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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

OOW13 Education and Research Summit

I had the good fortune this year of being extended an invitation to the Leaders Circle at Oracle OpenWorld. On Wednesday I attended the inaugural Education and Research Summit, which proved to be an extremely engaging and interesting half-day.

I will confess that on the way up the hill (the event was at the very top of Nob Hill; quite a hike) I was talking with another Leaders Circle attendee and wondering whether this was going to be more of the same #highered gloom and doom that, real as it may be, has become a broken record in some of the conferences I've attended in the last two years. Having also attended many of the same HEUG and EDUCAUSE events the last two years, he knew exactly what I was talking about. He said he thought there would be some of that, but he was optimistic that it would have a different tone.

I'm happy to say he was right – this proved a thought-provoking and engaging three hours. The themes of the session had been stated as follows:
  • Building Organization Capacity for Student Success Initiatives
  • Oracle's Overall Commitment to the Education Industry
  • Addressing Transformation in Education Through Technology
  • Moving from Data Silos to True Enterprise Initiatives with Executive-level Support in Analytics
  • Why Systems Simplification and Standardized Infrastructure are Critical to Transforming Education IT from "Transactional" to "Strategic"
The overall facilitator was Cole Clark, Oracle's Global Vice President for Education and Research, who has been leading the executive engagement program for education for several years now. His opening remarks framed many of the familiar challenges for higher education – shrinking budgets, pressure to demonstrate return on education value, etc. But he also talked about how change and innovation require five things – the familiar three (people, process, technology) plus culture (a massive issue in higher education, of course) and leadership. The goal of the Education Summit was to introduce a leadership conversation into an event (OpenWorld) that has been focused traditionally on technology.

The product strategy piece was covered by Mark Armstrong (Vice President, Higher Education Enterprise Development) and Paco Aubrejuan (Senior Vice President, Oracle Peoplesoft Enterprise Development). While "Higher education is the greatest hedge against poverty and inequality" (Armstrong) there will be 40 million shortage in skilled workers by 2020. To fix this you spend more money on education or become more efficient at delivering education. This leads to Oracle's underpinning strategy for higher education vertical applications:
  • Access anytime anywhere from any device
  • Continuous customer collaboration
  • Global practices, local relevance
  • Open and scalable architecture
  • Engineered to interoperate
Mr. Aubrejuan started his talk with a direct confrontation of the existential question he has been answering every day for the last 8 years – is PeopleSoft a viable solution for the future. This is fundamentally a Fusion question asked by people who (my opinion) stopped paying attention to what's been happening with the "Apps Unlimited" product lines for the last eight years. At this conference, the PeopleSoft roadmap clearly showed releases through 2019 – so that answers the question rather directly. But Aubrejuan noted that the viability of the product itself (unquestioned from his perspective) is not the same as the viability of the product for you.

He made an important point that hit home for me and my higher education journey so far: the slower a customer is to upgrade to the latest versions, the less return they're getting on their maintenance dollars. Those oft-maligned maintenance costs are not intended to just fix bugs, but to introduce cool new features based on customer needs. But you can only get those features if you keep up. In the past, neither party in the transaction made that easy – customers are slaves to their customizations and PeopleSoft made their releases too big and complex. This changes with a continuous release model, where the vendor provides new features (almost) constantly and gives customers more flexibility to take the enhancements at their own pace. However, you have to meet in the middle – higher education will need to take more risks and get out of their own way. If the days of massive multi-million dollar upgrade projects are past, if you want to take advantage of your maintenance dollars, you need to adopt faster.

A great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson (quoted by a speaker from Cognizant, who sponsored the event): "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevancy a lot less."

The last hour of the event featured a distinguished panel: Mark Becker (President, Georgia State University), Nicole Englebert (Global Practice Leader, Ovum Technologies), Steve Hahn (Interim Vice Provost, Enrollment Management, University of Wisconsin-Madison and President of Higher Education User Group), and Gordon Wishon, CIO, Arizona State University. They covered a lot of ground in a short period, including the dynamics of leadership, the pressures on culture, the recognition of information as a mission-critical asset for universities and the ability of modern analytics tools to derive value from that information, and "common human platforms to go with common IT platforms."

In the end, the gloom-and-doom was appropriately a backdrop for a series of stories of what institutions are doing about it. That's exactly where we need to be.

The Curiosities of Social Media

Social media (I will refuse to just say "social" for another year at least) is one of the most disruptive, transformative, and important innovations in my lifetime (so far). We're not talking about esoteric bullshit here: my marriage resulted from the presence of social networks to connect to connect me to a woman I had not seen since seventh grade. Since then not only has that life-changing social network (MySpace) become something of a punchline, but social media has become truly ubiquitous.

This week I've been at Oracle Open World (or #oow13) and busy tweeting about this and that. While I am always active on Twitter during conferences, this year's event has been different. Updates were coming in so furiously that it was impossible to watch any program (e.g., TweetDeck) that streams messages continuously. Even taking in 50-tweet batches I found it practically impossible to read everything. Yet Twitters was the only way that I could learn about roadmaps and announcements in the hundreds of sessions I could not attend. Later, when I'm back, I'll have to go back and look through the tweet streams from some select individuals whose insights I rely upon to see what all I missed in the course of this crazy week. 

But it has also been a little unsettling at times. Earlier today I saw one of my tweets pop up in the curated stream on the huge video monitor on the Howard Street Plaza, which at the time was showing the trophy ceremony for the America's Cup. So I posted this.

And then I went into a meeting and the guy says "hey, I saw your Tweet on the big board and then I saw your Tweet about your Tweet!"

Later in the day I attended a blogger meet-up event where I kept seeing people whose faces or names I knew only from Twitter. I realized as the words "hey, I know you" were leaving my mouth how strange that is. To "know" so many people without really knowing them is strange.

My strong feeling is that IT professionals have to embrace social media. It is our job in the same way as adapting to new technology. In fact, I feel that it is nearly impossible to innovate or even to keep up unless you're plugged into the community. Between technologists and vendors and industry analysts, there is so much information to be consumed, 140 characters at a time, that I can't imagine now how we did it five years ago.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What does project management mean to me?

Although the term "project manager" was literally unknown to me until I was in my twenties, I knew right away upon learning it that I had been one my whole life; it was nice to finally have a name for the approach I had taken to everything from homework to athletics to relationships. 

For me, project management is logically organizing your world in the interest of accomplishing something. Just that simple. 

PMBOK defines project management is "the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently." I don't disagree with this definition (lest the PMI Gods strike down my PMP) but I have some quarrel – this is going to sound strange! – with the very word "project." I believe it far more fruitful to think about project management as a core competency applicable to any challenge, not just those units of work that we frame as projects. 

In fact, many organizations desperately in need of professional project management founder around because they're afraid of labeling initiatives as projects – the term carries heavy baggage! How many wasted hours do organizations spend each year trying to establish the parameters of how to diagnose a project? Project management has a reputation in some camps as being nothing more than overhead, burdening already-busy people with paperwork and jargon. Too often, this perception is confirmed in reality by project management offices who focus myopically on standards rather than success.

Early in my career, I saw too many projects go south because of credentialed individuals who tried to paint by number, quoting chapter-and-verse from the PMBOK, without due consideration for the needs of the specific endeavor. Having learned to manage projects through a combination of inherent tendencies and careful observations of skilled practitioners, I developed something of a bias against individuals who touted their PMP but didn't fundamentally understand that project management is not about artifacts, rituals, or methodologies – it's about people. World-class project management has to be flexible, organic, responsive, and dynamic.

A few years ago, my employer subjected us to the Predictive Index (http://www.piworldwide.com/Solutions/Predictive-Index-System/Predictive-Index.aspx) which is a survey that produces insight into the work habits of team members so that a team leader can anticipate the needs of various individuals, potential conflicts, etc. Here are a few snippets from the report I received:
  • Intense proactivity and aggressiveness in driving to reach goals.
  • Resourceful and forceful in overcoming obstacles, vigorously and directly attacks problems
  • Incredibly strong sense of urgency; in nearly constant motion, putting pressure on himself and others for immediate results.
  • Detail-oriented: typically makes and follows a plan to keep track of things and usually follows up to ensure completion.

Gee, that almost sounds like a job description for a project manager, doesn't it? There are some important missing ones such as empathy and agility, but I think I might just be a good fit for the program management industry…

Back to my definition: project management is logically organizing your world in the interest of accomplishing something. What's important to me is that the tools and techniques of project management – codified so nicely by PMI and PRINCE2 – are universally applicable to problems, projects, challenges, goals. Show me how it can be anything but a benefit to decompose activities into logical chunks with clear dependencies. Or to assess risks and systematically defuse them. Or to manage unexpected change and figure out what has to give? These are life skills, period.

Having applied project management techniques to vacation planning, wedding planning, college admissions, my undergraduate thesis, our recent move to the suburbs, plus a dozen multi-million dollar IT implementations and business transformation projects – I truly believe that the right kind of enlightened project management is the key success factor for every undertaking!

P.S. This post is published as part of a first ever project management related global blogging initiative to publish a post on a common theme at exactly the same time. Seventy six (76!) bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA have committed to make a blogging contribution and the fruit of their labor is now (literally NOW) available all over the web. The complete list of all participating blogs is found here so please go and check them out!


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reduce Project Risk with Explicit Success Definitions

I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of success criteria. Every program objective, no matter how seemingly straight-forward it may seem, can be misinterpreted by stakeholders. Making this worse is the fact that objectives are often boiled up to simple, jargon-free statements (something that I have advocated on this blog in the past) that work far better for marketing purposes yet conceal much of the subtlety beneath. The trick is to publish that tight, pithy, approachable statement to the masses but to simultaneously maintain a more rigorous and complete definition that uses the appropriate number of words to tell the whole story. One might draw a parallel between this exercise and the Agile technique of writing a pretty little user story on the front of the index card and writing a whole bunch of "and I’ll know when it is done" statements on the back. That audience-facing statement depends on so much more.

Let’s dissect a component of my very own pithy (or so I like to think) mission statement from my current project: "excellent user experience." This phrase, clean as it may be, contains multitudes. Unpacking each of those words could fill a page, and while that may sound rather tedious, imagine the trouble I’ll be in if I don’t clearly articulate the measures and then claim victory. 

Is it reasonable to expect that 100% users will think that our interface is the greatest ever? Hell, no. That would guarantee failure -- there is not a single thing in human history that has received universal praise -- no work of art, dish of food, piece of music, and certainly no graphical user interface! This will not be an easy one -- we will need to think about benchmarks, objective and subjective measures, anecdotes. One of my project sponsors has advised against establishing a vision predicated on comparison against a weak baseline -- having user satisfaction of 50% may be an improvement over 40% but it isn't anything to tout -- but for something such as user experience, such flawed measures are at least better than no measure at all.

Let’s pick another that isn’t quite so fluffy -- "automate process x" -- I have plenty of words to substitute for "x" in my world (degree audit, tuition calculation) but the lesson applies to any process in any industry. The declarative sentence unadorned by conditional modifiers is the problem – do we fail if certain manual steps survive? Or if we exclude certain use cases from automation? As any experienced process engineer knows, there is a point of diminishing returns when it costs more to automate the next case than to leave it alone. But do your stakeholders see it that way? Only if you set their expectations appropriately and gain their support for an achievable success metric. 

Here, it may be best to break it down and focus on the characteristics of the use cases that are truly included and aim for 100% completion. To take another example here, let's say we have 50 academic programs. Of those, 40 (80%) have rules that can be codified into an automated logic; 10 (20%) do not. If we successfully implement degree audit in 38 departments, that's 95% completion of our target. But if never reset expectations on success, we might have stakeholders questioning us about our lousy 24% failure rate!

I don’t mean to suggest letting yourself off the hook or taking it easy and setting the bar low. This is simply an argument in favor of explicit and transparent measures. Spend the time to reach common understanding on what success looks like or you might doom yourself to the unpleasant feeling of a project perceived simultaneously as a success and a failure, depending on whom you ask!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Too many interests? (OOW13 Planning)

Perhaps I take pre-conference planning too seriously -- probably because of my project manager brain. The truth is that I never follow my plan to the letter once I'm at the venue; there are always serendipitous browsing and moments of laziness or inclement weather avoidance (can't I just go to another session here at Moscone South rather than walk all the way to Moscone West?)

Four conditions that make schedule-building easy:
1. Narrow and specific interests
2. Limited selection of activities that meet those interests
3. Logical and straight-forward conference program calendar (e.g., structured time for meetings)
4. Intuitive schedule building tools

Unfortunately, not a single one of those conditions holds for Oracle Open World, which starts in a week, and for which I'm ill-prepared. 

Specific Interests
Out of the 50K people attending this event next week, this is not a widespread problem. There are many attendees with straight-forward interests: I'm a DBA here to learn about Database 12c; I'm here to learn about APEX; we're evaluating engineered system; I run E-Business Suite and want to know about 12.2 and bit of fusion coexistence. 

When you've got myriad interests spanning industries, applications, and technology you have to prioritize. This is especially hard when something that would have been your top priority for years (in my case, Hyperion Planning / EPM and E-Business Suite -- my #1 topics for a decade) land at the bottom. How can I not go to a single roadmap session for those products? That just feels wrong!

Limited Selection
For the 1:15 slot on Wednesday afternoon, there are 92 sessions to choose from. Read that again. NINETY-TWO! Of those, twenty are directly relevant to my current or past portfolio (and level of tech savvy -- no database tuning, enterprise manager, or java for me), and ten are directly relevant to my current gig implementing PeopleSoft and OBIEE. 

Choosing among them is not easy. How can I skip the Exalytics customer panel when we're making a heavy investment there? But the session on UPK and testing automation is potentially more valuable. Other sessions I flag to remind myself to download the presentations later -- though I hardly ever remember to do so!

Logical Program Calendar
There is so much piled into one week, the confusing swirl of meetings on top of meetings (despite the fact that the schedule doesn't support it unless Oracle does it to you) is inevitable. But it is really hard. When to go shopping for iPad giveaway contests -- I mean, when to stroll the exhibit floor to meet interesting third-party vendors and partners? During the keynotes, perhaps? (Unless the floor is open then?) The time between sessions may be entirely consumed by escalators and commuting time. There are also parallel "off-agenda" activities, parallel official activities in Yerba Buena with different start/end times, plus trying to schedule 1:1 meetings with sales reps and product managers. 

There isn't really an answer to this challenge -- it is what it is -- but it makes planning a bit of a nightmare...

Intuitive Scheduling Tools
I'll just say it -- the scheduling tools Oracle provides are terrible -- here are a few things wrong, in case anybody is looking:
  • The search agenda results seem to be coming out in random order... (I just tweeted this: http://t.co/T4ApCpNT4B)
  • Despite having 90 sessions per hour, you a.) cannot pick a time when searching and b.) the search results only return the first 100 at a time! 
  • Conflicts are strictly forbidden and sessions can't be edited on your calendar -- so that 3.5 hour summit that you need to leave 30 minutes early for the conference session you're presenting? You can have or the other but not both. 
  • This holds true for personal time, too. So forget about squeezing in a conference call that overlaps with one of they keynotes!
  • And my favorite quirk -- let's say you added a session to your calendar. And now you are looking at your schedule and you click on that appointment, hoping to see the session description, etc. Nope -- your only option is to remove that session. So you have to find the session in question elsewhere in the tool to remember why you picked it!
But anyway, I've got a few days to get it right. And then I'll probably toss the whole schedule to the side once I get to San Francisco anyway!

Friday, September 13, 2013

SFDC for Program Management

A mere four months after launching the student information system program at Harvard, we are live!

No, not with PeopleSoft Campus Solutions (that will be another year or so) or OBIEE (a pilot may go-live early next year) but with Salesforce.com. I am incredibly excited about the potential of SFDC to transform the way we manage constituent relationships, outreach, communications, and more.
My SFDC Home Page
On a project of this magnitude, effective stakeholder management is a crucial success factor. PMBOK and PRINCE2 cover this ground, of course, but in many ways the project management processes of identifying and classifying stakeholders is the easy part -- the challenge on a large-scale project is how to manage so much information efficiently and effectively. And if you think about how many communications pathways there are... Using the standard formula for calculating the discrete potential channels - n(n-1)/2 - things get rather "hairy" when you have a 40-person project team and hundreds of stakeholders (with many of them falling into a "VIP" category).

Which brings us to Salesforce. I realized quickly that I needed a real CRM system to do my job. My primary objectives were to increase transparency, enable reporting to VIP stakeholders, and ensure a higher degree of professionalism -- basic things like timely follow-up, not calling the same person three times on the same day with the same question, etc.

Salesforce Foundation to the rescue... I have tracked SFDC for many years and knew that a time might come when CRM would come to #highered. Fortunately, Salesforce offers a compelling solution for the non-profit sector, including built-in significant discounts and other resources. There's a lot of other good stuff surrounding the foundation and their support for non-profits, but they say it more eloquently than I ever could, so go there and check them out.

The long and short of it is that for short money (and $0 for a ten-user trial) you can gain access to an intuitive, hassle-free solution perfectly designed for a variety of purposes. The economics are not hard to justify -- until we went live this week, one of my business analysts was maintaining an Access Database for many of these activities -- the cost of that solution in one month probably covers our team access to SFDC for six months!
SFDC Outlook Connector is a "Game Changer"
In our case, we did employ some help from CedarCrestone to get our instance set-up. That effort? About a month, with a focus on helping us brand the interface, develop load processes for contacts, accounts, and past activities. We built a few initial dashboards and had them train our administrator. 

Fundamentally, we are using the system in the following ways:
  • Accounts - the major business units within the institution; in our case this mostly refers to the various Harvard Schools, but also includes other entities such as central admin, peers, and other IT groups with whom we'll interact.
  • Contacts -- the hundreds of individuals with whom we'll interact. Not only can we track the basic stuff already in our directories such as email, phone, and location, but we can track reporting relationships (often a helpful piece of information!), executive assistants, etc.
  • Events -- capturing the many kinds of meetings we have, from steering committees to solution design meetings, one-on-one discovery sessions, and other events that contacts might attend. 
  • Activities -- includes calls, emails,  tasks, etc. Basically, every kind of interaction you can think of that doesn't go in a calendar.
As if I needed any more convincing, the Outlook Connector did the trick. This plug-in makes all that work tracking interactions pay off right away. When you click on an email in your inbox, the connector queries Salesforce in real-time to see if there is a matching contact -- if so, the right-hand pane populates with high-level information, including the activity history. This is invaluable context for a program manager fielding a complaint or processing a request. 

Overall, we are just thrilled with the promise this system provides for our management of stakeholders, and I'm thrilled by the time-to-market -- this SaaS thing really works! :) There are a few wrinkles that we haven't quite sorted out yet -- most notably the fact that many people actually have multiple email addresses at the University, which is not a supported feature in SFDC. We have to define processes and business rules for internal operations and figure out how to balance tasks in the "project plan" vs. those tracked in Salesforce. But those are small things, good questions prompted only by the existence of good tools. I am eager to see how this tool plays out in the coming months; I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

BI from the Beginning (a Subversive Notion?)

When I was first learning how to implement business systems, the conventional wisdom was to focus on reporting / data warehousing in the latter half of the initiative. There were a lot of reasons for this approach:
  • You have to make all the transactional system design decisions first
  • We can go live without reporting; we can't go-live without the main processes
  • Users don't know what they want until they get their hands on the system
  • If you start too early, you'll just have to re-do everything later
As my career progressed, I learned this perspective was not idiosyncratic to the companies who employed me or the clients we served -- in the waterfall boilerplate applied to most every ERP project, reporting became the focus later in the game.

The problem is that projects run out of time and money, at which point those things relegated to the backstretch are often slashed. So you slap together a quickie data mart and a few canned reports and voilà, you've met your obligations to deliver reporting with the implementation. Ten years later, the same lousy reporting suite is still running and users have created all kinds of off-line shadow solutions to work around the limitations. But that is not even the worst outcome of this approach.

Last year, I developed the below visual to describe the ingredients to a successful business intelligence program, in part to illustrate that technology and tools are only one piece of the puzzle -- and quite honestly, they're the "easy" part. 

Most of the time, the real challenge sits within the other three areas. A lack of common data definitions, for example, is seldom technology's fault and can seldom be truly "fixed" through code (although too often it may be masked or worked around that way). The problem is that business practices need to be modified or that people need to be convinced to accept a new way of looking at things... You cannot throw a data visualization tool on top of garbage and expect miracles.

The real problem in waiting until the end of an ERP project to think about reporting and business intelligence is that you miss an opportunity to implement BI tools and structures in parallel with the good work around process re-design and policy revision that is required by the implementation effort. In fact, seeing the analytic output, however preliminary it may be, in lockstep with the configuration of the transactional system may help you to avoid missteps that could be incredibly costly to unwind later on; in this sense, BI can serve as an early warning system. By waiting until too late, you greatly increase the cost and complexity of your BI undertaking.

At the same time, I don't think enough implementations think about the role that BI / reporting can play as part of the implementation effort -- on one of the recent projects in my institution, we missed a golden opportunity to use OBIEE during the pre-migration data cleansing effort. By making the BI infrastructure one of the first deliverables in your project plan, you can start taking advantage of that powerful capability (and costly license!) to mitigate risks and potentially generate positive buzz. 

There are many challenges with implementing a new business intelligence program, and starting earlier does not eliminate them. However, all effects I see are positive... This is the tactic we are employing in my very large implementation of the student information system at my institution.

As it stands, here are some of the activities we are undertaking:
  • OBIA data warehouse connected to the PeopleSoft prototype environment so functional teams can test configuration impact on analytics in real time.
  • Raw historic data staged in data mart, exposed via OBIEE to explore anomalies to inform the data mapping process.
  • Pilot deployment of OBIEE reporting against legacy data marts to deliver immediate business value (official benefit) and get early start on user acceptance of new BI tools (private benefit).
People in the industry to whom I've talked have described this parallel-tracking as a "breath of fresh air" and I certainly hope they're right... I look forward to delivering ongoing updates on this approach -- hopefully most of them on the positive side of the ledger!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

IT Innovation and Angry Birds

At a meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues drew an astoundingly simple analogy for how we should approach information technology implementation and development: “We should work like we’re playing Angry Birds.” The meaning was instantly obvious, without having to explain it: fail fast, learn from mistakes, try again, and strive for mastery.

My colleague may have stolen this conceit from somebody else, but it was the first I’ve heard it and it really struck a chord. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it for twenty-four hours… As an organization, we have been struggling to adopt Agile / Scrum principles, both within ourselves and with third parties accustomed to tried-and-true traditional methodologies. The challenge is especially acute with respect to ERP, and I’ll blog more about that theme in the near future. Today I want to belabor this awesome Angry Birds analogy for a few minutes...

Fail fast. A trendy phrase for entrepreneurs and technologists, the idea is that one should strive to fail fast (when you have resources to try again) than to fail slow (after pouring time and money into the effort). Levels in Angry Birds are one board and only a few avian missiles. Sure, you can plan your attack, but there is little value in extensive analysis when there is no penalty for failing (other than losing 20 seconds of one’s life). The reality is that until you see how the blocks actually tumble, whether the stones crush the wood, how much damage exploding TNT does, etc., you are guessing in the dark. You need to fail fast so that you can try again.

Learn from your mistakes. Duh. When you fail, you need to pay close attention to what worked, what didn’t, where you came close, and where you shouldn’t go again. Rare is the Angry Birds level mastered on the first try.

Try again (and again). No rocket science here – take another turn, incorporate what you learned the last time (or the last 100 times), and hope for the best. Rinse and repeat.

Strive for mastery (or know when to walk away). This might be the best part of the metaphor – in Angry Birds, completing a level may give you access to the next board, but there is also a scale of mastery. One must choose whether to move on to the next level or to strive for three stars – complete mastery of the current level. This is complicated – when is “good enough” enough, and when is “perfect” the goal. This need not be a binary question – you can always come back later to work on that second or third star. I have seen too many cases in my career where our real problem is that we don’t treat one star as “done” but kill ourselves aiming for three stars and never moving on to the other levels. This is a pitfall to be avoided – you have to know when to move forward. There are some levels that you might just never master, and that’s okay. Because there will be another edition of Angry Birds with all new levels on iTunes tomorrow…

Come back next week for project management lessons from Super Mario Bros. J