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Nov 5, 2010

The Pen and Line case

Here is a great case study for an organization development course. This is, of course, an imaginary scenario.

A new Dean comes to a School that has decided to adopt a new electronic portfolio management system called Pen and Line (P&L). This is a second attempt for the School – the first one failed because the previous provider went bankrupt. The School has gone through a thorough process this time, evaluating several commercial providers, and the committee has unanimously selected P&L. It seems to have everything one may need for building a School-wide assessment system, with some great reporting features. Although no one had any illusions about the time investments into learning and customizing the system, the long-term benefits seemed potentially very high. Having a unified assessment database with multiple users would eventually save a lot of time and human resources. The Dean, however, still had nightmares from similar efforts at another institution and with a different commercial provider, that took five years instead of one year, and still did not provide an adequate solution.

Projecting too much from previous experiences is never a good idea, because it substitutes actual history of an organization with one’s fantasy; the fantasy will eventually collide with reality. After some internal debate, he admitted being wrong, delegated authority to a small but very capable implementation committee, and just asked them to go slow and begin with a small scale pilot.

There would be no story, if it went reasonably well. In a healthy organization, leaders should be told to back off, and to delegate; people should be able to correct each other’s mistakes. However, the committee, initially very enthusiastic about the platform, started to discover problems – none of them separately seemed too big, but together they just reached the level when the group should start worrying. It is probably worth it for students to pay $80-90 for a product that works well, but is it for a product that does not? Now, this is not a proof the Dean was right all along; no one had the understanding of the system, and he certainly had no greater knowledge than anyone else. The difference between stupidity and an accurate prediction is often explained by random chance.

Here are some problems: there does not seem to be way, for example, to enter lesson observation evaluations without creating an individual account for each cooperating teacher, and bringing them on campus for training. Given the significant size of the program, and very fluid cooperating teachers’ body, this would mean committing vast resources, and possibly causing a lot of frustration. There is no way to use evaluation instruments other than rubrics. There is no way to combine 5-scal rubric with a 2-scale rubric. The company’s customer support is very weak, documentation almost non-existent, which only means the School should hire someone to develop all these. Some of the features were never piloted before, so the School is actually providing an important field testing for the company, for free. However, let us not forget the strengths: the program has a great data reporting capabilities; it looks and feels modern, sophisticated, the company behind it seems to be stable, and there is a chance the bugs will be fixed at some time in the future.

There are two very important complicating factors:

No one knows of a much better provider. Adopting any other system may mean throwing away all the precious P&L expertise already acquired, only to buy into another product that may have a different set, but perhaps the same number of problems. Going back to paper and pencil with manual data entry is almost unthinkable – not because it is necessarily more expensive, but just because it would project a wrong image to students and partner schools. It is really going backward in the digital age. There is another – intermediary – solution, with using a free product that is not as sophisticated, especially with respect to reporting. It would meet most of data collection needs, but does not offer a true portfolio option (which could be easily shared with the world). In other words, none of the alternatives are perfect or risk-free. 
Some faculty and programs took the implementation plan very seriously, and already invested their time in P&L. The product works well for smaller programs, and very well for individual classes. What is more important, the early adopters told their students to buy the product, motivating the request by the impending School-wide implementation. However, there is another group of faculty that do not see the need for the new system, feel they were not consulted enough about adopting it in the first place, and are generally tired and simply do not want yet another darn thing to learn. This happens to be a particularly difficult year, because it is the accreditation report writing season. The demands on faculty time are pushed to the limit; a revolt of a sort is not out of the question. The School leadership is now stuck in an unpleasant situation where either of the two decisions – to go ahead and eat the cost whatever it is, or to pull the plug on P&L – is guaranteed to offend and alienate someone. There is probably a group in between that does not care one way or another. However, this is not about the numbers. The early adopters are a very important group – they try things out, they take risk, they support the School’s initiatives. How can you afford to alienate them, considering they have not done anything wrong, other than trusting you? The active resisters are also a very important group; they keep the organization healthy by providing pushback and keeping the bureaucratic expansion in check. Those two are what ecologists call “critical species:” not necessarily most numerous, but a system falls apart without them. 
The case study question for an aspiring manager/leader: what would you do? Keep in mind the group dynamic question: how much of an active role can the Dean play, considering he made a mistake of projecting past experiences and micromanaging once already? Who should decide and how? How does one make a decision in the absence of hard evidence? Consider group dynamics within the leadership group and between the leadership and all other faculty groups, with their diverse interests and cultures.

Analyze the situation and find a balanced solution. Consider general options below, but seek other creative options:
  1. Commit to the product unquestionably, and implement as soon as feasible. Benefits: reduces the gap in implementation, provides stability for the early adopters, and enhances credibility of the office. Risks: What is the level of problems with the product will turn out so high that we cannot sustain it long-term anyway? We simply do not know the extent of challenges yet. 
  2. Pull the plug now; let programs use the P&L if they chose to, but switch to the intermediary no-frills-product for all School-wide data needs. Benefits: we know it can work, and it is free to students. Risks: The no-frills product may also have bugs; it still requires development and testing, and it will never get to a true portfolio level. Another risk: it is plain embarrassing to do that; we look like fools. 
  3. Delay full implementation, and continue piloting for at least another semester. Alternatively, ask the early adopters to pilot, wait with everyone else. Advantages: We will better understand the extent of the problems and feasibility of solutions; learn about the cost of implementation. Risks: We’re getting deeper into the product without guaranteeing that it will be fully adopted. This maybe just an unacceptable risk for the early adopters. It also creates a disincentive for active resisters – they may never believe us again. I n addition, keeping data in different places defies the entire intent of the project: creation a single data management system.
Isn’t this an interesting case? I bet someone can come up with a simple and elegant solution, which will keep everyone happy and yet provide the School with a useable, flexible, and modern data collection and reporting system. If you want to try, submit your comment here – signed or anonymous. The comments are moderated, because of spam robots, but all relevant ones will appear within a day.


  1. I'd vote for full implementation, but a very gradual full implementation. Maybe, everyone in after three years.

    New technologies, in practice, are not learned at 2 hour workshops. They are learned, bit by bit, by walking over the next office and asking "Is there a way to do this?"

    This requires a certain critical mass of people who know how things work (early adopters), and allows those who are either skeptical or overwhelmed to enter slowly, after others have checked to see if it works, and how.

    I agree that we really have no choice to move away from pen and paper. We are starting to look out of touch in the eyes of students and partners, In the long run, a reputation for technological backwardness could hurt a LOT.

    Students, after all, already have to deal with the admissions process. But we can tackle that next week.

    Rudolf Kraus

  2. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Great journey and experience!