An Observation

As a new year commences, and I start to gently reduce my paid work I am taking the opportunity to make an observation about a topic that is not normally covered on my blog: namely management.

The following article is from The Economist of 4 January 2020 written by the columnist Bartleby. It happens to coincide with my own thoughts when I look back at the organisations with which I have worked over the years.

There seems to be to be a lot of sound thinking in the article. With few exceptions it appears to me that larger organisations are less likely than smaller to already followed Bartleby’s precepts.


A Manager’s Manifesto for 2020

Eight resolutions to adopt in the new year

The start of the year is traditionally the time to make resolutions to change your behaviour. Hardly anyone keeps them, of course, but in the spirit of optimism, here are Bartleby’s eight suggestions for what managers ought to resolve to do in 2020.

  1. Give out some praise. People don’t come to work just for the money. They like to feel they are making a valuable contribution. Praise doesn’t have to happen every day and it cannot be generic. Pick something specific that a worker has done which shows extra skill or effort and single them out; ideally so that others can hear the compliment. This is particularly important for the most junior employees, who will feel anxious about their status.
  2. Remember that you set the tone. If a manager is angry and swears a lot, that will be seen as acceptable behaviour. If bosses barely communicate, they are unlikely to receive useful feedback. If they fail to keep their promises, workers will be less likely to co-operate. And if a manager frequently belittles a particular employee, that person is unlikely to get the respect of their colleagues. In contrast, a more relaxed, open boss is likely to lead to a relaxed, open workplace.
  3. The buck also stops with you. If a team member makes a mistake, it needs to be fixed. And the manager is responsible for making that happen. It may well be that the mistake stems from inadequate instructions or giving the task to the wrong person. So the manager, as well as the staff member, needs to learn a lesson from the failure.
  4. Make your priorities for the next year clear, and communicate them well. Is the company (or division) trying to launch a new product? Or to boost sales of existing products? Or to control costs? If you are not sure, then those who work for you will have no idea. That can lead to a lot of wasted effort.
  5. To that end, cut out the jargon. The use of pretentious phrases and complex acronyms is generally designed to obfuscate rather than elucidate. In Bartleby’s experience, the reason people use unclear language is that they have nothing clear to say. If you are sending a general memo to all the staff, look carefully through it and ask whether you would have understood it on your first day of work. If not, make it simpler. Remember George Orwell’s maxim: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” It applies to other tongues, too.
  6. Listen to your staff. They are the people who are dealing with customers and suppliers, and grappling with the bureaucracy of the organisation. Their feedback is essential, beyond annual engagement surveys. You hired them for their skill and expertise: learn to rely on it. If you don’t trust their judgment, you have hired the wrong people. If you don’t like listening to employees, go and set up as a sole trader.
  7. Keep meetings short. Ideally, a meeting should be the length of a sitcom episode not a film by Martin Scorsese. Bartleby’s law is that 80% of the time of 80% of the people at meetings is wasted. If you doubt the numbers, have a think about the last big meeting you attended. Did everyone speak or was the discussion dominated by a small subset? How many people were gazing at their phones? A lot of people attend meetings out of a sense of duty or fomo(fear of missing out). And what is the purpose of the meeting? If it is just to update people on progress, that can be done in an email or in a one-to-one conversation (which has the added benefit of allowing you to talk to your staff). Big meetings involving all the staff should be reserved for big news like acquisitions or lay-offs.
  8. Drop the team-building exercises. Paintballing in the woods, tackling an army assault-course, constructing a model of the Empire State Building from matchsticks—no one wants to do this stuff. They don’t want to go to an awayday weekend, either; they would much rather be at home with their families. Why not build a team by introducing its members and explaining what you want each of them to do? It is a lot cheaper. It also wastes a lot less of everybody’s valuable time.


Whoops – Maybe it’s different in Australia?

If you are asked by a student management system (SMS) supplier to supply a copy of your current SMS’s database don’t. At present a supplier is known to be doing this so that they can demonstrate their system with your data.

The Privacy Act has a number of principles. Principle 11 is summarised thus by Consumer NZ:

Principle 11: Limits on disclosure of personal information.
The information must not be disclosed except in certain situations. These include where the disclosure is directly related to the purpose for which the information was collected, where the source of the information is a publicly available publication, and where the disclosure is authorised by the individual concerned.

So, if you are in the unfortunate situation of having sent data you must immediately notify the SMS supplier that the sending of the database should not have happened for the described purpose – i.e. “Data Import Trial”.

Make clear that the data sent to the supplier must be removed immediately from any database (including backups) in which it is stored. You must be sent written confirmation that this has happened.

Obviously if you do decide to purchase and use the new software you can supply your database for data conversion purposes.

Also, The Education Act makes special provision for information to be made available to certain government agencies as for example, in relation to loans and allowances.

A Darkening Horizon

It looks like the horizon is darkening for Take2 users.

On 23 July 2019 Wisenet undertook to support Take2 until the end of 2019, whilst urging Take2 users to purchase the Wisenet product. It would be fair to assume that comprehensive support for Take2 should comprise day-to-day support for the use of the product AND, where necessary support if the product does not function properly. That may be because of a bug, or possibly because of a change in compliance requirements initiated by a government agency.

It seems that comprehensive support for Take2 is now no longer available due to the termination of employment of key staff. The termination was not of the gangster type involving bullets but rather through redundancy. A lot of knowledge has been shown the door.

If you are a Take2 user you will have been invoiced for support to the end of the year; although in one case I know of a client that was invoiced and has paid a substantial sum for support until the middle of 2020.

If you don’t get support, or if the support doesn’t meet the conditions of the support agreement you might feel aggrieved and possibly look for a partial refund. If the refund is not forthcoming the Commerce Commission is available. That organisation enforces fair trading.

I suggest that there is another thing to think about when you are deciding on the product to select as a replacement to Take2. Find out if the supplier of a product is reliable and capable of providing ongoing comprehensive support into the New Zealand market.

TAKE2 and the Single Data Return

I have written several times recently about the need to replace your Student Management System (SMS). From the information given to me by my clients, it is quite clear that AdaptIT will cease to support the Take2 SMS from the end of 2019. Interestingly the most recent communication notifying this date came from Wisenet – not from AdaptIT itself. Wisenet is an Australian company recently purchased by AdaptIT, a South African company. Wisenet sells a student management system.

The cessation of support from the end of 2019 is a rather brutal decision because, as you know (but Wisenet seems not to know) for the 2019 year, the final reporting via the SDR will not be complete until after the April 2020 SDR round. That is your last chance to report 2019 course and qualification completions. The fact is also, that the December SDR 2019 cannot be reported before 1 January 2020.


On a related topic earlier in the year I sent the following request for information to TEC.

Please can you provide me with a brief response to the following questions?

  • Will the format of the Single Data Return (SDR) be changing in 2020, by which I mean will it cease to be the periodic submission of a set of five text files?
  • Will the data items currently included in the SDR remain the same in 2010, by which I mean will any new items be included or any existing items removed?

After a number of reminders, I finally got half an answer on 30 July.

TEC wrote “There are no changes to the file format expected for 2020, that will come in 2021. We cannot guarantee there will be no changes to data as we will need to respond to changes in policy etc as they arise.”

So, the good news is that the file format will not change. The not so good news is that TEC doesn’t know (or isn’t telling us) whether data will change. Over the last few years existing blank SDR fields have been recycled to accommodate new data items – for example in 2019 two fields in the Student (STUD) file are being used to accommodate data relevant to Fees-Free.

Historically new fields have been added to the SDR files by tacking them on the end of each record – for example the EMB_LIT_NUM field was added on to the Course Register (CREG) record in 2010.

Now, here’s the thing. TEC should release an updated SDR Manual soon if they want to be considered to be a halfway responsible agency capable of providing data to government. The SDR Manual for 2019 was released in October 2018. The 2017 SDR Manual was released in December 2016. Unfortunately, and with characteristic disregard as to compliance costs, TEC did not release the 2018 Manual until February 2018.

I think – and this is my personal opinion – that the highlighted words above may be the clue as to when we will hear about changes to data. It appears that PTEs and Wānanga are not – as yet – directly affected by the review of vocational education (ROVE). Indirectly, though, they may be, because even TEC would not be thoughtless enough to mandate one type of reporting for NZIST and another for the PTEs and Wānanga. In short, if the current reporting mechanism (i.e. the SDR) is to be replaced for NZIST that mechanism will also be applied to PTEs and Wānanga.

Given that the full process towards putting in place the changes of the ROVE will not be complete for some years, and the new funding system won’t be in place to 2021, it seems unlikely that the SDR will see substantially different data being reported in 2020. That won’t happen until 2021.

If there is indeed no change to the format or data being collected in the SDR in 2020 then Take2 users will be very fortunate. Their SMS will continue to chug along for another year, giving them time to make a considered and far less pressured choice of a replacement SMS.

And of course, TEC will be very fortunate because they will still get reliable SDR data.


Student Management Systems – some more thoughts

In a recent post I wrote about changing student management systems. Since then I have talked with a lot of people and done a lot of thinking. Here are some more thoughts.

At the risk of repeating myself I should remind you that the data in your current system is YOURS and you must arrange to secure it before moving to another system. Here is why.

  • There is a distinct possibility that your new SMS supplier will be unwilling (or unable) to transfer a reasonable amount of historical data to their system. Or, at the very least will charge extra for data that goes back more than a couple of years.
  • Don’t forget to ask about any archived student data. Often that can reside in a separate database that could get overlooked in any data conversion.
  • Without that data you won’t be able to produce transcripts for students who studied with you in the past.
  • Without that data you may not be able to provide relevant data to TEC (audit) or NZQA (EER) when requested.

The Cloud is a wonderful thing. It can make your system accessible anywhere, anytime, and on any platform (Windows, IOS, Android, Linux). It can ensure that your data is reliably and frequently backed up.

The key word here is “reliably”. How would you feel if you got a message from your SMS supplier saying that you system would not be available because of an outage of their Cloud management, or because system maintenance is required urgently? That would be especially upsetting if that happened on a date that you were due to submit a Mix of Provision, a Fees-Free report or some other important return.

Ask about their uptime guarantees (SLA) and what guarantee that the SMS will be available when you need it. It is an impossibility to have a 100% uptime guarantee. If that is being promised, then what else is the SMS provider promising that they cannot deliver on?

So, when evaluating an SMS to be delivered via the Cloud check very carefully the credentials of the Cloud service provider. Ask about when there was last an outage (if any) and ask about the frequency of problems.

Can we trust Workspace2?

I’m afraid that the answer to this question has to be “No”.

You may recall the problem I wrote about recently where the Fees-Free validation report had duplicate records for some providers and had to be re-released. That gave us a clue that all was not well in Workspace2.

The use of Workspace2 in relation to Fees-Free seems to be particularly badly affected as you will see from the following list.

  • A couple of weeks ago there were “intermittent login issues with Workspace 2”. You simply couldn’t login meaning that the template for the May Fees-Free return was not available.
  • Then when we did get the template and wanted to submit it we were told “We are experiencing intermittent login issues with Workspace 2. If you are unable to login, please contact the TEC Customer Contact Group on 0800 601 301 or email”.
  • The turnaround time for specific Fees-Free status requests is poor, apparently because they are processed manually and therefore only on working days.
  • The following message was sent out on 12 April. “Failure to load accurate Fees-Free data in Workspace 2. Please note: If you downloaded these files on April 10 or 11 please delete these as they contained errors. All learners that had their eligibility status changed as part of the statutory declaration process had their eligibility reset to ‘Unknown’ in error. The corrected versions are now published above.
  • Then there are the other discrepancies relating to students’ Fees-Free Eligibility status, for example: Can TEC explain how NSN nnnnnnnnnnn appears in 2018 Fees Free Consumption.csv and FeesFreeEligibility2019.CSV downloaded from Worksapce2 on 16-05-2019, but in the FeesFreeEligibility2019.CSV file the Fees Free Eligibility Flag is “Y” and not “8”? Apparently TEC cannot explain it because this question put to them on 17 May has yet to be answered.
  • The April Fees Free Multiple Providers and Cap Limit Report took a month to be released and now that it has, the report has invalid data in two columns.

Unfortunately, it is not just Workspace2 that is problematic. Have you tried to use the Search function on TEC’s web site? If you have, you were probably frustrated.

Often it doesn’t provide a response for even a straightforward search word or phrase. Other times it will provide several responses in a list but then not let you click through. I have been told that it is better just to use a Google search site specific search. For example, typing “Brendan Kelly” into a Google search will produce far more hits than entering “Brendan Kelly” into the search box on the TEC website. That tells you it has found 9 results but shows only 8.

Heaven protect us if any replacement for the SDR makes use of Workspace2 as a means of transferring files.

Overall it seems to me that there are a number of issues relating to TEC’s technology which come from poor business analysis, resulting in badly designed systems, further impacted by a lack of testing; but I stand to be corrected.

Student Management Systems – Time for Change?

What do you do when you want a new and better Student Management System; or possibly your current Student Management System (SMS) supplier goes out of business, or ceases to support your system? Here are some thoughts.

At present there seems to be a bit of action amongst the SMS suppliers which, having had a few anxious phone calls and emails, has prompted me to write this post.

Your current system

  • First and foremost, you should secure your data. Your existing SMS supplier will have licensed you to use their software and that licence may be being terminated, but remember the data is yours. Now, here’s the interesting and rather worrying thing. In the rush into the Cloud you may have lost control of your data.
    • If you are running your SMS on your own network your database should be simple to secure – indeed you may have multiple back-ups of that data going back years. There is no real cost to you to securing your data.
    • If your database is in the Cloud but stored by an organisation other than your SMS provider you should be able to retrieve your database yourself or request the supplier to send it to you. There may be a small cost associated with this service.
    • If your database is stored by your SMS supplier you may have a problem, depending on how that supplier manages data. It could be a simple matter for the supplier to pass you a copy of the physical database as a single file or as a structured group of files. In some instances, however your data may be stored in a “multi-tenanted” database. This means your data is stored alongside the data of other organisations using the same SMS. Then there may be a more significant cost to obtain your own data.
  • Another factor to consider is that when you get your database you may need to obtain a software licence to access the data and if that were, say, an Oracle licence this will be expensive. If the required licence is for a Microsoft product you may already have a licence or can acquire one easily.
  • You should check on your right to continue to use your current SMS. Some systems are supplied on the basis that you pay a fee to use the software – possibly on a monthly basis. If you cease to pay that fee your access to the software will be terminated. This mean that, even if you have secured your data, you can’t actually use it to do things like produce a Single Data Return. Other systems are supplied on the basis that you are provided with the software and can continue to use it even after the supplier has gone out of business or ceases to support the software. Clearly if the software is not updated for changing compliance requirements it will quickly become redundant; however, you can still use it to produce historical reports and academic transcripts. This is particularly important if moving to a new SMS involves a poor or limited transfer of data from your existing system.

A replacement SMS

  • If you are in the situation of having to change to another system you may find a checklist useful. Please contact me if would like a checklist, or just to chat about the process of change. In the meantime, here some ideas that may help.
  • Some people who market and sell systems don’t necessarily know very much about either the technology of the system they are selling nor, for that matter, the nuts and bolts of student management. They possibly also have little insight into the compliance requirements of New Zealand government agencies.
  • Make a list of the key features of your current SMS, including compliance functions, and check that they are in any product you are evaluating.
  • When assessing systems, you should ask to talk to the people who will provide support. You should also ask to view a sample of the user documentation. After all a system is only as good as the support that is provided.
  • Check that the underlying software used by the new system is not out of date or possibly even redundant. For example, Adobe will not support Flash beyond 2020.
  • Evaluate if having custom functionality is something that you might require. Some SMS suppliers do not allow custom functionality, or even allow you to access your database preventing you being able to use or develop third-party applications accessing your data. If the SMS supplier provides an API interface to exchange data, you need to evaluate how extensive it is and if it would meet your requirements. In most cases the API interface is limited and at the whim of the SMS supplier to expand.
  • Ask for references, making sure that you get several from providers who recently changed to the SMS you are checking out. You could also ask the supplier to name an organisation which has used their system but decided to move on to another product.
  • Get very clear and detailed information on pricing over say, a five-year horizon. At least one supplier has a built-in annual fee increment based on the consumer price index. Several suppliers have a separate fee for particular options. You may need to have functionality that includes the exchange of data with the Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool or reporting to Public Trust for example, but this could cost extra. You may want good business intelligence functionality, but this could require you to pay a third-party software licence.  
  • Check that you can have access to a test system with a copy of your data at no additional licence cost.
  • Check out in detail how the data from your current SMS gets into the new SMS. Who does the work? You may end up copying a lot of data into a bunch of CSV files. That takes time and can result in transposition errors. How far back in time will your data be transferred? You might have got records going back to the introduction of the SDR in your current system which are still of value – not least because ex-students want to get transcripts.
  • If though, the transfer only goes back one or two years, will there be a cost in maintaining your existing SMS in order to produce those transcripts?
  • Investigate the likely longevity of the supplier you are evaluating. It is not unknown for a supplier to enter the market in New Zealand and then discover that the market is not sufficiently large to earn enough to maintain their SMS’s New Zealand compliance. Annual fees are increased to close the gap or the supplier simply leaves New Zealand.
  • Ask for a copy of the current SMS development road map. This might provide an insight into missing or “thin” functionality.

Fees-Free – An Unfortunate Series of Events

Sadly, the implementation of Fees-Free is not an engaging set of novels for the younger reader however, like the books it has “a dark, mysterious feeling”. One is never sure what will happen next.

And it was whilst pondering the latest debacle (being a fail by TEC with the preparation and distribution of the “Fees Free All Enrolments and Costs Data Validation – March 2019” file), that I decided that I would try to document the set of processes used by TEC to manage Fees-Free and to enumerate the causes of its failure.

A consequence of that failure is that you cannot know how much your Fees-Free payment from TEC will be, you are likely to be non-compliant with TEC’s funding conditions, and your compliance costs will have increased significantly.

If you would like to read this sorry story, please let me know. You may even find it useful when explaining to your boss why you can’t provide an accurate report of expected income, or when dealing with auditors.

Oh, and the most recent fail with the Validation Report? Well if the problem was restricted to the two new (and undocumented) fields in this report it will cause you confusion but no hurt. Still, if TEC gets something this simple wrong you have to wonder what other unannounced problems there are with TEC’s reporting processes.

SDR Validation Error 143

If you are being a good provider and following TEC’s advice to carry out a trial SDR well in advance of the April SDR you are likely to fall foul of Validation Error 143. This error is explained as “IWI is not valid”. The problem you will find is that even if you have reported a valid Iwi code – i.e. one listed in the 2019 SDR Manual Appendix – you still get error 143.

The TEC Sector Helpdesk explains that this is a known bug and will be rectified by 5 April. When I suggested to the Helpdesk that it could lighten its load by publicising the problem, and thus reducing the number of calls it receives. This idea was not warmly welcomed, and it was suggested that the Ministry of Education was responsible for the SDR: buck passed.

Again, one is prompted to suggest that the title “Helpdesk” is something of a misnomer. TEC really doesn’t care if providers waste time proving to themselves that they are not going crazy, and that the problem lies instead with the validation software. Meaning that the providers then have to call the Helpdesk and, in all likelihood their calls won’t go through because the Helpdesk is overloaded.

In short TEC’s basic principle of “less trust, higher compliance cost” is still in effect.

How’s this for a plan

You may recall that in my last post I pointed out that the latest Youth Guarantee funding conditions are not workable.

The 2019 funding conditions 4.1 and 5.4 contradict each other.

  • 4.1 defines 1 EFTS as 100 credits.
  • 5.4 defines 1 EFTS as 120 credits.

This bizarre situation is as a result of a well-meaning but flawed policy change designed to deliver 20% more funding to YG providers. However, in practice it will significantly reduce funding for certain YG providers – especially the more successful. I know of one case where it could result in a cut of nearly 60%.

TEC has been promising to resolve the anomaly since December 2018 but, despite acknowledging that a solution is urgent, there has been no action.

This is where my good idea comes in. YG has been around since 2012. TEC took until 2018 to recognize that funding was insufficient. So, pending finding a way of delivering 20% more funding without disadvantaging some providers, TEC should make a one-time payment equal to 20% of the funding delivered to providers from 2012 to 2018.

After all TEC is very quick to claim back overfunding. It would be only fair for TEC to make up underfunding.