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January 19, 2006

PeopleSoft’s implementation is a success

It took three years of study, two years of implementation and countless hours of hard work, but the University has completed its first semester fully run — from registration in March to grading in December — under its new PeopleSoft student services system.

“We’ve changed how the University admits, enrolls, charges and graduates its students,” said Robert F. Pack, vice provost for academic planning and resources management, looking back on the two-year implementation that formally ended in August.

“All transactions now are on line.”

Some 50,000 in the University community — all students; staff members who perform admissions, enrollment, financial aid and student financial tasks, and faculty members involved in grading or advising — now use the information system.

Pack praised those who made the transition happen. “The people involved in the day to day did a terrific job.

“I think this implementation is the poster child for PeopleSoft,” Pack said. “I give it an A.”

The monumental task has involved formal training for 866 users, who, as of Jan. 12, had filled 2,942 seats in 329 training sessions, in addition to those who have used on-line helps or informal demonstrations to catch on to the new system.

Some anxious moments surrounded end-of-semester duties when not all final exams initially appeared on the registrar’s schedule. Others arose when some faculty couldn’t enter students’ grades, because the system didn’t recognize them as the professor associated with the course. While the change from the old ISIS mainframe system to the web-based PeopleSoft has had its share of learning-curve hiccups, initial reactions appear to be mostly positive.

“Most faculty and staff understood ISIS didn’t deliver close to state-of-the-art,” said Jinx Walton, director of Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD.)

University Registrar Samuel D. Conte, who headed the PeopleSoft implementation team, said, “I think this has gone extremely well.” He admitted that no transition is flawless, but said the implementation team did all it could to minimize difficulties by communicating in advance through focus groups, presentations and training for users.

“The feedback we’ve gotten now, I don’t know if you could classify it as negative. It’s a matter of people adapting to change,” Conte added.

Some focus group feedback has yet to be obtained. Conte said a more complete picture of the system at work is likely to be available in August, after a full year with PeopleSoft is under users’ belts.

Trainer Lorie Regas, who joined the University staff in 2004 to develop courses and teach PeopleSoft users how to get up to speed, said she’s heard a variety of informal comments about how the transition is going, but has sensed an overall positive attitude among trainees.

As in her prior experience in corporate training, “Usually there are eight or nine out of 10 who love the new system,” she said, voicing a benefit of the on-line system from the perspective of a faculty member: “I can be on a plane headed to Tahiti doing my grading at 10,000 feet.”

Others remain uncomfortable trusting the paperless way of the future. “One or two folks just want that piece of paper in their hand,” she said.

Along with providing effective “how-to’s” for new users, “Ninety percent of what I did in the classroom was cheerleading,” she said. The main messages: “Give it a chance,” or “Yes, it’s difficult, but I think you’re going to like it.”

For some longtime users who may have more than a decade of ISIS experience, old habits may be difficult to change. “As might be expected, people who liked and had memorized the old system seem to find it more difficult to unlearn than to learn the new system,” Regas said.

“They understand that it’s better, they recognize that it’s an uphill climb, but they’ll learn it,” she said.

She noted that formal classroom PeopleSoft training will continue in order to accommodate new employees and those who have changed jobs within the University. A list of classes and a variety of well-received on-line tutorials are available by clicking into the “directory” tab on the web portal and browsing for PeopleSoft topics. Help Desk staff also are available to answer users’ questions at 412/624-4357.

University Senate computer usage committee co-chairman John Close commended Pack and Conte for their efforts in getting the word out to the University community prior to the implementation.

“It was well advertised across the committees that needed to know,” he said. Although he feared unforeseen difficulties might accompany the change, Close said he attended a registrar’s focus group meeting that helped put his mind at ease.

“I was relieved to see how easy it looked,” the dental school faculty member said.

His impressions were borne out when it came time to record final grades. “I found it very easy to use. I entered my grades from home,” he said, admitting that he frequently had been among the last-minute crowd of professors in line at Thackeray Hall with bubble sheets in hand and carbon paper flying as they barely beat the grading deadline.

“I was expecting more glitches and bugs with the system,” said Close, adding that, although his committee has not met since fall grades were recorded, he has heard no complaints about the system.

“Apparently it’s gone exceptionally smoothly,” he said.

“I’d give it an A+. I expected that it would be like the Y2K problem, there would be glitches more than there were.”

Likewise, Senate President Irene Frieze said she had heard no complaints from fellow professors and acknowledged Conte’s efforts to ensure that faculty understood how to record grades using PeopleSoft. She also praised the Quick Links helps available on line as “very helpful.”

The earliest, and perhaps most numerous changes fell upon users in Admissions and Financial Aid. “We process an enormous amount of student data,” all under time-critical pressure, said director of Admissions and Financial Aid Betsy Porter.

Among the challenges was the change in how student aid applications are processed. Prior to PeopleSoft, each campus processed its own, with staff members in Pittsburgh handling about 13,000 pre-applications for federal student aid each year. The office is seeing a 20-30 percent increase by virtue of taking on processing for the regional campuses as well, said Porter.

“It impacted us rather dramatically in terms of our responsibilities,” she said.

She admitted some employees were anxious about the changes that needed to be made while continuing the regular daily workload.

“Expectedly, there’s a learning curve in changing from a legacy system that people, whether they liked it or hated it, used for many, many years,” she said.

“We’ve made very, very good progress since,” she said, labeling the completion of the first semester “an enormous accomplishment.”

Looking back, she commended the thought and input from users that went into choosing the software and planning the implementation.

She credited the success of the rollout to the right mix of experienced people involved in the planning, strong leadership and support from both grassroots users and high-level administration.

“I don’t think anyone at any institution would say it was a cakewalk,” she said. “We stepped up and got a hard job done.”

That said, Porter added that the system is not static, and in truth will never really be complete. New versions and added features will always be on the horizon.

“Technological change will just become a part of the way we live,” she predicted. “We take our successes as they come,” she said. “It was a job well done, now let’s move forward.”

Indeed, changes are looming. An upgrade that will improve the appearance of the screens and make them easier to use should begin later this year. Pack said that upgrade would not involve a major campus effort. “It’s not anything like an implementation,” he said, estimating a rollout time of about nine months.

The real challenges and rewards will come in the next few years as the University reviews and revises its business practices to take advantage of the capabilities available in PeopleSoft that were impossible with ISIS, Pack said. Often, the way things were done was dictated by the constraints of ISIS rather than best practices. Now all that can be reviewed with an eye toward efficiency.

“When we do that, then we will really reap the full benefit of the new system,” Pack said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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