University
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

How AFAS led to chaos

10.6 million euros worth of frustration

A new software system was supposed to make administrative tasks at the UG simpler and clearer. Nine months after its implementation, people are using old-fashioned Excel sheets and calling the helpline non-stop. ‘It would have been a difficult transition regardless.’


Giulia Fabrizi

Door Giulia Fabrizi

16 September om 11:49 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 September 2020
om 11:49 uur.
Giulia Fabrizi

By Giulia Fabrizi

September 16 at 11:49 AM.
Last modified on September 16, 2020
at 11:49 AM.
Giulia Fabrizi

Giulia Fabrizi

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‘‘All we can do is report the problem and hope it gets fixed’, says one research technician. ‘And that someone at least understands what you mean.’

‘I’ve been calling the helpline for a week and the phone number hasn’t been working. So yeah, I’m frustrated’, says a professor.

‘For the first few weeks, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but after three weeks I couldn’t handle it anymore. I usually enjoy going to work, but now I’d rather stay home’, a research analyst says.

‘The more people I see, the worse off everyone is’, says a secretary.

It’s as though you traded a great set of tools for kid’s tools

Saddening and frustrating; that’s how employees described the situation at the university at the start of 2020. And this was before everyone started working online because of the coronavirus pandemic. They were dealing with the introduction of AFAS, the university-wide change to an integrated software system for payroll, finances, personnel management, and purchasing. It was intended to make things run smoother, save money, and to make things clearer and simpler for employees.

‘It’s as though you had this great set of tools that was working just fine and you replaced it with kid’s tools that somehow also cost you all the money you had’, the research technician says in an attempt to put his frustration into words. Instead of clarity and simplicity, AFAS led to uncertainty and difficulties.

Disheartening

Everyone, from professors to PhD students, business coordinators to secretaries, and FSE to the arts department, was suddenly no longer able to perform even the most basic of tasks. PhD students were unable to order materials. ‘I’m currently the one ordering stuff for my research group’, the research technician told UKrant in January, ‘but not every department has that option. Every time an order fails or we’re not sure it went through, we run an unnecessary risk of delays.’

The project team Best Practice 2020, responsible for the implementation of the new system, kept promising that things would get better by March 1. But six months later, everything is still a mess.

‘We stopped keeping track of everything that annoyed us’, says one educational coordinator. ‘Not because we stopped being annoyed, but because it was just so disheartening and it took time that we didn’t have. At the heart of our frustration lies the fact that everyone just kept denying that was even a problem. All those employees across faculties who practically went crazy encountering the same problems over and over again were simply being ignored.’

How could this have happened?

Cheaper and easier

When the board of directors contracted Dutch family company AFAS to design the new software system in January 2019, they didn’t intend to make it maddening or frustrating.

The board simply wanted to make operations management cheaper and easier. The university had been using all these different systems for financing, payroll, personnel matters, and purchasing. These systems were also outdated, and it was almost impossible to update them. A single, university-wide system would also facilitate the faculties working together.

We stopped keeping track of everything that annoyed us

AFAS, which had experience with these kinds of systems for businesses, cities, and university medical centres including the UMCG, seemed like the perfect candidate to get the job done in under two years. 

There was just one little problem: AFAS software had never been used at a university.

None of the parties involved thought this would be a problem, though. AFAS promised to spend a year implementing the new system behind the scenes while the university was still using its old programmes and to be on hand for another year for maintenance and to help with any issues that emerged.

Growing concerns

The plan seemed foolproof. Many employees say everything would have been fine if the board had just listened to the concerns voiced by the people directly involved. Not only were people worried, but their concerns only got bigger as the official go/no-go moment in December grew near.

One of the parties voicing their concerns was the FSE faculty board. In November, they addressed the board of directors. In December, they talked to UKrant. The faculty board said there were unanswered questions about the practical usage of the system and that it was unclear whether crucial parts would actually work. ‘In order to ensure this, we’d need a proper beta release that we could test for a few months. But we never had one’, said then managing director Dick Veldhuis.

Nevertheless, the board of directors officially ordered the system rollout for January 1, 2020.

Was this a mistake?

Vested interest

Project manager Erwin Boelens says the system was definitely tested before it was implemented. ‘An external partner tested whether the system had been built to our specifications. In December, it was tested by a few dozen end users. Based on that and other factors, the board decided to okay the implementation.’

But, as Boelens already explained in December of 2019, there was a vested interest in the early rollout. An extensive beta release of a few months, as per the FSE suggestion, would have delayed implementation by a whole year. That’s because payroll administration can only be changed once a year: in January. ‘Because of taxes and accounting, you can’t work in multiple systems at once.’

Normally, I take care of everything, but I don’t have access to anything right now

Another year of having to pay for licences and any updates also wouldn’t have been cheap. And while the system test results were the main impetus for the board’s okay in December, it can’t be ruled out that the extra costs were a factor in the board’s decision.

Off the rails

And so everything went off the rails in January. ‘There’s no button that lets people delegate tasks to us’, the secretary told UKrant at the time. ‘Professors are already overworked. Normally, I’m the one that takes care of everything: mutations that need to go to HR, approval for research spending, the professors’ schedule. All they have to do is check and sign it. But I don’t have access to anything right now.’

Business coordinators no longer had an overview of how much money was spent on which projects. ‘I have no idea what’s going on right now. Sure, they’re working on an additional tool’, said one of them. ‘But when will that be finished? I have to manually check every single transaction this month. That is, if we can even extract them from the system, since there are issues linking orders to their corresponding funds.’

The project team was overrun with questions and complaints. A hotline was set up so that employees could reach the helpdesk directly. But the hotline wasn’t working either that first week. The project team set up extra sessions to explain to people how everything worked. ‘Those were not great’, the secretary said. ‘They couldn’t answer any of our task-specific questions. They were writing down more questions than they had answers to.’

Valley of despair

The first month was, to put it mildly, a disaster, and the second month did not improve things. The UG was in the ‘valley of despair’ – the absolute low point of the mess around implementing the new system, Boelens explained at the time. But he made a promise: by March, it would all be over.

But then the corona pandemic struck.

Was this a blessing in disguise? Faculties like FSE, which order a lot of resources for lab experiments, were no longer doing that through the system. It would have been a great opportunity to quickly fix some parts of AFAS, like the purchasing system.

If we’d done more extensive testing, people would have been less frustrated

‘To be honest, that’s what I thought would happen’, says Boelens. ‘I thought we’d go from putting out fires to fixing the root of the problems, but we didn’t do anything of the sort. People were still expected to use the system at home, which meant we kept getting the same numbers of complaints.’

Now, nine months later, people still don’t know how everything works. Controllers are using old-fashioned Excel spreadsheets to create financial overviews. Boelens says they’re still working on a dedicated dashboard. Administrative staff is coming up with makeshift solutions to stay up to date with mutations in personnel files. Professors give their account passwords to their secretaries so they can keep up with their day-to-day tasks. But, says Boelens, ‘we’ll be rolling out the first plateau towards the end of year, which includes optimalisation.’

Acceptance

He’s not sure an extensive test version would have changed anything. ‘Listen, it would have been a difficult transition regardless. That’s just what happens if you’ve been working with a system for thirty years. The first year is often a struggle, but I honestly don’t think a test version would have diminished the issues we have now by more than ten percent.’

He does admit, however, that it would have improved morale. ‘I do believe that if we’d done more extensive testing, people would have been more accepting of the current situation and be less frustrated.’

But you ask the business coordinator, the secretary, or any other university employee who had to deal with ‘that AFAS mess’ on top of all the stress of corona, and they’d say that the university should have spent another year testing and developing the system and that it should have communicated better and provided proper training. Beforehand.

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