Sheffield Uni cooks up classic IT disaster in £30m student project: Shifting scope, leadership changes, sunk cost fallacy

And in the end, policy tweaks made most of it unnecessary


Sheffield University's failed Student Lifecycle Project went through three leaders, several changes in scope and was ultimately superseded by government policy change before the bulk of the £30m project was abandoned in what is shaping up to be a classic IT disaster.

As The Register reported, the original plans for the Russell Group university's Student Lifecycle Project (SLP) – a £30.4m scheme to build a new system for managing student records – has been ditched.

The more you look into something, the more complex it becomes. And then the project leader felt like we needed to get more staff to look into that complexity, so we just snowballed the number of business analysts and spending started to go up so dramatically...

The project stumbled on integration with a Corporate Information System (CIS), which we revealed last week was running on Oracle 11.2.0.4.0. The software version went out of premium support on 31 January 2015 and extended support on 31 December 2020. Oracle provides "Sustaining Support" with limited updates and support options are available from third-party partners.

When SLP was first planned, it was imagined it would replace the CIS. But as work began developers realised it was connected to so many other legacy systems – with little or no documentation – that this was not going to work. The plan then shifted to using CIS as "middleware" to integrate SLP into the University's central identity management system, building access, timetabling and so on.

"It's plugged into so many different things, you can't really separate it out and then to try to connect the new system to every single legacy system," one insider told us, adding that it "proved uneconomical."

The plan to replace CIS was abandoned, and instead, the SLP was to use it to help the new system talk to all the legacy applications. But then the project team began to realise the data models between SLP and CIS were fundamentally incompatible. After a change in leadership, the SLP put more effort into understanding the fundamental challenges. That required consultants.

"The more you look into something, the more complex it becomes. And then the project leader felt like we needed to get more staff to look into that complexity, so we just snowballed the number of business analysts and spending started to go up so dramatically. Then we got in a lot of contractors and we started to have a lot of churn of those contractors, so they acquired a lot of knowledge and then they would leave," the insider added.

There was another change in project leaders. Meanwhile, the director of IT services was an interim contract, leaving the whole IT department, "directionless," our source claimed.

Unsurprisingly, the plan for integration also hit problems. "Every time you explore the idea of only sending back a simplified data structure, you run into the problems: namely that there's no documentation to help you understand which systems use which data items," the insider said.

"It's only once they tried to build these integrations, which we always knew would be difficult, did we realise you've got to do the hard stuff first. Sometimes that's easier said than done, only with hindsight do you know exactly what the hard things are. But fundamentally, they didn't deal with some of the hard questions early on," the insider said.

Continuing with complex projects despite setbacks has been characterised as a typical manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy, where time and money already invested in projects is used to justify future spending.

At Sheffield University, a new director of IT services, Bella Abrams, joined in 2019. Following her arrival, it was realised that one of the main reasons for doing the project in the first place – statutory reporting – had become unnecessary.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency planned to introduce new ways to collect data from universities, part of the means by which the institutions get government funding.

The SLP – and the Tribal SITS software it uses – was necessary because the old system could not support the new data standards, but that was never promoted to management.

"That was a big driver for SITS. But it wasn't really sold to the business in those terms because it's not sexy. It's not process improvement. It's not a better experience for students. It's just to meet statutory requirements and that was an important thing for us," the insider said.

However, the HESA Data Futures project was itself delayed, which gave more time to implement SITS. When Data Futures came back, it was reduced in scope, such that the old CIS system would be able to comply with the requirements.

"That was probably the final nail in the coffin for SITS, when they realised they could do Data Futures out of CIS," the insider said. They argued that Tribal SITS was almost "unimplementable" in a modern project that had high student and staff expectations for features and user experience, although "bare-bones" implementations were straightforward. Kent and Nottingham Universities had also hit delays with their implementations, they said.

"They say SITS is like SAP: configurable, with no code. But the configuration is so complex. You're building all these views and processes and you get all of the problems that you would do with conventional software development, [however] you just don't have any of the standard tooling that makes your life easier while you're doing it," the insider said.

The vendor Tribal has introduced a replacement for SITS called Tribal Edge. The company has been contacted for comment by The Register, as have Kent and Nottingham Universities.

It was only earlier this year the SLP instead decided it would integrate SITS and CIS. In the most recent news, the university said that would not be possible.

In a statement to The Register, the University and College Union, which represents university staff, said: "University management initially pursued the use of SITS, without careful consultation and against concerns raised by staff. Since that time, SLP has undergone several substantial changes of plan, each one driven by potentially foreseeable difficulties with the project, and each one requiring additional financial investment. If University leadership had been led by staff expertise, we might have avoided the difficult position we are currently in."

A Sheffield University spokesperson said: "The investment in the programme has already delivered new systems that previously did not exist at the university and our work to date will be important as we develop our future plans."

But the university has not responded to The Reg's questions about how it is supporting its ageing Oracle 11.2.0.4.0 database on which its crucial operational middleware and statutory reporting relies. ®

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