I Was Just Thinking…

Do you want to party with your ERP like it’s 1998?

I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if I go astray


On January 20, 1998 I was sitting in an auditorium at Oklahoma City Community College (OKCCC) mulling over a brand new ERP system for higher education.
oklahoma regents present buzzeo
I’ve thought about that meeting several times over the years and thought it might be helpful to share the story surrounding that experience from many years ago. It greatly influences some of my thinking on the overall issue of ERP products in higher education. Much like when we were worried about Y2K, I think we will be facing major challenges with our higher education administrative systems in 2-5 years if we don’t find better alternatives to our current options. Kuali had been my hope for an overall affordable solution within this 2-5 year time frame, but now I have very serious reservations about its potential to deliver anything viable, much less competitive with other commercial products.
It is stated in the Kuali Information Update that the Kuali Foundation does not plan to expend any resources on KFS and KC for 3-5 years, and their goal is to get enough funding so that they can undertake a complete re-write of Kuali Student with an initial target of completing the curriculum management module of the next generation SIS by July 2015 (Sounds like an ambitious goal to me.)
My prediction (might as well go out on a limb) about this stated goal is that they will get a prototype out by that July 2015 date with an even greater need to finance continued development.  This will be reminiscent of what the old Kuali Student project termed the “thin slice,” a module that had very minimal functionality but allowed the project to claim that they had delivered a product.  I do understand that newer technology and development tools accelerate development, but in spite of that unforeseen complexities always seem to challenge rollout deadlines. At that point, the marketing of an incomplete product will rise to a fever pitch. If this is what happens it will not be dissimilar to an experience I had in 1998, which is…the rest of the story (Cool, I finally got to use a Paul Harvey line).  
In the 1990’s a company called Buzzeo attempted to change the college and university ERP landscape with a next generation Java-Enabled web-based administrative computing system called Buzzeo.  
Buzzeo is futureproof technology
Buzzeo’s proposed software included all the standard tools.  It may be interesting for some to review the entire proposed offering, but I have included for reference their proposed student system which they called the SISLogix Student Information System.  It offered:

  • The first client/server, rules-based student system
  • Combined traditional student information functions with a set of Student Involvement Tools to help institutions measure and improve their effectiveness.
  • Student access to SISLogix to check their grades,
  • The ability to review course syllabi,
  • The ability to receive assignments,
  • The ability to schedule meetings
  • The ability to perform a host of other activities from a variety of access points, including the World Wide Web (Sounds like pre-SaaS to me)

Pretty cool stuff given it was 1998. We were emphasizing the term web-based at that time rather than using the trendy term of today: “cloud”. You will see “web” terminology all through the links and resource documents provided in this post.  
Conceptually the product was very appealing, as it offered the potential of making an institution’s critical administrative functions accessible to students through the web.  Oklahoma City Community College (OKCCC) began the process of moving to a new administrative computing system and committed around a million bucks to deploying this exciting new technology. I was working in the Oklahoma system at the time and our state regents for higher education looked pretty hard at this potential product based on initial evaluations done by OKCCC.  The 1998 presentation of the proposed Buzzeo solution, mentioned in the beginning of this post, was conceptually the coolest thing I had ever seen. They were the first ERP vendor to propose utilizing the browser to access the system. This could be considered a precursor to a modern SaaS/Cloud solution.
I ended up being thankful my president didn’t sign up in spite of significant pressure from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.  As documented here 8 of 26 Oklahoma institutions as well as many others nationwide signed contracts with Buzzeo. OKCCC’s million dollar expenditure and the smaller institutions which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Buzzeo dream were impacted by litigation for several years. I remember the human toll of colleagues who lost their jobs because they believed they were buying software rather than just financing development.
Yes, Buzzeo…as it turned out it was what we called at the time “Vaporware”.  They were aggressively attempting to get more schools to sign up to fund development (For those of you who have been involved with Kuali, sound familiar?)  We didn’t really know it at the time with Buzzeo, but it was imperative that more schools sign up to continue funding the development of a product that was far from complete. Several articles are available at the end of this post which document the buzz and the problems surrounding Buzzeo.
A July 2001 Honolulu Star article, Chasing Buzzeo further documents how the Oklahoma institutions and the University of Hawaii wasted millions of dollars in the quest for this next generation ERP software.
Interestingly, University of Hawaii President David Lassner, who was CIO in charge of pursuing the Buzzeo initiative, is still being chased by Buzzeo as documented here and here. The Hawaii Free Press article offers other food for thought for those considering a move to a KualiCo platform. In the 1990’s U of H, under the leadership of Lassner, committed millions of U of Hawaii dollars on a product that was under development. The decisions made in the 1990’s were called into question then and more recently as he moved into the presidency[k1] .  I have never met David Lassner but when I started digging into this story, I also found out that he has had long term connections to Kuali and has been serving on the Kuali foundation board for many years.
Just like Buzzeo needed to keep signing up schools to keep funding their product, Kuali/KualiCo needs large institutions such as the University of Maryland to commit $500,000 chunks of patient public capital in addition to human resources which will essentially help fund this startup and underwrite the development of the all new KualiCo Student.  You may be thinking “How can a public institution do this?”.  I discovered at the Kuali Days 2014 conference that the funds are committed to the Kuali Foundation and the foundation turns around and gives the money to KualiCo.  This little act of financial gymnastics apparently legitimizes this approach to using public money to fund a private, for-profit startup company – at least in the minds of those involved.
Although we were duped into thinking Buzzeo actually had a product I can’t help but think how similar the pitch is for adding partners for the development of KualiCo.  KualiCo does not claim to have a product, not even a prototype. They only offer a promise.
Maybe the most interesting thing we are seeing with KualiCo is they don’t deny that you are buying a membership and that you are not buying software; rather you are investing in an idea for development of projects such as the complete re-write of Kuali Student. Back in the old days we would have called that “Vaporware”.
Buzzeo described their software as “futureproof” technologies. In those days the buzz word was “future proof” while at Kuali Days we heard over and over about modern software stacks to build “awesome software”. I hope KualiCo doesn’t end up being Buzzeo 2.0, but it certainly looks as if it is going down in the Buzzeo path. I believe many colleges and universities, even if they are not familiar with what happened with Buzzeo back in 2001, may be very hesitant to fund a Buzzeo-like company with so many red flags, not to mention that the competitive ERP software landscape is even more fierce nowadays.   When I look at the undercapitalized KualiCo development model I cannot help having flashbacks to what I saw with Buzzeo circa 1998.
I don’t want to party like it’s 1998.
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