Government // Enterprise Architecture
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8/30/2009
04:15 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Global CIO: In The Age Of Facebook, IT Problems Become CIO Nightmares

For unknown reasons, a vital software application isn't delivering mission-critical information, and the end-customers are screaming mad. And they're airing their complaints very publicly on Facebook.

It's a fairly common student-information application called SchoolMax, from Harris Computer Systems. As reported by the Washington Post reporter cited above via his Facebook post to students in the Prince George's County district, what is known is that there's a huge problem with the scheduling portion of the IT system, but what is not known is what exactly is causing that problem:

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he did not know how many students were affected by the problem, but he said "most" of the county's 22 high schools had reported problems. At Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, the county's largest school, with an enrollment of more than 2,700 students, more than 600 were without schedules, according to parents and staff members. . . . I don't know if it was a technical issue, with schedules just being dropped, or if they were put in incorrectly," Hite said. "We have every available body that can work on schedules working on schedules. . . . I expect this to be resolved by the end of the week."

. . . The $4.1 million system, known as SchoolMax, was supposed to make it easier to track students and their academic records and to give parents better access to information about their children's performance. But since its introduction last year, it has been plagued by bugs. Students have reported numerous problems with schedules and grades, and a Facebook group formed to exchange complaints about the system has nearly 3,700 members [now more than 4,200].

The CIO for the school district coping with this disaster told the Washington Post that by the time the glitch was identified, the workarounds could not be finished in time for the first day of school. "We didn't want to roll out a system that was totally broken," W. Wesley Watts Jr., the school system's chief information officer, said Thursday. "It's a matter of man-hours and getting it done. We ran out of time."

Watts will no doubt have to find some time to discuss his role as one of four CIOs from school districts around the U.S. to serve on the SchoolMax Advisory Council. Most of that council's activities are quite typical, but one of their explicit responsibilities struck me as odd, particularly in light of the mess that Watts' district is currently trying to clean up:

"Assist in the development of strategies to increase the impact of SchoolMAX in the education community."

Interpreted one way, that could mean Watts and other SchoolMax advisory-council members are expected to help the SchoolMax system make an effective and postive impact for students, teachers, and administrators. Interpreted another way, it could mean that SchoolMax expects its advisory-council members to help the company sell its products to other school districts.

In light of the outrage in his home district over the SchoolMax scheduling disaster, Watts should step forward and clarify in great detail what he's done in that advisory capacity. If it's all been about the students, then that's great. But if he's been expected to help SchoolMax sell more product, then he and the district have a serious conflict of interest to deal with in light of 8,000 high-school students being unable to attend classes for a week due to the use of an enterprise application Watts has been endorsing to other districts.

(You can read an independent account of Prince George's County's evaluation of SchoolMax and other competitive applications here.)

Also under the bright lights of Facebook-fed scrutiny, reports the Post, is SchoolMax itself:

Jerry Canada, general manager for the school division of Harris Computer Systems, the Canadian company that owns SchoolMax, said other clients who use the system have not experienced similar scheduling problems. Nor have they seen difficulties like those that plagued Prince George's last year, which included mistakes on report cards. He said he could not comment on whether the problem in Prince George's was the result of a software malfunction or implementation errors by district officials. "We're doing everything we can to help them," Canada said. "We're making people available to answer their questions as they come up. We're definitely committed to getting children into the classroom as soon as possible."

In closing, I'd like to offer two brief excerpts from recent Global CIO columns about CIOs and social media. In the first, called "Why CIOs Need The Transformative Power Of Twitter", I argue that Twitter and Facebook and other social media are becoming essential tools for CIOs to greatly expand awareness of and possible reactions to what customers are saying about them: the good, the bad, and the sometimes-ugly. It's an edge that can be used to enormous advantage if used properly, openly, and actively:

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