Oracle Financials systems to get a software-booster shot

Custom-designed software applications will be implemented later this year to solve some of the most persistent and frustrating problems experienced by administrative users of the Oracle Financials systems, Controller Susan Calandra said during a Faculty Senate meeting last week.

The new applications, which should simplify purchasing card (P-Card) and reimbursement transactions, will begin to be rolled out in fall 2005. Improvements to reporting capabilities will begin to be rolled out over the summer and continue after year-end. Calandra delivered the update to the senate last Thursday with Randy Livingston, the university's chief financial officer and vice president for business affairs, and Jim Roth, a systems-implementation consultant hired last fall to assess Stanford's implementation of Oracle Financials.

Roth, managing director of the higher education and healthcare practice for Huron Consulting Group, evaluated the implementation after interviewing almost 100 individuals, including senior staff and administrative end-users. Huron also was asked to assess whether project leadership adequately understood all the related issues, whether the plan addressed those issues and whether the project team was capable of executing the plan.

Roth's report was mostly favorable. He said project leaders clearly understand the problems and have a plan that will address the issues. He added that the problems Stanford has experienced are consistent with those faced by other research universities that have undergone similar system implementations—including significant difficulty processing transactions immediately following a new-systems launch; complaints about inadequate financial reporting; difficulties in sufficiently training users; and business processes that are not changed to accommodate the new system's procedures.

"What we're seeing right now is not uncommon," Roth said. "I have a theory that the more prestigious the university, the harder it is to put in a new system."

The latter comment prompted a few chuckles at the meeting. But when asked by one faculty senator specifically how far along Stanford is in the implementation process, relative to similar institutions, Roth said: "I think you're more than halfway through."

Roth presented a list of eight recommendations, many of which point to increasing resources to enhance and support the system. His recommendations include:

  • Devoting additional resources for enhancing the system's reporting capabilities and addressing its usability;
  • Putting more resources into production support to achieve a reasonable level of service supporting the financial system;
  • Increasing user training;
  • Communicating progress more clearly between the project team and senior staff and users; and
  • Adding more management resources to the project.
  • Livingston announced during the meeting that Information Technology Systems and Services (ITSS) recently has been divided into two divisions, Administrative Systems and IT Services. IT Services is responsible for telecommunications, networking infrastructure and services, operating the university's data center and providing campus desktop support services. Administrative Systems is responsible for developing, enhancing, operating and supporting administrative computing applications, he said.

    Administrative Systems has been reporting to Livingston since the departure last December of Chris Handley, the former executive director of ITSS and the university's chief information officer. Livingston announced during the meeting that Bob O'Leary will become executive director of Administrative Systems on May 1.

    "Bob comes to us from Dartmouth, where for the last two years, he led the administrative systems group," Livingston said. "And personally, I can't wait for his arrival in a couple of weeks."

    More funding also will be available for improving the system as well, Livingston said. President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy have allocated $6 million in one-time project funds to focus on some of the usability and reporting initiatives. Additionally, through the FY06 budget process, an additional $2.5 million was allocated for ongoing production support in Administrative Systems and the Controller's Office.

    Currently, the implementation team is working with focus groups that include close to 150 end-users across campus who provide input and feedback about customizations that will simplify various applications of the new financial system. Some of the custom designs are nearing the final stages, with rollouts expected to occur in the fall, Calandra said.

    A new P-card application will be introduced in October, followed by a customized reimbursements application, she said. Calandra labeled the current academic year as "a year of rebuilding," adding that making any major changes before the start of the new academic year would be problematic due to fiscal-year-close activities.

    "I really think these customizations will make life much easier for staff," Calandra said. "I believe they will take us above and beyond where we were before we went live with this system."

    When the update opened for discussion, faculty senator Tom Wasow, professor of linguistics and philosophy, pointed out to Etchemendy that several other major research universities around the country are beginning to collaborate on efforts to design software systems specifically suited for complex institutions of their kind.

    Stanford is not an active participant at this point, but the university is "watching very closely," Etchemendy said. He added that the consortium of universities hopes to develop an open-source financial software system that could be modified for each institution's specific needs.

    However, "my experience with collaborative projects … is that they tend to either fail miserably or you end up having a project that one university actually just takes on, perhaps with some money from others, and just writes it themselves," Etchemendy said. "Nobody knows how to create it in an efficient, bug-free way—not Microsoft, not Oracle."

    Another problem with implementation projects, especially one as large and complex as Stanford's, is the need for constant communication between the technical team and the users about changes and updates. And the fact that Stanford's previous legacy financial system had fit so well with the university's needs only raised expectations for whatever system would follow, Roth said.

    Several senate members acknowledged that they don't speak from direct daily experience with the new system or its problems. Rather, they said their concerns are shaped by their conversations with staff—and some on the faculty are starting to hear good things.

    "Looking forward, I think there's some cause for optimism," said Robert Simoni, professor of biological sciences. "My departmental administrator was really quite optimistic about the direction things are going in."