When red flags are just office decoration: Edinburgh Uni's Oracle IT disaster

Management either weren't told about risks or ignored them, report finds

Before Edinburgh University went live with its disastrous Oracle finance and HR system rollout, senior managers either didn't get the message about "red" risks or ignored it, an independent report has found.

This week The Register reported that Oracle partner Inoapps won an additional £3.6 million ($4.5 million) contract fee for "changes in requirements and additional work" following a troubled implementation that left staff and suppliers paid late. The additional contractual fee takes the total contract value to £37 million ($46.4 million) on a deal originally signed for £25 million ($31.3 million).

An independent report from PA Consulting, commissioned by the University Court, shows how before the implementation, senior managers missed the warning signs that the project – particularly the change management aspects, which were crucial for users to understand how their work would differ with the new system – was not ready to go live.

The 41-page dissection of an IT disaster [PDF] also highlights how, after the software went live, "some users, who tried to provide constructive input and feedback, felt that they were considered disruptive by leadership and not listened to."

"Many employees felt they were blamed along the way and their hard work was not recognised, with anecdotal reports of staff crying at their desk, and long-term employees of the University leaving the organization," the report, published in December, said.

The report said that as of October 2023, there were "operational issues and problems with [the systems] and substantial outstanding and ongoing work to be done to resolve these."

The university went live with a cloud-based Oracle Fusion HR, payroll, and finance system, with the final stage implemented in August 2022.

The new software created problems with post-graduate students receiving stipend payments, leading to day-to-day hardship. It also meant suppliers were paid late, leading to them refusing to supply certain schools within the university. Restrictions on financial reporting within the system left many administrators unable to do their jobs.

The PA Consulting report shows why such a large institution — the university has a £1.3 billion budget — can get a software implementation so wrong.

"There was a continuous theme that risks and issues were highlighted early across the University, particularly within Schools, but did not seem to be communicated appropriately with the right information or taken into consideration in more senior governance groups," the report said.

Many people set to use and rely on the software believed that risk management was not fit for purpose, contributing to the decision to go live with phase 1 when many processes were "flagged as 'red' as the processes were not mature enough and the organisation was not ready."

Similarly, the final phase 3 went live when "some stakeholders felt that the… readiness assessment was a tick-box exercise, identifying risks but not influencing the go-live decision which had already been made given the hard implementation dates."

"Therefore, it was viewed that decisions were not always based on full, complete and detailed impact assessments and were made to meet timeline and budget restrictions rather than delivering successfully with quality," the report said.

In the university's annual report [PDF] from December last year, Peter Mathieson, principal and vice-chancellor, admitted the ERP rollout "caused disruption to students, staff and suppliers."

"We are acutely aware of the impact this has had and we have introduced improvements, additional training and support as part of our robust response. An external review has been completed to highlight what lessons we can learn: this will help to inform future strategic change projects," he said. ®

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