• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Title

When systems aren't systemic

Greenback U. has lots of administrative information systems. It used to have more -- before last decade's ERP implementation -- but it still has quite a number. Energy management systems. Student information systems. Building access systems. Employee information systems. Library information systems. Space management systems. Parking management systems. The list goes on.

April 8, 2009
 
 

Greenback U. has lots of administrative information systems. It used to have more -- before last decade's ERP implementation -- but it still has quite a number. Energy management systems. Student information systems. Building access systems. Employee information systems. Library information systems. Space management systems. Parking management systems. The list goes on.

Each of these information systems ("applications") was designed and implemented -- at least originally -- with the needs of a specific user community in mind. The ERP project replaced several (but by no means all) of the larger ones with a technically integrated set of modules, but Greenback's implementation of each module focused almost exclusively on the needs of the users of the "legacy" application being replaced. (FWIW, I suspect we're far from alone in that regard.) Net result: some technical integration, but less real procedural or informational integration/consistency.

So, along comes the sustainability initiative, and for (at least in many cases) the first time, a single user needs to combine data from numerous applications in ways that no one had ever anticipated. Each piece of data relates to a portion of the institution, and the portions fit together to make a whole, but the data doesn't fit together particularly well. Consistency and complete accuracy were never an issue before, so (when no one was looking) they went away.

Cases in point:

The parking management system was used to assign parking permits, bill for parking permits, issue parking citations and collect parking violation fees. It's supposed to collect make/model/year information, but the parking office never cared about that, so it didn't really get done. When you get a permit for a new vehicle, you have to show the DMV registration certificate, but specific registration information is never entered into the system. Asked what mix of vehicles is registered for campus students, faculty or staff, the parking office has no idea. They never needed to know that before.

The space management system is used to inventory offices, classrooms, hallways, staircases, closets, elevators. Each "room" (and the term is used very loosely) has a unique identifier, and that identifier is supposed to tie to the blueprints of each building on campus. But the blueprints are changed more readily than is the space management information, so they're often out of sync. And many of those rooms -- the physical structures, not lines on paper somewhere -- have identifying numbers on signs by their doorways. If the identifying number on the door sign happens to match the identifying number in the space management system, it's sheerly by coincidence. The people who work in those spaces use one numbering scheme, the people who "manage" those spaces use another. It hasn't been a problem in the past.

And energy management/building operations is at least that bad. For historic reasons of economy, Greenback has relatively few energy (electric/gas/steam) meters for a campus its size. That is to say, we know how much energy we use on the campus as a whole, but we can't trace usage to any specific location, often not even to a specific building. We have highly granular control of the various bits of heating and cooling infrastructure, but if we tweak the building operations with intent to make them more efficient, we usually have no way to measure and verify the effect achieved.

In all of these cases and more, "management" is something of a misnomer. "Administration" might be closer to the mark, but even use of that term is somewhat generous.

My problem is that, for Greenback to achieve carbon neutrality, it needs to implement systemic change. And to implement systemic change, the campus has to be managed on a consistent -- even if not on a fully integrated -- basis. We need to be able to make efficiency improvements, and to measure the impact achieved. We need to be able to ask people how they use a specific room in a specific building, and know that the answer they give relates to the room we thought we were asking about. We need to be able to design parking (or no-parking) incentives, and make reasonable estimates of the efficiencies achieved -- not just the revenue generated or lost.

It's ironic that much of the push-back to any sort of sustainability effort on campus is phrased in terms of the sustainable solution costing more or being somehow less economical. The truth is that the status quo almost certainly isn't particularly economical or cost-effective; I say "almost certainly" because, in the absence of meaningful management information, no one can absolutely prove it one way or the other.

If we did a better job of managing our physical campus, we could demonstrate that many proposed sustainability projects are very attractive investments. But the truth is that if we did a better job of managing our physical campus, many of those projects which are now labeled "sustainability" would have been done a long time ago. More on that, later.

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