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

Thursday, April 12, 2012

HEUG Debrief

It has been three weeks now since I spent a few days in the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for the Higher Education User Group (HEUG) Alliance '12 Conference. This conference brings together IT professionals from higher education customers of Oracle ERP systems for three days of information sharing, networking, and discussion. Hard to believe, but this was my fifth year attending (and presenting) although it seems like only yesterday I was a newbie (at MGM Grand that year...)

My organization is fortunate to have three members of the Product Advisory Groups (PAGs) to provide feedback and input to Oracle Corporation as they plan the future direction for various systems and modules. While my PAG reps arrived in Nashville on Thursday, I didn’t arrive until Sunday. By that time they almost knew their way around the “bio-dome” and helped me avoid getting totally lost! They also forged some strong relationships (I hope) with other institutions and made our wishes known to the powers that be in Oracle Product Management!

The Executive Forum was quite insightful this year. Michael Horn from the Innosight Institute, who co-wrote Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns with Clay Christensen and Curtis Johnson, was especially evocative in his discussion of the pressures on higher education and the notion of “disruptive innovation.” My favorite bit was “why did you hire that milkshake” – see here for more info… We also heard from Nicole Engelbert from Ovum regarding market trends and Tom Fisher from Oracle Cloud Services.

In the general sessions I was able to spend time learning about Oracle E-Business Suite, Fusion Applications, Oracle Hyperion EPM, and OBIEE. It is always insightful to learn how other institutions are using these applications. It was especially fun to see old friends from Harvard’s implementation of Hyperion Planning present about their progress at Berkeley! And Fusion Accounting Hub (including Essbase under the covers replacing GL Balances) was mighty intriguing... My own presentation (Oracle iProcurement) was sparsely attended but we fielded several good questions – not a tremendous success, but far from a failure.

Perhaps the brightest success of the week was that the E-Business Suite PAG -- generally a minority at the conference -- decided to call attention to itself by passing out Mardi Gras beads at the opening afternoon Mix and Mingle. The beads were quite popular and generated a lot of positive buzz. When HEUG President Ted Simpson strode on stage wearing a string of purple (or were they green?) beads the EBS folks went crazy!

In summary, an exhausting but valuable few days... Major kudos to HEUG leadership and the Alliance program committee for their hard work! I look forward to seeing everyone next year in Indianapolis!

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Team Building with LEGO Towers: Part 2

(I am ashamed... it has been 4 months since Part 1 of this story! Well, better late than never...)
As you learned in my previous post, Team Building with LEGO Towers: Part 1, in this exercise teams build a tower using LEGO bricks, with the goal of maximizing total return on investment. The only driver for revenue is height ($3/cm), while expenses include both material (.50/brick) and labor ($2/min for planning, $5/min for construction).

My Analysis
About a week before the exercise, I sat down to analyze the challenge as if it were a "real project" -- to expose the various lessons and guidelines. One of the primary objectives of this exercise--and one of the most profound challenges I witness daily--is to decompose a problem and identify the best path forward given the results of that thoughtful analysis. It struck me that the ROI calculation is actually trickiest because of its simplicity. For me, the first activity once the exercise began should be to dig into the revenue and expense drivers, formulate a strategy that is fully informed by that deeper understanding of the ROI calculation, and to build using an approach fully cognizant of the risks.

Cost/Benefit Analysis
  • Each LEGO is approx 1cm tall
  • Therefore, for each minute of building, need to have 5cm in height
  • Although it looks meaningful, the difference in price between Planning/Construction can be made up with only 1cm of height per minute (easy!)
  • Most profitable per cm is a single brick per level -- should figure out quickly how tall I can build with just the 1x1 or 1x2 bricks!
  • 6 bricks per level = 0 profit (on materials cost alone)
  • Lowest profitable height ~35 cm

Project Risks
  • Do not finish assembly in time
  • Do not test free-standing early enough
  • Tower falls over or collapses
  • Wider base may allow increased height but costly in time and margin
  • Not enough of the right pieces for my chosen design

  • Immediately sort the bricks by size during the Planning phase
  • Segment materials analysis from the solution design
  • Build max stack of single-unit blocks at first and stage on the base
  • Build discrete stackable units, each of which is profitable in its own right
  • Begin assembly with three minutes to go; build for > 1 minute stability
  • Minimize # of levels with 0 profit

My Results...
...don't really count. Given the amount of time spent reviewing Nick Heap's initial idea and adapting it, shopping for the LEGO bricks, writing the PowerPoint, etc., it would be hard to argue that my project planning time was anything less than several hours. Nevertheless, over Thanksgiving, I built myself a small tower (85cm) in only ten minutes. Who knows how I might have done as a true participant in the exercise!
My Team's Results
We had four teams, roughly equal in size. Our maximum height was 133.5 centimeters (which I found to be quite impressive although I do not know the world record for this exercise...) Although this was only 10cm taller than the closest competitor, the approach taken by the teams, in terms of planning vs. construction time, materials, etc. were different enough that the net profit was not a close contest; Team White won by a wide margin as shown below.

Post-Mortem Analysis
After the build was complete, all measurements captured and the trophy awarded, I asked the teams to discuss their results, including the following questions:
  • What was the first thing each team did?
  • What additional info would have helped?
  • Did you formulate a plan?
  • How were you organized?
  • Did you modify the initial plan?
  • Did you take advantage of pre-existing expertise?
  • What else did you learn?
  • Do you think you can do better with another try?
As we discussed the exercise, the team identified several success factors:
  • Defined strategy / approach up-front
  • Division of labor – multiple building "units"
  • Clear roles/responsibilities within the team, especially once "build" began
  • Importance of teamwork and multi-tasking
On the other hand, we identified a longer list of pitfalls:
  • Too much emphasis on stability concerns led to more expensive "foundation" and less height
  • Too much time planning (analysis paralysis); didn't leave enough time to test assumptions
  • Insufficient time understanding ROI drivers and costs
  • Underestimated strength of LEGO bond; as a result, approach was too conservative


My favorite observation of this activity was the fact that so many teams were desperate for me to measure their structures lest they collapse too soon. Every one of the structures stood for a full 30 minutes after the measurements were captured. This means that nobody took enough risk! Every structure could have been taller (in the same time frame) but the risk of collapse and the lack of time to test assumptions (especially regarding the potential strength of a single-brick LEGO tower) led to significant risk avoidance. There were also plenty of observations about inter-personal and group dynamics, but those are not for sharing here... But I can guarantee if you repeat this exercise in your organization you will learn a lot!

A final observation: my team, at least, loves LEGO. You should be prepared, if you run this exercise for your team, to face team-wide disappointment with your next hands-on activity!