Commentary
8/30/2009
04:15 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

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.



Pity the CIO of a massive Maryland school district with 22 high schools where, in spite of a $4.1 million "SchoolMax" IT system, 8,000 high-school students arrived last week on opening day but were given either no class schedules or incorrect ones. Parents are outraged and calling for heads to roll, the CEO/superintendent is caught between shame and rage, and the CIO's team has been working around the clock trying to somehow get the system to get the students out of day-long nap sessions in the gym and into classes where they belong.

Oh yes, the students: with nothing but time on their hands, one has set up a Facebook group called "SchoolMax Sucks!" with more than 4,200 members, including 800+ in the past week; another is called "Protest Against SchoolMax" and has more than 265 members; and still another is called "I was stuck in a Gym/Auditorium For da 1st day of school thanks 2 SchoolMax" and has more than 70 members.

Welcome to IT project disasters in the age of Facebook, wherein teenagers transcend the promises of adults by doing more than just talking about visibility and transparency: the teens actually achieve it. In real time. In public. And due to Facebook posts like this one from a Washington Post reporter participating in the "I was stuck" group, the Maryland school-district mess is getting more and more public every day:

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Hi guys, I'm the reporter for The Washington Post covering the SchoolMax scheduling problems this week. If you have any information from your school I would like to hear it. Drop me a note through Facebook or an e-mail at [email protected] Thanks!

Of course, the core issue here isn't strictly about Facebook or Twitter—although it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this tweet from an adult who seems to work in the district: "SchoolMax SchoolMax SchoolMax... I could have built a better system by using carrier pigeons... What a waste!" Rather, the core issue is what it always is: how to safely handle and combine that volatile blend of powerful but complex technology, plus users who'd much rather prefer to stick with the old system they know, plus end-customers who either happily reap the benefits or angrily voice their discontent.

But now in the age of Facebook and Twitter, my oh my do those end-customers have a mighty megaphone with which to amplify their voices:

Ashley Jones wrote at 3:13am They messed up my classes so bad that i may not graduate next year they messed up my credits this should just go back to hand books this makes no since!!!!!!!

Kristen Patterson (Washington, DC) wrote at 11:46pm yesterday I SAT IN MY AUDITORIUM, guidance, library, everywhere! it took six days!

Zach Kapanoske (Laurel High) wrote at 10:00pm on August 28th, 2009 this whole schoolmax thing is crazy. Laurel still has about 100 kids w/o schedules after the first week. This group is getting a lot of publicity from the papers too…

As this story shows, the heat is being turned up on CIOs in every industry because on top of managing complex projects and conceiving sound strategies, CIOs are increasingly being expected to do so under the rigorous public scrutiny that social media such as Twitter and Facebook have made available to tens of millions of people. We can all stiffen our spines and stick our chins up a bit higher and say to hell with all that because it won't change how I go about my job, but that's a lot of nonsense. For CIOs, social media might not change everything, but they sure change a lot of things—and a lot of very important things: responsibility, performance, accountability, communication, expectations, and public perceptions.

So let's take a closer look at what started all this Facebook-angst:

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:

Twitter is helping corporations of all stripes engage with customers candidly, productively, globally, and inexpensively. In this age of experience-driven marketing, in which customers not only want but expect to be involved in product co-creation and enhancements, Twitter gives businesses the unprecedented ability to tap into customer-driven feedback loops, which just on their own are highly valuable, and turn them into marketing labs, message amplifiers, focus groups, sales tests, and possibly even goodwill ambassadors.

In the second, called "A CIO's Fear Of Social Networking", Global CIO columnist Howard Anderson describes how CIOs who resist, fear, and fight the rise of social media will face a very difficult battle:

We have a disconnect. Marketing wants to understand social networking and jump on board; IT views it as another expensive disruption that is going to complicate their lives, drive up costs, threaten security.

And they're both right.

. . . Social networking is one large town hall meeting. Every blog, wiki, mashup poses real threats to hierarchies, which means that power is shifting. It used to be that The Corporate Gods decided ... and the peons accepted. But there has been a palace revolt, and the smart companies are trying to figure this out. Not Stu. Not yet. He isn't ready for mass participation, mass cooperation, or mass collaboration. He probably is in favor of mass suicide.

I would bet that Price George's County school-district CIO Watts will soon need to discuss his SchoolMax advisory-council responsibilities because my guess is it's going to get a great deal of exposure from the 4,500-plus end-customers/students in his district who are bringing a great deal of visibility and transparency to this issue via the swelling voice they've gained not at the invitation of the school district, and not through SchoolMax, and not by writing letters to the Superintendent.

No, their transparency platform and their megaphone are much more powerful and pervasive, and they don't depend on anyone else issuing them an invitation, or turning on a software feature, or agreeing to them an audience.

Instead, these young end-customers have collaborated aggressively via Facebook, and it is that collaboration that is becoming a CIO's close ally or worst nightmare.

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at [email protected].

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