PeopleSoft Programs Cause Headaches at Number of Universities

PeopleSoft Programs Cause Headaches at Number of Universities
P.J. Jakovljevic - March 15th, 2000

Event Summary

As reported by The Nando Times on February 14, 2000, it was supposed to be as easy as point and click for Northwestern University students registering for winter classes last November. The university was one of many that spent millions of dollars installing new software from Pleasanton, CA-based PeopleSoft so, among other things, students could register online instead of on campus. However, as hundreds of students tried to register from their rooms, point and click turned into crash and burn.

Officials at PeopleSoft, one of the world's top business management software-makers, say that the problems were to be expected, especially as large universities scrambled to ready their systems for the year 2000. Northwestern is one of several universities that installed PeopleSoft programs to replace outdated, non-Y2K-compliant computer systems, only to find serious glitches. Problems have delayed tuition bills and financial aid - and last winter's registration.

"When more than a handful of students tried to register simultaneously, the portal just shut down," said Rebecca Dixon, who as associate provost of university enrollment had to set up an emergency registration process at the school's computer labs. With spring registration right around the corner, Northwestern administrators are wary of a repeat performance.

Laura King, PeopleSoft's director of marketing for education and government, said it's extremely complicated to transfer old university systems - fragmented from department to department - into new ones that share records from, for example, the financial aid office and the registration office. Northwestern decided to go with PeopleSoft in 1996, before the company had readied the first release of its student administration software, which came out in December 1997. Since the university was one of the first to test that software, it was natural to have kinks to work out, King said.

More than 420 universities use the software. "It is a young product," King said. "There are lots of nuances to this type of software and this type of technology."

In addition to Northwestern, other schools that have experienced problems include:

  • Cleveland State University, which hired a law firm to sort out problems that delayed financial aid for thousands of students and sent costs of installing the programs soaring from an original estimate of $4.2 million to $11 million.

  • Boise State University, where transcripts were delayed and costs had ballooned to $16 million - almost three times the original estimate - by the end of last year.

  • The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, where trouble with PeopleSoft software created a loophole for students with poor grades who otherwise would have been asked to leave school for the spring semester.

King said PeopleSoft cannot be blamed for all the problems. At some universities, she said, data entry errors hindered the software's ability to work. She also said cost overruns often have nothing to do with PeopleSoft. For example, Boise State had to change from a three-year implementation plan to a two-year after its unnamed original software provider went bankrupt and it switched to PeopleSoft, she said.

Northwestern plans to try online registration again this week for the spring quarter. Dixon said students successfully added and dropped classes online last month, so she's hoping registration will work as well. "It'll be time before you can say that we've got smooth sailing," Dixon said, adding with a laugh, "I hope in my lifetime, and I'm only 60."

Market Impact

This is more bad news on the recent spate of ERP implementations gone awry. While there are no indications of litigation in this case, and while PeopleSoft officials cite some valid points in its defense (e.g., inherited implementation problems, data capturing errors, an overwhelmingly ambitious implementation effort, etc.), this is nonetheless bad news for PeopleSoft.

While renowned for its intuitive user interface, its product is indisputably complex and requires a great amount of training and implementation effort. Moreover, PeopleSoft has been remiss in Web-enabling its applications, and therefore "the relatively new technology" excuse from its official.

Look for PeopleSoft's more nimble smaller competitors to vigorously try to take advantage of its tarnished image in this case, particularly Lawson Software with its "Self-Evident Applications" motto, and SCT Corporation, its fierce competitor within the higher education arena.

User Recommendations

There are two probable caveats in this particular case.

First, organizations often chose to follow a "Big Bang" approach, that is, rather than moving to the new system one component at a time, they do it in one fell stroke. Many companies start out thinking in terms of a Big Bang, but later decide to follow a "phased" approach, in which new parts of the system are introduced incrementally. This more cautious strategy allows system bugs to be found and corrected before moving on to the next phase, while reducing the shock within the user community that inevitably accompanies new corporate-wide system implementations. Big Bangs are misleading in their promise of "once and it's done" benefits as investments made to remedy problems can quickly outweigh anticipated savings.

Second, the majority of ERP vendors are only novices in Web-enabling their products. Similar hiccups to those above-mentioned are expected to occur in the future and should be reckoned with in advance.

Consequently, educational organizations currently initiating an ERP software selection are advised to research the major ERP players in this niche, seek assistance in the selection process from unbiased service providers, and base their decisions only on existing functionality that the vendors are able to demonstrate during scripted scenario sessions.

Users involved in selections or early project planning should seek expertise from professionals who understand the pitfalls of implementations and can offer guidance.


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