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Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

The People versus PeopleSoft

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The transition to PeopleSoft has been hard and may be about to get harder.

Through the so-called "Project Emerge," the University of Calgary has spent two years updating its entire business administration system to new software designed by PeopleSoft , with the final launch date for all student records set for early February. Despite a host of ongoing problems including misreported pay cheques, over-taxation and numerous crashes, project leaders are assuring students the final transition will go smoothly.

"Our next big go-live date is Feb. 6," said Project Emerge director Grant Watterworth. "This is all of the student records. [PeopleSoft] will be calculating your tuition fees, it will be keeping track of how much you owe the university, it will be the tool for administering the scholarship payments and awards that students receive, it will keep track of your grades, it will allow you to register for classes."

Watterworth said PeopleSoft will replace all of the outdated Infonet services and add new ones. Changes include reducing or eliminating wait times, adding course waiting lists and a course swap function where students can switch one course for another, rather than having to drop their class first. The new system will also be up all the time, rather than shutting down at 11 p.m. every night.

U of C staff members who have dealt with PeopleSoft since its inception in Aug. 2005 are skeptical.

Alberta Union of Provincial Employees Local 52 treasurer Shelley Zabel works as an accounts payable clerk and uses PeopleSoft all day, everyday. Despite using the program for more than a year and a half, she is still frustrated with it on a daily basis.

"It is not catered to what we do," said Zabel. "In our old system we could get out a cheque in 10 minutes. Now it might take a day or two. Now we have to go through 26 steps. Before it took two [steps]."

PeopleSoft created so much additional work that the accounts payable department hired three new employees just to keep up. A few older workers took early retirement, rather than learning a notoriously difficult new system, added Zabel.

"We were the guinea pigs," said Zabel. "They just gave us the program and now we're working out the kinks afterwards. It's getting a little better now, but not much."

Other staff, notably those working night shifts in Campus Security and Custodial Services, have reported problems with their pay cheques.

According to AUPE Local 52 vice-chair and Campus Security officer Kim Ockwell, PeopleSoft tracks details based on codes, many of which had to be specially created for irregular hours.

"The problem with PeopleSoft is that at security we work nights, holidays and 12-hour shifts," said Ockwell. "PeopleSoft works great for the Monday to Friday, nine to five employee, but they don't have codes to categorize how we work."

Ockwell's 12-hour shifts span two days, which means two codes must be input for a single shift. There are also additional codes for overnight, weekend and holiday pay. Inputting all of these separate codes increases the likelihood of payroll error, noted Ockwell.

Due to all the coding, Ockwell examines her cheques carefully, but she is concerned that many custodians for whom English is a second language may not be able to read their complicated pay stub properly, or may not know how to access the resources to deal with any discrepancies.

Despite these problems, Watterworth deemed the final stage of the PeopleSoft upgrade "mission critical," as it will transfer an estimated 70-million pieces of student data from the old system to the new.

"We are a little more tolerant of things that might affect faculty and we're really tolerant of things that can affect the staff--the administrative staff that is," said Watterworth. "Quite often we ask our administrative staff to put up with stuff that students would just go nuts about, but that's because we place the priority on the student experience."

An additional concern is that the Feb. 6 date is only a week before the Students' Union General Election and students must log onto PeopleSoft via the myUofC website in order to vote.

"It's a worry for our election as far as the server crashing or glitches coming through that haven't been thought of," said SU president Emily Wyatt. "It's really important that PeopleSoft holds out for our voting days so that students can sign on."

To mitigate potential problems, Watterworth and U of C executive director, e-strategy, David Johnston will work with the SU to do a mock-vote Feb. 6.

"If issues arise on that day or the next couple of days we have our best technical folks and the SU's best technical folks and they'll work everything out for the voting on the 16th," said Johnston. "Our confidence is way up near 99 per cent. There aren't any concerns at this stage."

The SU is also printing paper ballots in case the system crashes, noted Wyatt.

Project Emerge will be officially complete Mar. 31, 2007 and is expected to cost just under $30 million. The software accounts for approximately 10 per cent of the costs, with the remainder coming from training and technical support, said Watterworth.

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Comments

This sounds crazy. At the University of Alberta they switched over to PeopleSoft and the SU had to buy a better front-end for the student registration system. This front-end (called BearScat, a play on the BearTracks name) was created by a Computer Science student and was way more useful than that provided by the administration and PeopleSoft.

Do any of us have confidence in the UofC to actually make a simple system (InfoNet) better?

It is interesting to read the comments of people that are poorly informed and generally not equipped to criticize ERP implementations. Try looking at the people that were involved in the implementation (integrator and the people from UofC) and it will be evident that any issues can be traced directly to poor guidance on the consulting side and a reluctance to "let go of current software" on the part of UofC employees which in general drives the project to "recreate a system" that is in need of replacement. Make changes, and learn the shortcuts in the software, in short, embrace the change. The software is NOT to blame here, look elsewhere!!

it's interesting to see another government organization struggling with the implementation of this software. i've worked for municipal government and witnessed a 'migration'to peoplesoft. needless to say 3 years later no one has any degree of expertise with the system, it frequently is down or requires maintenance and makes even the simplest task (like reimbursement for parking) a bureaucratic nightmare.
i find it odd that a university that trains developers and computer programmers doesn't use staff and students/alumni to help develop a custom solution that meets the needs of staff and students, rather than relying on what is basically a templated one-size fits all solution that requires a lot of customizing anyhow. peoplesoft is bloated, unintuitive and labour intensive. unfortunately another example of how government run organizations are creating more bureaucracy and less efficiency.

What's interesting is that thousands of organizations use this product across North America and like it. Furthermore, it saves firms millions of dollars a year when it's used properly and by competant users.

If the U of C staff would just accept the fact they have to use PeopleSoft, they can move forward and begin to enjoy the benefits the system brings.

To toss in my two...

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received in developing software and interfaces is make the software work for the user, not vice-versa. Though I've had very little experience with it thus far, it certainly seems that any benefits created by PeopleSoft such as system efficiency or uptime are negated due to the utter complexity of the system.

It's not a case of staff just needing to "move forward" when even the more technical users are overwhelmed by it all. I'm subscribed to the U of C communications and technology listserv and I hear complaints about PeopleSoft even among the more technically-proficient users. I can't say whether it's the software itself or just its implementation, but something is definitely wrong.