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The University of Wisconsin-Madison: Modernizing a Campus by Committee

For the past several years, we at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have managed a significant IT implementation called ISIS—the Integrated Student Information System. In creating this project, we aimed to modernize all the student operations on campus, from admissions, to enrollment, to student financial processes. After an intense search process, we selected PeopleSoft’s Student Administration application. Our original implementation took place in 1998, and in August 2002, we completed a successful upgrade to PeopleSoft 8, a pure Internet solution that offers real-time access to academic and administrative information through any Web browser.

Along this road to IT transformation, we learned important lessons about project management and implementation success. Today, we are reaping the benefits of Student Administration, delivering improved service to our students, faculty and staff.

Decisions that touch virtually every member of a university community should not be made in a vacuum—or within an IT department alone.

We credit our successful ISIS implementation to our development of a partnership approach to project management. As we implemented, we recognized that our new technology would overhaul campus processes that had been in place at Madison for years. It became clear that threatening people’s comfort zones on such a scale would be a significant exercise in change management, so we worked to involve the end user in the process.

Our initial attempts met expectations with only qualified success. While the technical implementation was successful, the impression it made on campus was not entirely glowing. Therefore, we put in place a revised and much more robust process to get additional input from a wider range of “voices” on campus. Decisions that touch virtually every member of a university community should not be made in a vacuum—or within an IT department alone.

Having built upon this partnership concept, we are pleased to share a well-tested and fine-tuned best practice that we consider our “formula for implementation success.”

1. Listen to End Users
Understand what pains end users, and offer them a meaningful role in the implementation process. We assembled a core upgrade team to manage the implementation of PeopleSoft 8. But our organizational chart did not stop with that one entity. Our core committee created additional teams, each assigned to study a specific module of the new PeopleSoft software.

For example, we assembled a “Student Records Team,” a “Financial Aid Team” and an “Admissions Team,” among others. As we built each team, we ensured that membership included representatives from both the IT side, but more importantly, from the functional, end-user side. The Student Records Team, for instance, was managed by an assistant registrar as opposed to an IT administrator.

Taking this concept even further, we employed a Campus Implementation Committee that contained at least one representative from every school division on campus. By flagging areas that needed improvement, this group helped us prioritize the campus operations that required immediate IT attention. The committee would review proposed changes to campus procedures, test them, and offer valuable feedback on the new applications. Who better to analyze the impact of a new student administrative process than those individuals who would use the technology every day? End users’ opinions were perhaps the most valuable asset during our upgrade, and their continuous involvement helped ensure a smooth adoption of the end product.

2. Communicate, Communicate
Because we had learned that the new Student Administration technology disrupted the “old way” of doing business at our university, constant, effective communication with our ultimate end users was essential. Students, faculty, and staff members needed to know which IT changes were taking place and when. We placed so much stock in this concept that we hired a full-time communications coordinator devoted specifically to the ISIS project.

Our communications coordinator built internal and external support for the new technology through a variety of methods. For example, during the initial implementation, he created a monthly newsletter that detailed project milestones such as go-lives, upgrades, and maintenance periods. We have now expanded these efforts. Today, he also distributes information about training opportunities, conducts surveys and campus forums, and manages an informational ISIS Web site. By maintaining a constant flow of information about the project, our communications coordinator helps ensure that no end user is overwhelmed by the new technology. It has made a world of difference.

3. Make Training Valuable
As we executed our implementation, we devoted key resources to training programs. Two full-time staff members designed and facilitated regular training sessions on the new technology, offering collateral material and hands-on experience to end users campuswide.

“Making training valuable” is an important lesson learned. Even today, with every go-live or upgrade on our campus, more training becomes necessary. Our training staff must constantly find ways to keep curricula fresh for trainees.

At Wisconsin, we also discovered a new way to extend our limited training resources: auxiliary training “coaches.” Because we lacked ample training personnel to reach every end user, we initially identified 45 experts within each college who were familiar with campus business processes. Then, we gave them early and extra training in the new PeopleSoft technology.

This experience was so valuable that now, four years after the initial implementation, we still maintain a group of 35 complete volunteers; and today’s ISIS trainers are committed to keeping those experts trained and up to speed on every technology change affecting their campus community. We call these informed individuals “coaches” and have come to depend on them to help us cast a wider training net. The coaches act as pseudo teaching assistants during training sessions and ensure we are extra responsive to end-user questions. Additionally, they help new staff members negotiate the initial access process.

4. Remember: Measure Success
After an exhausting IT upgrade, measurement is usually the last thing on an organization’s mind. However, evaluation of one’s system could not be more important. At Wisconsin, we have invested heavily in our PeopleSoft project. We had buy-in from the highest levels, and we wanted to demonstrate the beneficial return on the university’s investment. Prior to and throughout the implementation, we conducted surveys and focus groups to learn what end users desired in the new system. Post-implementation, and now again post-upgrade, we have conducted additional surveys of our entire end-user community. As a result, we have been able to distill valuable reports on the success of the ISIS project and on subsequent upgrade efforts.

In hindsight, we would have taken our measurement efforts even further. A benchmark survey of our old legacy student administration system would have been invaluable, demonstrating “before and after” improvements to campus operations.

Due to the modernization of our systems, our campus is enjoying a new and improved collaborative campus. Processes such as financial aid processing have never been easier. No longer do we face lines of students picking up financial aid checks—it is all done electronically. Admissions management is equally efficient. Students can now apply to any of the University of Wisconsin schools with one online application. As a result, processing time for undergraduate admissions has drastically reduced even though the volume of applications has actually increased.

Unifying our student administration systems was not just an exercise in effective project management—it was also a case of designing a process that would facilitate effective group decision making. While initially in need of fine-tuning, the project now runs smoothly because all levels of the university were involved in the process. Every member of our core and auxiliary committees was able to offer a unique perspective about their technology needs, preferences, and processes. And these contributions greatly enriched a dialogue that fostered a smooth and successful implementation.

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