This is the release of the Case Study # 3.
Dead Line for Submission : 14 March 2008
Case Study # 3
Human Resource Management
“Let me get this right,” began Sarah, “instead of users inputting their own superannuation details into our systems using a web-based system, they have to fill forms in and submit them to a clerical officer for updating? And the same thing applies if they need to file a change of name or address? I know this is a government organisation and that we are under-funded but we must be able to do better than that surely?”
“That’s pretty much it” answered Azhar, “but it’s actually more complicated than that. The system runs on an old PC and prepares a file for submission as a batch job to the mainframe. It was developed in version 2.3 of the software, which is no longer supported by the software company - in fact the software company went broke 6 years ago. The software needs to run on an old 486 processor because of specific hardware requirements which are unique to that software. We can’t just switch to using something else because there is no off the shelf software that we can buy, the mainframe character and file formats have to be preserved and the word length of PCs that succeeded the 486 machines is different. We have been looking for suitable software for ages – I thought you knew”
“So what happens if that 486 PC dies?” asked Sarah.
“That really depends what it dies of …” began Azhar “We keep regular backups, and I have a whole range of salvaged spares for the 486 – enough to build three complete computers if need be.”
“Can we develop our own software? We have enough programmers.”
“Well we could but we have no design documentation or source code and the people who developed it left the department ages ago. We could buy new software and then convert all the stored data into the new format – we’d also need to change the mainframe code – unless we ported the system onto a PC platform with a PC based server. I guess that last option would cost about RM50,000, not counting a new server. The other option would be to write our own software – I wouldn’t like to put a timeline and cost to that, but it would be expensive. It’s not the future that worries me so much as the present. With the current turnover of staff and changes to superannuation, names, addresses etc. I have one person working 45 hours a week just to keep up. Even then it can take up to two weeks for a change to be logged on the mainframe. When we finally run out of spare parts for that PC – we have real problems.”
“Not quite” said Sarah, “You are the IS manager, you have problems. You have been with us for over 11 years and you let this happen. I’ll give you a week and by then I expect to know just what you plan to do to solve this and what you can do to prevent a recurrence of similar problems in the future. Otherwise we may have to review your position here.”
“You try it! I’ll bring in the union and make a real issue of this. There’s only so much that can be done within the confines of the budget I get to work with. We can’t afford top notch people, new hardware and extensive upgrades and all my attention has been on keeping the mission critical systems running – payroll, accounting, the HRM database – plus the network. All of those are running well – the network and main systems have over 98% uptime and most of our help desk calls are resolved in less than 20 minutes. We have no budget for new projects. While superannuation etc. is important it’s not vital. If it takes a week or two before everything gets updated then so what? We both know that a new system would pay for itself in two years or so – but we need to have the money up front to develop the new system and it is not forthcoming. I made requests for funding 5 years ago, 4 years ago and 3 years ago. Eventually I got sick of asking. It's not my fault and it shouldn’t be my problem. You have been here for 3 years – didn’t you take the trouble to find out what had been going on when you came here?”
Sarah realised that they were getting nowhere, “One way or another 30,000 people rely on that system – we have to sort something out. What are the big costs associated with a new system? And why is it so expensive to write our own software?”
“Well we need a dedicated server and network upgrade and the data conversion is a significant cost. We might only really need a snapshot of how things are now – the main database keeps track of payments and other employee records” Azhar responded “but even if we could reduce the cost of conversion somehow, we’d still need to find the funds to develop and run the system. In terms of the costs of a new system is that you only see what is on the screen, we have to produce code that implements our security and authentication procedures. Given the nature of the application validation and quality testing would be significant costs. Bear in mind my staff are really maintenance programmers – they seldom cut new code and a web based system would be a new thing for them. Also because we are slightly understaffed I would have to pay staff overtime rates or outsource the project. Either of those options would cause a budget blow out. – unless of course you have any ideas about how to fund the project?”
“Why can’t we just get someone to input the changes directly to the mainframe?” asked Sarah “That would overcome the PC bottleneck.”
“That had crossed my mind” said Azhar “but there are some difficulties with that – giving a user direct access to the mainframe has security implications – and in any event that only moves the bottle neck from one place to another. Given the age of the main systems, it’s easier to work around them. Creating a file with the updates is the only way to go.”
“Leave it with me …” said Sarah “I’ll explore a few options”
Questions from Case Study 3 HRM
1. Whose side would you take in this argument? Why?
2. Speculate as to what circumstances led to the present state of affairs. How many were preventable?
3. Do you think Azhar has behaved sensibly in regarding the superannuation system as low priority?
4. Is there anything else that Azhar can do in the short term?
5. Consider Sarah’s position. What will happen if she fails to find funding to improve or replace the system?
6. Lack of funding is a major problem in this government department, how would you go about building a case to support an argument for a new system? What funding options would you suggest? (be creative/radical if need be)
7. If funding were to be found, would you develop the project in house or would you bring in an outside company (outsource) to do it? Explain why/why not.
8. Could you establish guidelines to prevent similar problems arising in the future? If so what would they be?
9. Government departments are not-for-profit organisations. Does this mean that will always tend to be underfunded? Or are there exceptions? (Think of some of the government systems that you know about and what purpose they serve.)