Friday, 24 October 2014

Corporate Heresy – when people really do expect an inquisition


The other day I was invited to come and do some training for a module in our new student admin system that would be relevant to my area of work. Pretty exciting stuff. My own small piece of university admin had largely been ignored in the new system thus far which had left me to wonder how my processes would be handled in this brave new world.

I have been to these sorts of training sessions before to learn about the enrolment process, credit process etc. so I know the deal well enough; We assemble in the sumptuously fitted out offices dedicated to the new system (no expense spared) and get led through a round of scenarios related to that particular business process – it's a bit like the user acceptance testing we had done earlier but with the bugs ironed out and much better instruction on how things work… or not.

The first thing to note was that for a university with over a dozen faculties, there was just three of us there to participate. This is the point in a large organisation like ours that you begin to suspect that everyone else has already worked out this is a waste of time. Too right.
It has to be said that my area of responsibility has a few very basic things that need to be managed through the new admin system because we work across multiple systems and I can handle most of my stuff in existing systems, but there are two things I need the new system for. I need to:
  1. Enrol students in my specific units of study; and
  2. Change an internal status of students' mid-semester so they can pre-enrol themselves for the coming semester.
That's it, just those two things. To make it even simpler – the enrolment task has already been accounted for (we are a university – enrolment was one of the first things worked out), so really I was there for one thing – change that status so students could pre-enrol. This is where my troubles began.
By way of a bit of background - the new system was supposed to be entirely web based, this I thought was an excellent step forward. In 2014 there was really no excuse for not having this. However the new system does have a developers interface built in basic or delphi or one of those things and when it became clear that a lot of key functionality could simply not be delivered via the web based app in time for the start of semester, limited access was granted to this interface for all staff. When I saw how rough this tool was I realised the scope of their problems.
This tool has access to dozens and dozens of different views of the data in the new system with many of the principle screens having 50 or 60 different fields, many with mind bustingly pointless acronyms. The screens are busy and complicated and half the fields are locked down so you can't use them but there is nothing to indicate this. What's more, this direct access to the back end meant that they locked down write access for most people so that this was just a very complicated and messy window to look through into the system.
Our training on this interface was to be shown how to insert SQL operators into fields and told to have a click around and get a feel for it.
Yep, you read that right, this is a system that you use SQL operators in. You basically write little SQL statements on-the-fly to manipulate the data. A lot of our staff don't even realise that Excel is a calculator. It mostly gets used to store lists in. Now these people are being asked to inject Boolean operators into a back-end interface that lets you see all these table views and stored queries of the system. Yikes!
What I learnt at training was that this was how we are going to update that one little status – with this weird, complicated little back-end interface we were never meant to have access to because it's shit and powerful (a formidable combination). They attenuated some of the risk by gutting and gelding the power of the interface. So largely useless for most people and dangerous in the hands of people with full access.
What came next really pissed me off. Being led through the exercise I found that to mark one student as permitted to pre-enrol for the next semester required me to visit 4 different tables a combination of 12 different times, running little batches-for-one on each student to make them individually ready to proceed through the system. By now there was only the trainer and myself left in the room, everyone else having sensibly left when they realised how pointless this exercise was. I couldn't help it: "You're fucking kidding right? Tell me I don't have to do that for each and every one of my students?"
The poor guy drew his seat a little closer to mine, looked furtively left and right, and then whispered "It's not a very good system I'm afraid". I nodded and looked around – still an empty room, why is he whispering?
"Well, this bit is pretty shit" I agreed. Encouraged by this he went on: "I have to watch what I say in front of my colleagues but this system just doesn't make any sense, it's too complicated. I tried to put this training together for you but no-one has really explained your needs."
I felt sorry for the bloke but I was also thinking about how this abortion of a process was going to map on to the work I have to do. Thinking about how many steps we'd just been through and realising there was no chance I'd remember it I asked him: "Whose documenting this process? Are you the one writing the doco?" Now the poor bastard look even more wretched and said: "We use a process called Agile Development, have you heard of it?" "Nope, but it sounds good, how does it work?" So he told me…
"We document our business needs and process but not the functionality." I paused for a minute to consider my response. Tentatively I went with: "Do you mean no-one is documenting the Machiavellian steps you just showed me with all the weird fucking acronyms so I can look them up again later?"
"No, we have described what needs to be done but not like instructions – more like an overview".
He seemed like a bit of a beaten man so when I summed up with "Fuck!" I did so as gently as I could. He looked around cautiously again and re-iterated "If my colleagues heard me I could lose my job but this system is crazy. We don't document how things work which means some of the most important information about the new system resides in the heads of key staff. If just 10-20 key people left the organisation, no one could run this system."
The conversation went on like this for about another 30 minutes with us bonding over the stupid things about the new system that are, well… stupid. The thing is that I have done this many times, with many different staff from my own faculty, other faculties and departments in the uni and it is just the kind of chat that comrades-in-arms have. Everyone does it, find some common ground and laugh at the stupid things in life. It kills a bit of time and makes you feel not so bad about your particular patch of work and life to know that other people feel much the same. But this conversation was different. This guy was making a confession, telling a deep secret, relieving a burden that he had been forced to keep to himself too long, because in his part of the organisation – the part running the new system, bad mouthing it is a heresy, one that could cost you your job for spreading alarm and despondency.
At the end he asked me to sign off on my training. Everyone else had left early without a word. "I just need one person to say the training was okay" he said desperately. So I signed.
The only thing I learned was that the system was going to be of no help to me but I felt sorry for the guy. He was walking some kind of mental health tightrope, spending 30 minutes whispering some terrible confession he'd been unable to share with closer colleagues.
Cognitive dissonance is bad for you and here was a basically decent guy doing a job where honesty is also bad for you. I hope I never have a job that makes me feel dishonest and scared at the same time. There's a limit to how many negatives you can pile onto yourself daily. Good luck buddy.
Universities are good places to work. Full of smart, hardworking people and I have pretty much looked forward to the new system, even with all its shortcomings. I like change, I embrace it, but now I start to feel uneasy – not because the system doesn't work very well, but because the people working on developing it are not allowed to have an honest conversation about it, it is literally a heresy to try.

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