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A School System Overcomes Its Fear of Change

May 2, 2003
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Related Topics: Change Management, Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS)
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Overhauling a computer system is never easy. But try introducing anInternet-based system when nearly half the staff has never even ventured online.

    Welcome to Lee Allen's nightmare.

    In the fall of 1999, the Dallas Independent School District--some 220 schoolshandling 165,000 students in grades K-12--found itself in dire need of a newcomputer system that centralized separate databases for human resources,finances, payroll, vendors, and benefits. The old system had been in place since1996, the veritable dark ages by computer standards. Still, it took a year toconvince the district and the new superintendent to approve the $30 millionbudget for the overhaul, another year to research and choose the system, and athird year to set it up.

    "This wasn't just swapping out old Compaqs for new Dells," says Allen,who headed up the project as the district's executive manager of technologyservices. "This was the replacement of a whole financial system that was soantiquated that we were hit repeatedly by internal and external auditorsclaiming the system was not effectively tracking various items."

Not super tech-savvy
    In some ways, getting the system approved, selected, and set up was the easypart. Then came the daunting task of guiding reluctant office workers into abrave new Web-connected world. Allen clearly had his hands full. The districthad chosen an Oracle system that requires the Internet to access serverscontaining school business records and training resources--but 40 percent of thedistrict's end users had never seen the Internet, and dozens had yet to master amouse. Moreover, the district embodied a culture that abhorred change. Whenyou're talking about more than 20,000 employees, that's a lot of potentialresistance.

    Although the superintendent was supportive, middle management was often not.Some administrators tried to avoid training by having their secretaries accessthe system for them, forcing Allen's team to refuse them system passwords untilthey underwent training.

    "If this were industry, there would have been a different take on thissituation," says Allen, who began his career as an art teacher in New Mexicoand has been with the Dallas district since 1997. "But K-12 academia isnotorious for its resistance to change. A lot of office people were sitting allday in front of computers with Internet access. You'd think they'd at least havebeen curious. But the attitude is, ‘If things work, don't mess with them’ or‘I don't get paid enough to learn new things.’ "

A slow rollout
    Allen worked with IBM Global Services--the consultants hired to helpimplement and manage the system during its yearlong integration process--todevelop a change-management program tailored specifically to the needs and fearsof the district. Initial surveys indicated that district staffers worried mostabout insufficient training and being left high and dry on technical support.

    The change-management team allayed those concerns by keeping staff in theloop through e-mails, a monthly newsletter that listed who to call withquestions, a Web site enabling two-way feedback, informational sessions withdepartments and area superintendents, and consistent training beginning twomonths before the system went live last October and continuing with refreshercourses and round-the-clock tech support. It then proceeded with a slowrollout--the finance and procurement department first, followed by the humanresources and payroll departments in January--for a more manageable learningcurve.

    "The goal is for the district to spend less time retrieving and processinginformation, and more time addressing the needs of our stakeholders," saysSuperintendent Mike Moses. "While we are still in a transitional phase, theimprovements in specific areas have been notable."

Looking for some hand-holding
    Reactions to both the computer and change-management system have been mixed,likely a symptom of the rampant resistance and technophobia. Sinceimplementation, Allen has noted a 75 percent drop-off in calls to tech support,fewer people needing refresher courses, fewer late paychecks, and a change incomments to tech support from "Damn Oracle!" to "I'm a little stuck."He's also gotten e-mails from employees raving about how much less time the newsystem takes to accomplish the same tasks.

    On the other hand, there are complaints of insufficient training. "The lackof training to end-users seems to be one of the biggest problems," says CindyBurns of the district's Technical Assistance Center, who also spoke for hercolleague Larry Goodman. "A lot of the calls we get are from users who don’tknow how to complete a task. We are basically training the users via the phone.If we refer the users to their manuals, they say the manual is too hard tofollow."

    These complaints leave Allen scratching his head. "The take on the trainingsuccess--or lack of--is quite interesting," he says, "given that theTechnical Assistance Center participated in that training effort, and I have yetto receive negative feedback in this regard. The other side of that coin is thatwe continue to offer training, and the numbers coming in for training areincredibly low. I can only assume that the users who continue to call the TACdidn't ‘get it’ during the initial training, don’t want to go for moretraining, and don’t want to go to the Oracle Central Web site on the districtintranet for simplified step-by-step cheat sheets. They want a human on thephone to hand-hold them through every step of a process that, as indicated bythe sheer volume of transactions going through the system, is understood by anoverwhelming majority of users."

    The irony of an educational institution so resistant to learning is not loston Allen, who has since formed an Oracle User Group, which scheduled its firstmeeting for April 24 to address such ongoing concerns. Even that met a wall. "Irequested representatives from all the areas and departments," says Allen. "Askme how long--and what it took--to confirm those people. It took a month ofrepeated e-mails and phone calls."

    The real test may come as IBM winds down its participation and the districtlearns to fly solo in troubleshooting system glitches. But it’s too early totell whether the overhaul is saving the district money; the district is a yearaway from facilitating any staff reductions because of the system. There's alsodiscussion about getting additional revenue by establishing a consulting arm toteach local businesses and nearby districts how to successfully implement acorporate culture change. That is, once they finish being students themselves.

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