Power to the People

When Cairns City Council ran into difficulty with its newly-implemented “best of breed” business suite, corporate services general manager Jo-Anne Scarini could see only one way out - the council was going to have to roll up its collective shirtsleeves and fix the problems in-house

Perhaps the most damaging impact of the numerous problems that emerged after Cairns City Council (CCC) implemented a “best of breed” suite of IT products in 1999 was that they left all those battling with the system feeling thoroughly disempowered.

Bad enough that system performance was abysmal, interfaces between systems did not work, some functionality was creating significant problems and staff acceptance of, and skill in using, the systems was low, even 18 months after implementation.

Far worse, says general manager Corporate Services Jo-Anne Scarini, was the “learned helplessness” that had ensued as an almost inevit­able outcome. In a curious organisational phenomenon, frustrated staff - although exceedingly unhappy and “struggling” with the system - felt helpless to do anything about the many problems and the difficulties they were causing them personally.

“And that was not unique just to our computer systems, because the organisation itself had gone through a lot of trauma, and so people were feeling quite disempowered in general, I suppose,” Scarini says.

The problems made for an unhappy working atmosphere. With people rejecting the systems CCC had put in place, confidence in the organisation’s IT competency had reached rock bottom. And while it is not unusual for all sorts of conspiracy theories to plague an organisation during an IT implementation, the ones running around Cairns City Council were “off the wall”, and unpleasant allegations were flying with little constraint.

The natural, almost reflex response to such problems would have been to turn to consultants to resolve the many difficulties - perhaps even to scrap the whole package and start again. But having built a career on cleaning up similar messes, Scarini was made of sterner stuff.

And CCC should be very glad she was, for by eschewing consultants and making a determined effort to resolve the problems internally she has managed to dramatically turn around an extremely difficult situation. Not only has doing the work in-house led to a very positive outcome, it has proved to be of great value in raising the organisation’s confidence in its ability to resolve its own problems and in business unit confidence in IT.

“This process that we went through was quite symbolic and a great outcome, not only for the systems outcome, but for the fact that we did most of it ourselves, fixing very significant problems just with our internal resources. [That meant] people could see there was management support and the capability within the staff to actually resolve these problems - very significant problems - and get them sorted out and move on.”

Troubled History

Cairns City Council implemented its “best of breed” suite of IT products across the organisation in June 1999. The primary business suite comprised:

  • Authority: property, rates, and revenue management
  • Oracle Financials: general ledger, assets, projects, accounts payable
  • Matman: purchasing, stores management and maintenance management
  • CHRIS: human resources and payroll

Problems began from day one, and continued despite the best efforts of a range of consultants bought in to address the situation.

Scarini, who was not on board when the suite was implemented, says she believes the many problems had a common cause in the fact that the implementation was pushed along by the Year 2000 issues facing the council at the time, not to mention the ensuing tight deadline forced on the implementation team or the fact that time for planning had been excessively tight. She guesses that the implementation team was probably stretched like everyone else and did not have the right consulting support, because at that time it was very difficult to get qualified consultants to help with such exercises, with most of them fully employed on other major projects.

She also suspects that those consultants that were brought in were handicapped by a lack of knowledge of the complexities of local government, not to mention lack of specialist knowledge of at least one of the products in the suite, which was designed specifically to meet the needs of local government.

“You might have been able to get some consultants who had expertise in one or two of the products that we put together, but you would never find anyone who had a background in all of them,” she says. “And I think in terms of the project management they didn’t focus on the integration of the products, so when they implemented, they implemented bare-bones for all of them, and the interfaces between them weren’t functioning properly. So after they went live it took them 12 months to do fundamental things like back reconciliation; they didn’t have a back reconciliation for 12 months, and that was quite debilitating for the staff, who had been used to working with quite simple products that were fully integrated systems.

“Also coming out of that implementation, they had this beautiful manual process for doing the costing work that was supposed to be there for two months, but stayed for two years - horrible things like that that took us forever. Once we started this process to review and improve it we had to actually design new interfaces and new collection databases that then interfaced to a couple of elements of the suite.”

By February 2001 the council was in a position to start to analyse the priority issues and explore ways they might be addressed. Scarini got carriage of the work not because she had been taken on board to resolve IT issues - she had been hired just two months before into the vacant role of manager, Financial Services - but because of the interest she showed and her strong background in resolving such problems.

“I came into this organisation into the finance role, because that was the role that was vacant and I’d moved to Cairns and I was looking for work,” she says. “But I had been involved in managing IS and finance and HR and all the rest of it, so I had an active interest in getting my fingers into everybody else’s pie. And I couldn’t help push myself forward, and they couldn’t help but say: ‘Come and help us’,” she says.

Her experiences working in eight separate business units within a large multinational as it underwent multiple systems implementations had taught her two things. One: that an organisation can fix almost any systems disaster as long as it is prepared to put enough energy into planning and make the effort. And two: that after her experiences she had very little confidence in the capability of external resources.

Internal consultants, she says, can only ever come in and impose learning acquired from other organisations. They do not know the system the way you do. In fact, Scarini holds as an article of faith that as long as you thoroughly know your organisation and your system, you can fix any problems that arise. If you do not know the system as well as you should, then you can use consultants to “feed knowledge to you, but that knowledge transfer has to happen, otherwise you may as well throw your money down the toilet, which is what a lot of people do”.

That Cairns City Council had already spent a lot of money on consultants, to very little real benefit, only served to confirm those views. Under her supervision, CCC took a phased approach to solving the problems. This allowed an acknowledgment by all that the problems were significant and would not be overcome quickly, and that resolving the issues would demand a significant commitment of both people and financial resources.

The first phase of the project identified and prioritised the problems and evaluated a range of solutions to address the highest priorities. Scarini’s team put together a group of people who it felt would be able to do a good job, including an accountant, a project manager from out of the IT group, a second IT specialist, someone with an HR-type background, and another with a purchasing background. Together they visited other organisations that had a similar systems mix to the one CCC had implemented, to discuss the issues they were experiencing and the lessons that could be gleaned from them.

“Coming out of that, the most gratifying part of that experience was that we found that we weren’t as badly off as we thought because there were other people in similarly bad situations, they just didn’t seem to be as distressed about it as we were,” Scarini says.

Eventually the options boiled down to: fix what was there; start again with an integrated product that was already being used in some part by CCC; or start again with an integrated product that was not being used at all in CCC.

“My view at the beginning of the process, and my view all the way through and the thing that I pushed, was that we had spent a lot of time implementing these things. And while they weren’t perfect, we’d also invested quite a bit of time in staff training. Early suggestions from the consultants were coming back that we should have a fully integrated system, and while that’s nice, there’s trauma in implementing a fully integrated system. My experience I bring with me is that fully integrated systems can go as horribly wrong as best of breed,” Scarini says.

The other readily identified issue was that individual products in the suite of systems were on disparate platforms that did not talk easily to each other, used different databases and lacked good reporting systems.

To resolve those problems, gradually over the past 18 months CCC has been systematically moving the individual products all onto a single platform, and progressively moving all but CHRIS onto Oracle.

“That helped tremendously with streamlining just the database administration even down in the bowels of our IT group,” Scarini says.

CCC is also in the process of implementing a new reporting product that will sit across all of those systems. “So we’re streamlining the skill set, if you like, that can access everything, and streamlining the work that’s required to administer all the disparate systems,” she says.

To date the team at CCC has achieved the following:

  • daily costing capability
  • improved definition of how each of CCC’s works costing systems is to be utilised
  • improved business process associated with most of the systems
  • implementation of a Kiosk front end for CCC’s payroll/HR data
  • better security over all financial transactions
  • accruals and committals reporting
  • implementation of software to administer credit card usage
  • improved interface between payroll and general ledger and works costing products
  • improved integration of all products and the rationalisation of systems in use and platforms systems are run on
  • upgrade of Oracle Financials from 10.7NCA to 11i.

The following work is still in the planning stages:

  • improve asset management capability
  • upgrade GIS
  • implement e-business capability

“The achievements of the staff involved to date are significant - one of the most gratifying aspects being that it has largely been achieved through the use of council staff,” Scarini says.

The team has also paid attention to understanding the system capability, reviewing business process, ensuring adequate training exists, putting in place user groups to ensure there are forums to address any issues being experienced, monitoring the performance of the changes and modifying processes where required.

Now users are not only much happier, they clearly have much more confidence in IT’s ability to solve its own problems.

Scarini says the attitudinal shift is particularly important because people in the organisation had apparently come to expect that IT implementations would not go well, and those expectations were starting to create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. “We’d had people in our organisation analysing the problems that existed there for well over 12 months, doing a number of reports, which [turned out to be] really poorly managed pieces of consulting work. Partly that was a function of the fact that the organisation was in quite a bit of trauma - they knew they had problems, they knew they had to sort it out - but they had no one actively managing the sorting out,” she says.

Now expectations are so much higher Scarini says she would “hate to see someone who came along and actually blew a project the way the initial implementation was blown in this organisation”. Then again, she has little doubt that from now on, the chances of implementations going badly are certain to be much lower than ever in the past.

And because it was all done in-house, users of the system seem for the first time to share her confidence.

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