School district weighs options for struggling ERP software project

Study: Tucson school employees need to break bad working habits before project can continue

An Arizona school district is mulling over whether to continue working on a major software project, upgrade its legacy system or restart from scratch with a different product.

The Tucson Unified School District began working on the Lawson ERP (enterprise resource planning) software implementation in 2009, but ended up halting it last year after district officials realized that employees' working habits needed ample improvement if the district was going to get substantial value out of the applications.

A report presented to the district's governing board this week provides a lengthy analysis of the district's underlying problems.

Lawson's software is supposed to replace TUSD's Oracle PeopleSoft system. TUSD is running a 10-year-old "over-modified" version of PeopleSoft and "much of the power of the application is going unused," according to the report.

"Department employees are more comfortable with paper, and therefore have done little to change the status quo with regard to how information travels throughout the District," the report states. "Our estimate is that between 25% and 30% of TUSD's administrative workload is wasted on the inefficiencies inherent in paper-based systems."

In addition, "each process requires far too many approvals," it adds. "Approvals that do not add value, serve to remove accountability from the employees executing the process, as well as adding days or even weeks to the lifecycle of a process. Many of these approvals are meaningless rubber stamps."

Departments also don't share information effectively with each other, and the ingrained use of paper-based processes leads to employees constantly reproducing the same work over and over again: "Rarely is work captured once, and then leveraged in the future."

TUSD's operations are also hampered by "shadow systems," multiple tracking spreadsheets and databases that can't be accessed in a centralized place.

On top of that, business users have "very little functional expertise" with PeopleSoft, forcing IT staff "into a functional role, hampering their ability to complete technical tasks," the report adds.

TUSD hired an outside consultant to help it analyze and come up with recommendations for fixing the way district workers operate. "In total, the team produced 35 documents encompassing 46 high-priority business processes," the report states.

These recommendations will now lead to a second project to determine how the school should proceed. "We can restart our Lawson implementation, using the information we have gathered," the report states. "We can upgrade our PeopleSoft system, and implement the business process recommendations. Or we can procure an entirely new ERP software product and begin a new implementation."

TUSD chief financial officer Yousef Awwad presented the report to the district's governing board during a meeting this week.

The discussion remained civil, although some officials asked pointed questions.

"Do we have the resources necessary to implement any system effectively?" said Superintendent John Pedicone. "Do we have the wherewithal and ability to implement even the best of systems?" Anything the school selects should be done so with the resources needed to implement in mind, he added.

That question will be top of mind as officials make their next steps, Awwad said.

Officials should also discuss whether to outsource the project to a third party rather than try to do an implementation themselves, he said.

TUSD's next move may end up being dictated by the bottom line, as the district has projected a $17 million budget deficit for the 2013-2014 school year.

It wasn't clear how much money the district has already spent on the project. News reports have pegged the cost at $10 million. A TUSD spokeswoman did not respond to a request for information on Thursday.

Overall, TUSD's situation left one expert a bit befuddled.

"They're doing the business process reengineering after the fact," said Michael Krigsman, CEO of consulting firm Asuret and an expert on why IT projects fail. "That's highly irregular. One wonders why they didn't do this beforehand."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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Chris Kanaracus

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