17 Apr Not taken for granted: A state technology project that succeeded
Madison, Wis. – In the tradition of squeaky wheels getting all the grease, state technology failures – and the waste in tax dollars that result – have been getting a lot of attention. Media coverage, state audits, and legislative hearings all have accompanied the State of Wisconsin’s technology frustrations.
There are, however, exceptions to the rule. Case in point: the recently completed (almost on time and definitely on budget) PeopleSoft module for grant management and tracking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, and UW Extension campuses.
The project actually is a series of five inter-related components, all integrated with PeopleSoft shared financials, called Program Release. In addition to the grant-management piece, other components covered the transition from legacy accounting to the shared financial system, an automated travel piece, accounts payable and purchasing software, and another grant-reporting piece called Effort.
The universities anticipate significant efficiency improvements from the replacement of paper-based processes with the electronic and real-time tracking of documents, combined with grant-tailored reporting tools.
Ron Kraemer, CIO and vice provost of information technology for UW-Madison, attributed the successful implementation to sound project management. He said the only time the university system has deviated from project methodologies in recent years was on the Lawson payroll and benefit system project. The Lawson project cost $26 million, was never implemented, and ran up at least $6 million in cost overruns due in part to a lack of executive engagement at both the university and UW System levels.
“We believe we have sound methodologies for our projects,” Kraemer said. “To me, the Lawson thing was an anomaly.”
A grants-management program at UW-Madison, which ranks second nationally among public universities in research dollars, is no small task. The $1 billion that UW-Madison annually receives from grants and gifts represents half of its budget, making grant management one of the university’s more significant business systems.
“There was no little amount of pressure to make sure this system was implemented correctly,” said Brian Rust, communications manager of UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology (DoIT).
The deliberate approach to planning is the most cited factor in the project’s success. The software, which went live in February, took 2-1/2 years to install, and that timeframe included a 12-week planning process in late 2005. The planning, which occurred after PeopleSoft was chosen as part of a competitive process, established a series of highly organized sub-projects. For the most part, timelines for tasks were strictly adhered to, and everyone who was assigned a task had to report on the progress of that assignment.
With the exception of PeopleSoft, modules were developed by DoIT and the UW Graduate School, and the external consultant, Huron Consulting, was used only where it could have the greatest impact. On perhaps the project’s biggest technical challenge – converting data from the old system to PeopleSoft – Huron’s experience on grant management projects was invaluable, according to Mark Sweet, a senior information-processing consultant in the UW Graduate School support office.
In addition, the geographic reach of the implementation and the integrated nature of the systems required a high level of cooperation across departments on the UW-Madison campus, and between the participating institutions. A Joint Project Management Committee was comprised of project managers for each of the five components, and a Joint Steering Committee was established to inform representatives from UW-Madison, UWM, and UW Systems administration of project developments.
The lines of communication also extended to executive sponsors like Darrell Bazzell, vice chancellor of administration at UW-Madison, and Martin Cadwallader, dean of the UW Graduate School.
“Right away, we had engaged involvement from the senior leaders on campus,” Kraemer said.
The old grant-management system, built in the 1970s, was primarily a mainframe system that had, according to Rust, “all the elegance of systems built 20 or 30 years ago.” Sweet served as the functional project manager and noted there were costs associated with maintaining the old system and keeping it current with federal compliance mandates.
In addition, a variety of departments had created the tools and resources they felt were needed to fulfill grant-management obligations. According to Rust, it was challenging to get everyone to agree on one central system, in part because it was not going to be perfectly suited to everyone.
As part of the planning process, the university conducted a fit-gap analysis in which it documented related business processes. In some cases, the software was out of compliance with federal grant-management rules; in other cases, tailoring business processes to the software made sense. During implementation, processes related to the routing of documents and the approval of grant applications were upgraded, and the university intends to look for additional process-improvement opportunities in the post-implementation phase.
“I think our planning phase was one of the major keys to the project,” Sweet said.
So was resisting the temptation to rush toward implementation. “Once money is secured for a project, there sometimes is pressure to get cracking on the implementation, and that can short-circuit the planning phase,” said Steve Hahn, director of IT at the UW Graduate School.
The original “go-live” date was Jan. 21, but it was delayed by two weeks because, for other UW System schools, the month of January was not a good time to take down the system and add new functionality. Still, the project was completed within its $10 million budget.
With the new system, researchers can better track grant income through expense and time accounting, and its electronic features streamline workflows associated with routing documents between researchers and the administrators that review the paperwork. There no longer is a need to fax or mail multiple photocopies when they can be e-mailed and stored on the recipient’s computer.
With analytics more tailored to grant management, researchers can more quickly analyze how grant money is spent and where it flows, and generate other data that will drive future decision-making.
Faculty members that conduct research remotely have a new web-based viewing tool to manage their grants from their homes or during their travels.
So far, no glitches have been reported, although the usual learning curve is unavoidable even with the training opportunities that will be available to end-users for the foreseeable future.
Teresa Balser, associate professor in UW-Madison’s Department of Soil Sciences, was involved in PeopleSoft implementation and also uses it to manage a series of soil-related research programs. She had no role in the selection of PeopleSoft, but admits to being the “guinea pig” functions like menus, pull downs, and links.
While it’s still early in the post-implementation phase, Balser reports better access to data and has more information available to her. She likes the fact that it’s easier to initiate a grant and monitor spending, but perhaps the biggest benefit is that the electronic routing of documents shaves four or five days off the old paper process.
“Now I can easily go back and forth with an administrator to make sure it’s done right,” Balser said.
It’s the process, not the technology
At one time, the perception was that state IT managers proceeded like a bull in a China shop, but that has begun to change. Michael Morgan, secretary of the state Department of Administration, and Oskar Anderson, chief information officer and division administrator of enterprise technology, recently announced the postponement of a $150 million enterprise resource-planning project.
Anderson, who took over for the much-maligned Matt Miszewski early in 2007, compared IT planning to building the foundation of a house. Said Anderson: “With a [computer] system, if you don’t make certain that you have not only the requirements but the foundation in place, it’s very difficult to be successful if you’re constantly reacting to problems at the foundation level.”
• Citing budget deficit, state postpones $150 million technology project
• Outsourced e-mail: Are UW, tech schools missing a chance to save taxpayer dollars?
• UW-Madison steps up to No. 2 in research rankings
• CIO Leadership Series: UW-Madison’s Ron Kraemer tackles growing student-faculty tech demands
• Technology audit rips poor planning and oversight
• UW System says goodbye to Lawson after 5 years, $26 million