foods fabric bag with ample room to shuffle the laminated cards) had circulated but since the average participant only saw about 30% of the questions most people were still surprised by the questions. (Although toward the end I fielded several prepared responses to the exceedingly difficult “vegetable” question).

On the corner of my desk is a legal pad filled with detailed notes from these discussions – I have started to pull out key themes, insightful quotes, and lists of the eclectic musical and movie tastes in the department. I feel closer to the team, more aware of their needs and personalities. I am proud of my “innovation” (quotes because it is unlikely I can claim IP over this technique) but already thinking – what shall I do next year?

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 8, 2011

OOW Schedule Madness

A lot has happened since 2005, the only previous time I had the good fortune to attend Oracle Open World in San Francisco. Forget about the litany of political, technological, and cultural transformations that may have taken place—I am talking about the fact that in 2005 I had not (re) met my wife and had never changed a poopy diaper. It has been a busy seven years!

Oracle Open World may have changed, too—I won’t really know until I arrive on the ground—but the sheer scale of the event sure hasn’t diminished. I spent the last two hours trying to optimize my calendar and my head is spinning. I can only imagine the condition I will be in after four days of sessions and the closing event when I endeavor (at the last minute) to practice my lines for our Thursday presentation. Final day presentations are the pits…

Unlike many conferences I have attended in the past, there don’t seem to be dead spots in the program. It helps to have a broad set of interests; this year I want to see EBS R12 upgrade case studies and OBIEE implementation tips and tricks and most anything Fusion. Sessions on GRC, Advanced Procurement, and Exadata would be nice if I can find room. The situation would be worse if two members of my team weren’t covering the PeopleSoft HCM and Oracle Hyperion EPM realms. As it stands, I have packed every slot and wished the system would allow double- or triple-bookings (at least temporarily!).

[Although I suppose if the hashtags are clean and the Tweeps are active then I can probably virtually attend three sessions simultaneously via Twitter, right?]

Consider the first non-keynote, non-user-group session of the convention – Monday at 11am. I was excited about “Finance Modernization: Streamlining Processes and Systems” until I saw one from McDonald’s on Hyperion Planning. I would love to geek-out on technical sessions on ADF or OAF, but that’s just not in the cards… What about the executive session on OBIEE? Or an E-Business Suite roadmap session, an hour on the Fusion user experience, or a cool-sounding session on Oracle’s use of its own hardware and software. Oh, and Tom Mayhew from the Harvard team is presenting his lecture on Approval Workflow Engine (AWE) in PeopleSoft 9.1. Decisions, decisions. There has to be an app for this problem.

My favorite title so far? How about “What If Kramer Were Your DBA and Seinfeld Tuned Your Database?” on Sunday at 4pm. Genius.

When I planned this blog, I expected to spend a few paragraphs talking about the sessions that seemed most interesting, but that is a tall order with 25 sessions on my tentative calendar. Keynotes are not my thing, but I am excited for the Benioff (Salesforce.com) one on Wednesday. Honestly, since the last time I attended OOW they were announcing Fusion and Applications Unlimited, I am excited for every session talking about the long-delayed realities of the grand vision I heard

Before signing off, I must put another plug in for my own talk at 10:30am on Thursday ("Harvard University's Procure-to-Pay Transformation Using Oracle iProcurement"). Now back to writing the PowerPoint deck for it…

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Oracle Open World Teaser

I am excited (and terribly nervous) to be presenting this year for the first time at Oracle Open World. Exactly one month from today (October 6th) at 10:30 a.m. I will be standing (slightly trembling) at the front of Moscone West 3024 with a colleague from Huron Consulting Group to talk about our implementation of Oracle iProcurement here at the university. According to the abstract, this is what we will be talking about (the PowerPoint remains a work in progress):

"Learn about Harvard's recent deployment of Oracle iProcurement. Replacing a homegrown payment voucher system integrated with Oracle E-Business Suite, the project tightened controls while providing direct access to hundreds of suppliers, streamlining operations, shortening cycles, and saving the university millions of dollars. In this session, Harvard presents deployment strategies and lessons learned, technical details of integration between Oracle E-Business Suite and third-party content providers and suppliers (including e-invoicing), and an overview of how Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition helped diagnose process bottlenecks and achieve key performance indicators for operations and cost savings."

The Harvard Gazette published an article this week on the implementation’s impact from a business standpoint; the PDF can be found here (search inside for “HCOM”).

The purpose of my Open World presentation is to tell the same story from the IT and project management point-of-view—how we configured Oracle E-Business Suite, integrated with SciQuest HigherMarkets, deployed the system in a series of overlapping waves, and managed substantial change management challenges along the way. We also plan to show how we have utilized Oracle Hyperion Web Analysis and Essbase to analyze the success of our deployment and change management strategies and support the talking points about cost savings and efficiency cited in the Gazette article.

We are aggressively fine-tuning our story and trying to make the presentation as handsome as a couple of non-graphical designers can. Whether you are interested in the application architecture details or the project management strategies, I hope to see you there!

Session Title: Harvard University’s Procure-to-Pay Transformation with Oracle iProcurement
Date/Time: October 6, 2011 10:30am
Location: Moscone West 3024
Session #: 9754

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reflections on the PMP

It would be unethical to give away details about the Project Management Professional (PMP) examination I passed early last month. But let me say this much: I was woefully under-prepared and I am grateful to have survived.

Project management has been central to my career since… basically forever. Before I had heard anyone referred to as “project manager” I unknowingly used project management techniques (detailed project schedules, milestone lists, communication plans) all the time. Immediately after college I worked on a sell-side M&A deal for a company specializing in PM software. And when I moved into IT consulting, my boutique employer expected every consultant to partake in project management. Before long, when people asked what I did for a living I replied that I was a project manager.

Yet I never pursued credentials. There were several factors in this decision, but largely it was because I wasn’t convinced the PMP was worth the time, effort, and expense. My skepticism grew in part from a handful of paint-by-numbers project managers I had encountered along the way—individuals who could quote chapter-and-verse from the PMBOK but could not facilitate a meeting—and in part from the fact that so many of the excellent project managers from whom I learned were not PMPs. So I continued leading projects, with no intention of sitting for the test.

Earlier this year, two things made me reconsider: First, another certification program – the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) – which I pursued early in 2011. Second, the availability of high-quality online training from Element K.

For those who are not familiar, ITIL is a framework of good practices (I would have said “best” but according to ITIL good is better than best…) for managing the design and delivery of information technology services. For experienced practitioners, the concepts are old hat– but the strength of the framework is the shared vocabulary and a careful delineation of roles and functions. When I reached the unit on responsibility charting (“RACI”) a light bulb went on: I need to do the PMP.

Online training was important because of both my hectic workday schedule and an almost-crippling distaste for classroom training. Element K to the rescue, with a comprehensive 35-PDU-granting PMP class. By squeezing in an hour most days before eight, two or three hours every weekend, I found myself engrossed in the rhythm of the PMBOK: inputs-tools-outputs, inputs-tools-outputs, inputs-tools-outputs. For a career project manager, few aspects proved revolutionary but the material certainly wasn’t dull. I found myself hesitating before saying “task” when I was talking about an “activity” and looking back at old projects to map the deliverables we created against the required outputs from the PMBOK (by and large our work stands up to the test). The quality of my own project management documents has absolutely improved thanks to the online class and subsequent exam prep.

How did I end up feeling so grossly unprepared? Mainly I should have done more homework on the actual exam preparation; instead, I finished the Element K training class and downloaded their exam prep tool, extrapolating from the quality of the class itself that the prep tool would be equally strong. Much to my surprise, all the questions suggested rote memorization would be the key: the practice exam almost exclusively asked questions such as “How many inputs are there to the Control Project Schedule process?” whereas I had expected scenarios. The practice exam had perhaps one question on earned value, schedule performance index, EAC/BAC, and the other formulas that I had assumed (rightly, as it turns out) from the class to be really important.

I spent several days doing drill—counting the inputs, tools, and outputs; memorizing which ones didn’t update the project management plan and which ones didn’t have organization process assets as an input; reciting aloud the matrix of process groups and knowledge areas. After a great experience learning the PMBOK, I was disheartened and slightly panicked. I rushed to the Internet and searched for sample questions, just in case the Element K tool was misguided. Luckily I stumbled across Oliver Lehmann’s site and found the questions I had been expected. In an 11th hour frenzy I mastered these questions (but it was too late for me to acquire the famous “Rita’s Book”—I may be the only PMP around who can claim that!) and read the PMBOK twice more. I was as prepared as I could be under the circumstances... Thank goodness for the re-take policy, I thought.

The words that keep coming into my head are subtlety and common sense. In comparison to many standardized exams I have taken in the past I had a tough time gauging my certainty regarding the answer I had clicked. I started second-guessing myself, looking for hidden agendas in the questions—what are they really trying to ask me here? That is a dangerous tactic, talking yourself into changing your answer. Fortunately I managed to stop myself, clicked the button to end the exam, and waited for my results.

In retrospect, the exercise was absolutely worthwhile and despite my decade-plus managing large projects, I feel better positioned than ever for our current slate of ERP projects. I am eager to participate more actively in the project management community and encourage my team to standardize processes and templates around PMI standards. I still believe there is no substitute for hands-on experience, but I see the value of being vetted by a community of experts.

I only have one question for you PMPs out there: what am I supposed to do with the lapel pin?

Labels: , , ,