UW working to salvage multi-million HR software project

UW working to salvage multi-million HR software project

Madison, Wis. — A report is due this fall that will help University of Wisconsin System officials determine whether and how to proceed with an IT project that was put on hold after approximately $25 million was spent working to implement it over a five-year period. The project was determined to be fraught with problems, including a lack of good project management.
The Appointments, Payroll and Benefits Systems project (ABPS) for the UW System was put on hold after cost overruns raised red flags, prompting an audit that determined numerous problems with the project that missed several go-live dates.
While UW officials await the report, a state senator suggested the problem was the last straw in “a string of failures by the system,” and that those failures indicate the state might be better off without the consolidated UW System.
“What was once a framework for shared experiences and cost savings has become a strangling bureaucracy,” said Sen. Ted Kanavas of Brookfield in a news release. “It is ridiculous that the UW System is preparing to spend more than $60 million on this project. Only an organization that is out of touch with reality could justify such an expenditure,” added Kanavas, who has an IT background and who still works for a software company.
But that $60 million figure was called “wildly inaccurate” by a top UW IT official who is working to straighten out the problem. Ed Meachen, assistant vice president of the Office of Learning and Information Technology in the UW System, admitted the $60 million figure was a “worst-case scenario” number, but said it would be “completely inaccurate” to suggest that figure could be reached.

Project overruns sparked review

The problems were found when project budget overruns of up to $6 million were noticed, Meachen said. “That’s a large amount of money, and it would irresponsible to gloss over it,” he said. But it doesn’t mean the project would be headed toward $60 million, he stressed.
The project, using a software product from St. Paul, Minn.-based Lawson Software, was initiated in order to replace the UW System’s aging mainframe payroll structure, which will be obsolete within a few years. The project would offer consolidation of payroll as well as appointments and other program management functions into a single system throughout UW System campuses.
“We’ve had our challenges with the project,” said UW System executive senior vice president Don Mash, who took over the project’s steering committee this past spring. “These are very complex systems to implement, as we have learned from the experience of others around the country, and we’re trying to do it for an entire system of different campuses.”
Mash took his UW System post March 1 after the system restructured its administration, eliminating two positions – senior vice president for administration, and vice president for university relations, which was eliminated. Mash had been chancellor at UW-Eau Claire. He replaced David W. Olien.

Decision could come in October

The IT project report should be completed in September, with the decision-making process proceeding into October. For now, Mash says the main goal is to get a new system working for the Madison campus, and then to integrate the rest of the system into it.
The original project management team has been disbanded, with many of the original decision-makers having retired by now or about to do so. George Brooks, an associate vice president of human resources with the UW System, was one key decision-maker in the project; he retired earlier this month. While he declined to be interviewed by WTN, Brooks previously told WISC-TV in Madison that he stands by his management of the project.
Meachen was not pleased with the decision by Brooks to hire his own HR-level staff for the project rather than to work through UW System’s IT office.
“My office was not allowed to get involved in this project, which was unusual,” Meachen said.
According to Meachen, the real source of the budget over-runs was an initial desire to save money and, hopefully, make the process easier, managing the project in-house rather than bringing in outside people to coordinate it. But “sometimes you shoot yourself in the foot by trying to save money,” he noted.
As a result of that decision to keep much of the project work in-house, Meachen said, there was ultimately poor communication between IT directors at the system level and the Madison campus, with Meachen complaining of a lack of receptiveness to any input or participation from his office or outside advice from other IT professionals throughout the state.

Original budget was underestimated

In defense of the project, Meachen said the original projected costs of $20 million were severely underestimated. The final cost should be in line with market value of such projects and well short of the worst-case $60 million. Meachen also noted that when the HR project was conceived seven years ago, the “Common Systems” approach that is now in place did not exist. Under the Common Systems Group, the UW System looks to fund unified IT systems that serve the entire system, when appropriate, rather than have disparate projects at various campuses.
The HR project must resume relatively soon, Meachen said. “We can’t go on with the legacy system for any length of time,” he observed of the current HR system.
When it does resume, the system will “strive for a fast implementation,” he said. But it will likely be with an entirely new project team. “I don’t know whether we’ll try to bring back anyone from the previous team, or whether they would even want to return to this project,” Meachen added.
Meachen noted that other IT projects in the system turn out very successfully, with millions of dollars saved, for example, via a system-wide course management project and a student administration project. He estimated the cost of the course management system would be double what it now is if it remained separated among the campuses.
The success of the system’s other projects makes the problems with the Appointments, Payroll and Benefits Systems project more striking, Meachen said.

Report notes several problems

A report prepared by UW project management consultant Diane Haubner faulted the entire planning process that went into the project. Among other things, her report noted:
• The use of a committee-made task list as opposed to development of an overall project plan and the naming of a project manager;
• People in charge of the project who knew a lot about software but not a whole lot about actual project management;
• Poorly planned testing of database systems;
• Lack of communication between testers and management.
It was not a small project to undertake.
“The migration is a complex project,” said Lawson spokesman Terry Bake. “When you’re talking about moving from a 30-year-old legacy system, transferring all of that information to a new system, it can be a lengthy and very complicated, but manageable, project.”
Blake explained that the transition can involve transfer of data, installation of software, a testing period, running both systems in parallel but relying on the old one, and then finally the go-live date of switching to the whole new system entirely.
“There are generally, within those types of categories, hundreds of tasks to ensure the overall conversion of a legacy system to a new system,” he added. Delays can happen due to any one of those tasks going awry, which in turn can cause one change after another in the overall scope of the project.

Bureaucracy run amoke?

Kanavas feels the Lawson project is a prime example of bureaucracy running away with itself, and has suggested that the UW System may have outlived its usefulness — that the state would be better off dismantling the system and going back to the independent state-run schools as they existed before 1971.
“The question with the system that we have to have a debate about, in my opinion, is whether the system is adding value or not,” said Kanavas. “Because if they’re not adding value then they need to go away and then let the individual campuses manage themselves.”
Prior to his election to the Senate, Kanavas spent 12 years in the software industry and still works for Brookfield-based HarrisData, a developer of enterprise software solutions.
UW-Madison vice chancellor Darrell Bazzell, who in a previous interview with WISC-TV faulted the previous decision-making process, also said that many of those objecting to the project have only just recently found out about its very existence, which he said has led to some misunderstanding about its whole history.
“I think if they better understand the fact that we have to move to a new system, I think some of those comments would be tempered in the future,”
The future may bring an even greater cooperative approach to technology, according to Meachen, who said Mash’s office is willing to look into the idea of setting up a project management office to oversee projects that involve multiple campuses of the UW System. That office would be governed by the Common Systems Group.

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN based in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com. Senior contributing editor David Niles contributed to this story.