Tales from the Road: After Disaster, Versatrans Helped Joplin Schools Adapt to Ever-Changing Needs

I’ve told stories of client successes here on the Tyler K-12 Viewpoints blog before, but I’ve never had the opportunity to tell a story quite like this one before.

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, a tornado that, at its maximum, grew to be nearly one mile wide, struck the city of Joplin, Missouri. Nearly 25 percent of the city was destroyed by the tornado, and 75 percent of the city reported damage. Joplin Schools sustained loss and damage to several of their schools, and the high school was damaged beyond repair. The high school was relocated to a temporary facility beginning in the 2011-2012 school year.

The Joplin Schools transportation program has been using the Versatrans transportation management suite to facilitate their routing since 2004. While, of course, no technology could provide a “solution” to the effects of the tornado, Versatrans was useful to the district in responding to the disaster. They did not need to implement any specific disaster recovery software, but were able to continue using the same program they had for years, in a new way.

Take a look at this video, which tells the story of the bravery of the Joplin Schools transportation staff as they responded to the disaster, and their resiliency as they adapted to challenges during the recovery. I know I speak for everyone here at Tyler Technologies when I say that I am humbled by the knowledge that our Versatrans software played even a small role in helping Joplin in its recovery.

Leadership Is IN You

Have you ever met someone you respected from the very moment you met them? Have you ever experienced the opposite? Let’s take a moment to compare those two experiences and examine what made those situations different.

I like to think that it comes down to two key traits: authenticity and purpose.

This blog post is for everyone, not just people who manage other people. Let’s dig in…

Authenticity
Authenticity boils right down to being real. Being true to who you are and allowing others to actually see that. People want to know what makes you tick, what motivates you and what you are passionate about. We can all detect someone who is insincere a mile away. And contrary to what traditional thinking may dictate, being real, being vulnerable and letting people get to know the real you is perhaps the best way to establish trust. Even if they don’t like something about you, they at least know who and what they are dealing with. People who don’t know you are people who spend a lot of time making assumptions, drawing their own conclusions and that fear, uncertainty and doubt about a manager or even a coworker can have an incredibly negative effect on productivity and morale.

Purpose
Why do you do what you do? Do you love your job, or are you showing up and going through the motions just so you can make it through the day and go home? Do you come to work intent on making a name for yourself and ensuring that you are viewed in a positive light by others? Alternately, are you focused on the positive impact your work has on others? Do you find joy in getting kids to school and back home safely? Are you energized when you see someone else doing a good job? Or are you focused on yourself, your day, your job, your advancement, your success? Here’s one of the greatest secrets of effective leadership, and it boils down to one word: others. If you focus on the well-being of others, that selflessness will come back to you in dividends.

This applies to everyone!
Notice that I have made no distinctions here between people who manage other people and people who work as individual contributors on a team. That’s because we all have the capacity to be leaders. That is to say, the way that we approach our jobs, and our lives in general, can have an immediate, direct impact on others, no matter what our position is.

How many times have you encountered a dysfunctional team and wondered just where they went wrong? Perhaps the poor behaviors are coming from the team manager directly. I think that more often, one of the team members is the source of the poor attitude and morale. That person just isn’t stepping up and being a leader. Of course, in those cases, I believe that the team’s manager still shares in the responsibility for the behavior of that team, because it’s the manager who is tolerating the poor behavior and negative influencers.

Now think of a highly productive team: they may have a great manager, but it’s likely that what makes that manager great is that his or her focus is on building the right team composed of people who themselves have positive leadership qualities, such as prioritizing the success over the team above their own.

Leadership is in all of us
If great leadership is about caring for others and prioritizing their needs over your own, then one could argue that great leadership is a matter of heart. What is in your heart? Are you authentically yourself? What your sense of purpose? Are you serving others or are you serving yourself? Once your heart is in the right place, leadership suddenly becomes a great deal more natural and effective, and it doesn’t matter if you are a director, a manager, a supervisor, team lead or team member. Just as sure as you have a heart, so too is leadership IN you.

Agree or disagree? Share your experience here!

Georgia District Shows How They Use Data Analytics

Recently we here at Tyler Technologies were contacted by one of our clients, Barrow County School System in Georgia, letting us know that they had done something pretty incredible. They use our data analytics program, Tyler Pulse, and they found it so useful that they decided to create their own client testimonial video talking about their positive experience with it.

We are beyond delighted with this video, firstly because we are so glad that Barrow County School System has been well-served by our products. But also because this is a great example of a district communicating about the solutions they’ve implemented and sharing their success with the community. Here on the K-12 Viewpoints Blog, we always try to keep our posts informative and useful, and we don’t focus too much on our own products. This video provides a real-world example of a district implementing a solution that works for them, and which could work for others. When we see how our peers are solving problems we can draw on that example and make a more informed decision down the road. In that way, we feel that this video will be useful to you.

You can decide for yourself, of course. The video is embedded below. Take a look!

Efficiency versus Effectiveness

I recently witnessed a fascinating discussion at a conference that has had me thinking ever since. A K-12 support professional stated that it was her responsibility to be as effective as possible when providing services for students in support of their educational goals. A peer immediately responded that he felt that it was his duty to support the educational process as efficiently as possible. What was the difference between these two positions and who was right?

The Google definition of effective is “successful in producing a desired or intended result.” The definition of efficient is “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Two similar adjectives, but two very different concepts in relation to our work.

Effectiveness is a strategic goal; efficiency is a tactical goal.

As budgets crumble, we spend a lot of time in K-12 lately talking about efficiency. But what if we are being efficient at something that is not effective? How does that benefit students?

Some examples of efficiency versus effectiveness include:

  • The national norm is to start high schools on the first tier of bell times because this is the most efficient in terms of busing. But is this effective in terms of a teenager’s learning abilities?
  • We hear “keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible” in practically every budget discussion these days. But do service cuts in the name of efficiency negatively affect a student’s full education experience? And could that possibly impact the effectiveness of their schooling?
  • At my former district there was an open enrollment policy, where children were able to apply to every school in the district. Transportation was provided based on distance eligibility, and it was my job to make sure that this transportation ran as efficiently as possible. But the district never studied whether or not this type of student assignment plan was effective in terms of student achievement.

The single most important characteristic of effectiveness is that it needs to answer the “So what?” question. In the above example, district leadership could boast that a student can attend any school in the district. The follow up to this statement should be, “So what?” Does this lead to higher student achievement? Perhaps so, but without analysis this is just a guess.

The most important “So what?” of K-12 education is student achievement. District leadership needs to be able to measure student achievement by individual characteristics and program types so that the most effective practices can be defined and advanced. Once the decision-makers determine which efforts best support student achievement, then support services can focus on delivering these efforts as efficiently as possible.

True efficiency can only start after true effectiveness is determined. We are just spinning our wheels if we are being efficient at something that is not effective. The clock is always ticking for our students and we can’t afford to be following ineffective practices, no matter how efficiently we can do them. Our students don’t have time for us to be guessing about their future.

District Gets Kindergartners on the Right Bus: Tales from the Road

Recently, at Tyler Connect, I was lucky enough to meet with many more of Tyler’s clients and talk with them about the challenges they face and the success they’ve found with our products. I am always excited to hear about the innovative ways that districts are using technology to solve problems. Here’s a great story about one district that was having trouble getting kindergartners and other young students on the right bus on their first day of school.

This client told me that, over the years, they’ve dealt with challenges in their communication with bus drivers and parents. The district consistently had issues with kindergartners getting on the wrong bus on the first day of school. The client I spoke with, a router for the district, told me, “I remember when we first started working in the office we had to make hand bracelets. We typed up all the kindergartners’ names [and bus information] and created bracelets for them, but even that didn’t help because we really didn’t have lists for drivers, or the information for them to know who the children were. We did try our best to give them a list of kindergartners but frequently children would get on the wrong bus. It’s very traumatic, for the children and for their parents.”

This router had a really interesting take on this problem. She told me that the reason the district worked to find a solution wasn’t just that it was difficult for the student to discover they’ve made an error. She told me that it was “because our accountability kept increasing, and still continues to increase through the years. Parents are asking for us to have more information for them and to allow them to know where their children are and that they are getting to school safely.” I know that I’ve spoken to many student transportation workers who feel that their biggest challenge right now is in providing parents and districts with the kind of information that makes them feel that their students are safe during 100% of their ride to and from school.

So the district took steps to improve communication. They used their software to create and print “bus cards” for each of their students. The bus cards, which are handed out at the beginning of the school year, tell each student which bus they will ride, and when and where they will be picked up and dropped off. Drivers are provided with updated lists of the same information. And the district also gave district front office staff the ability to view student bus stop data. If a student has a question, the front office does not have to call the transportation office to find the answer. They can access the information themselves, and even hand-write a new bus card if a replacement is needed.

Since implementing this program, the district has seen huge improvement in communication with students, parents, drivers and staff. This client told me that the bus cards have had a huge impact: “The teacher knows, the parent knows, the bus driver, everyone knows exactly where that student is to be at any given time. This makes for a much safer ride for our children. And it really helps with the behaviors on the bus. Bus drivers know who their kids are — they get to know them much more quickly because they’re always checking those bus cards and looking at them — and I think they have much better communication with the parents because of it.”

It’s great to know that these students are safe, secure, and won’t have any embarrassing stories to tell about how they never made it home after their first day of school!

Are You Ready for Disaster?

“The server is down.”

“We should be back up shortly.”

Several hours later: “Sorry for the inconvenience, the server is now back online.”

You might be thinking that an outage measured in hours is too long, and you would be right. But what if hours turned into days, or even weeks? Our dependency on technology is increasing every day, meaning that the loss of these programs can bring our work to a screeching halt. This may not be a reality we particularly want to accept, but it is a simple fact of our everyday life.

I recently had the honor of presenting a session at Tyler Connect about the benefits of SaaS, or Software as a Service. My intent is not to repeat that presentation here, but rather to extract an important concept from that presentation and ask you a question. The concept is Disaster Recovery. The question is: do you have a plan?

Having a background in the Information Technology field, I have just about seen it all. I have seen state-of-the-art data centers with redundant computer hardware, power, connectivity, cooling and both battery and generator backup, located in bunkers that could withstand World War III. I’ve also seen business critical applications running on a ten year old PC sitting under a desk in someone’s office among the dust bunnies — the single, tiny little cooling fan screaming in agony to keep the processor from burning up and setting off the sprinkler system. I’ve even known a PC to burn up and summon the local fire department!

Many of our clients are responsible for their own computer servers. Several have servers located right in the Transportation office. This presents unique challenges, because there is a high likelihood that servers located in Transportation do not have an acceptable amount of redundancy or backup systems in place to protect equipment from disaster or to quickly recover from one.

Some clients are fortunate enough to have their servers housed in a data center managed by district Information Technology staff. But even though this might seem like a safe solution, I have to ask: do they have a plan? Some IT offices do…and some don’t. Some may have a plan but have not tested it recently, if ever. Even with a data center, you may still be at risk of experiencing some catastrophic loss of the facilities hosting your applications and data and have absolutely no known means of getting your operation back up and running. Not just quickly, but at all!

The point is this: everyone is starting from a different point when it comes to data recovery. And different amounts of thought and resources can go into your disaster recovery plan. But we all have to think about it. Do you have a plan for restoring your critical computer systems and applications (even the phones or your radio system) if you experienced a real disaster? Think about how bad it is when you have to deal with those little server outages that last a few hours. Now think about that, compared to a fire, flood or tornado that could literally, physically take out your facilities.

So what is your or your district’s plan? How will you recover and how quickly could you recover? Please take a moment to share your experience here and inspire others to dust off, update, test — or perhaps create — their plan!

Big Ideas Delivered at Connect 2014

Connect 2014 just concluded on April 16th in San Antonio, Texas. It was by far Tyler’s biggest conference ever, with over 3,000 clients, 500 staffers and a cadre of industry expert partners. The theme of the conference was “Big Ideas, Delivered” and I believe all in attendance would agree that that promise was fulfilled.

The conference began with opening sessions for both Tyler as a whole and for the individual products, including the Versatrans suite in particular, to share the good news on where we’ve been and where we are going. We were greatly honored at the Tyler opening session by a personal welcome from the justifiably proud Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro. Tyler leadership then shared their vision for the future with attendees.

The Versatrans sessions, which I participated in, included the following tracks:

  • Technology — helping users keep up with the ever-changing world and the tools available to them
  • Training — including everything from new user sessions to advanced tips and tricks for the veterans
  • GPS — a look at the rapid growth and utility of this technology
  • Best practices — with a special focus on service and efficiency
  • Resource room — where attendees could get individual assistance from Versatrans staff
  • Future product improvements — where users could share their suggestions and insights

Set up conveniently so that attendees had to pass it every time they entered or left the facility was the Tyler Community lounge, emphasizing the importance of this exciting new platform that has been growing by leaps and bounds. Just past the Community Lounge was the exhibitor area where Tyler partners shared their expertise with attendees. Attendees were also afforded the opportunity to earn Continuing Professional Education credits for a number of session offerings.

But all work and no play makes for a dull conference. I think all would agree that they took great care of us. The Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center was a wonderful facility, giving truth to the legend that everything is bigger in Texas. Its location was ideal, right in the heart of beautiful downtown San Antonio, on the River Walk and next door to the historic Alamo. We were treated to delicious food with a local flavor, watching with awe how the convention center staff could deliver sit down meals for 3,500 folks at a time without a hitch. Meal seating was organized by product groups, facilitating informal connections and sharing throughout the conference.

Tuesday night was dubbed “The Big Event,” with entertainment to match most tastes. From a rollicking piano bar simulation to authentic Texas swing provided by national recording artists “Asleep at the Wheel,” attendees got a chance to put on their jeans, kick up their heels and let their hair down for a couple of hours. The evening even included an “all for fun” version of a night on the town in Las Vegas.

But without question, the biggest idea delivered at Connect 2014 was the chance to make new friends and forge important new connections. That is the true and enduring value of our commitment to events such as Connect.

See you at Connect 2015 in Atlanta!

Isn’t It About Time We Saw Your Blog?

We live in a new age, what one might call the age of communication. The line between our physical lives and our virtual lives has disappeared. Every time we step away from our desktop computer we have our portable computer (aka our smart phone) in our hands the very next moment.

Content is king in this age of communication. Some of us can develop content. Some of us can share content. Some of us are consumers of content. Whichever way you slice it, our need for smarter, faster and better content grows by the day.

Joining the blogger ranks is a way for you to stand out in this new age. Blogging will help you develop your writing skills, a talent that will serve you extremely well professionally. Those who can communicate effectively are an invaluable resource for any organization. Blogging will enable you to shape and influence your peers. What do you really care about? What do you think about this issue? Where do you think your industry should be headed? Blogging will give you a platform.

Where to publish your blogs? LinkedIn is a great place to start. How about submitting your blogs to the trade magazines in your industry? Our own Tyler Community platform offers a terrific opportunity to share with your colleagues. WordPress is perhaps the best known of the many blog sites that provide a venue for your thoughts.

Next you have to actually write the blog. My process is as follows:

  • Ideas can pop up at any time. A quick jot of the main concept of the idea and it will be ready for further development when you are. When it is time to write I review my list and select the topic that best captures my interest at that moment.
  • My first step is to get as many ideas as I can written down. I use a brainstorming approach in this step, trying not to filter out anything that might be useful to the finished product. I do this step using a “mind map” app on my tablet. A mind map is a user friendly visual diagram of an outline. I put all my thoughts into the mind map as single entries and then move them up, down or sideways as I start to put the narrative together.
  • It is important to think of the structure of your blog. It needs to have an introduction that will make your reader want to continue, a body that develops your point, and a closing takeaway that makes your point memorable.
  • I then find it very helpful to let my draft sit for at least a few hours, or most commonly overnight. I begin again for the final edit the next day with a fresh eye and often better insight into making it great.
  • Lastly, share your draft with a trusted editor (friend, colleague, spouse). Being open to suggestions before we publish can be a lifesaver. Now you are ready to get your blog out there.
  • The final step is the most important — repeat! This is not a one-time exercise but rather a commitment to a regular and productive writing schedule. Like any acquired skill, the more we do it the better we become.

We are waiting anxiously to hear what you think.

To Be or Not to Be a Project? Part Two

In my last post, I discussed the difference between operational functions and projects. If you haven’t read that post yet, please do before continuing on here where I will be discussing project methodology.

Once something is defined as a project, you must recognize and understand the most effective approach you should take before you can move forward with the task itself. A defined methodology helps to keep the project on track (schedule, budget, scope, and quality). It also provides a structure to follow throughout the life of the project, and can be applied to future projects. In this post we will look at the basics of a traditional approach to managing a project.

The Project Management Institute (PMI®), a globally recognized leader in project management, identifies five essential process groups for every project:[1]

1.       Initiating
Initiating is the process of identifying the purpose, establishing objectives, identifying the stakeholders and receiving authorization to proceed with the project or phase.

2.       Planning
Planning contains the most components of all the processes and is a critical step in the overall success of the project or phase. The scope needs to be defined in detail. Once the scope has been defined, the list of tasks needs to be created and resources need to be identified. Budget and costs then need to be determined and planned for all project activities. An effective communication plan needs to be established during this phase. Throughout the planning process, risks should be identified and analyzed. In addition, it is important to develop a plan to effectively manage stakeholder needs and expectations.

3.       Executing
Executing is the process of taking action on the planned activities. This involves the coordination of people and resources to complete defined tasks. Managing communications, procurement, and stakeholder engagement are all part of the executing process group.

4.       Monitoring & Controlling
Monitoring & Controlling is the process of making sure that the project is staying on schedule, within scope, within budget and meeting defined quality levels. Throughout this process it is important to make sure communication is occurring as planned, risks are being tracked and addressed, and procurement of resources is staying within planned constraints. If adjustments need to be made for any activity, then those would go back to the Executing process to complete and repeat the process between Monitoring & Controlling and Executing as needed.

5.       Closing
Closing is the final step of any project or phase, which includes conducting “lessons learned” in order to improve project performance in the future. Concluding all closing activities for procurements and any other outstanding tasks is also part of this process.

These processes apply to the project as a whole as well as the different phases of the project. How much time and effort is spent in each process will depend on the scale and scope of the project or phase, however each is an important part to the overall management of any project.

Demands on school districts continue to increase and change is inevitable. Recognizing the difference between what is a project and what is not helps us understand what approach to take to manage the related activities. Using recognized and proven methods for projects creates a standard which everyone can follow and measure their work against. Managing the project using that standard is the key to project success.

For more information regarding project management and project related articles, check out the Project Management Institute’s (PMI®) website at www.pmi.org.

SOURCES:

[1]Project management body of knowledge (5th Ed.). (2013). Newtown, PA: Project Management Institute [PMI].

To Be or Not to Be a Project? Part One

School districts are often faced with numerous tasks which must be carried out over significant periods of time, some accomplished throughout the year and some even carrying over several years. In this post and in follow up posts I will be going over some ways that you can tackle tasks like these, including some best practices, methodology and techniques that can be scaled to meet any objective.

The first step is to know and understand the difference between operational functions and projects. Essentially, you should ask yourself, is this task simply something that happens continuously as an integral part of running a district? If so, it is probably an operational function.

What makes a project different? First, let’s define what a project is and go over some examples of projects in a school district. A project meets the following criteria:[1]

  • Temporary; has a defined beginning and end
  • Defined scope and resources
  • Unique set of operations to meet a specific objective (not a routine operation)

When thinking about some examples in school districts of what would be considered a project, look at the criteria above and see if it meets all of them. In my school district experience, boundary planning is an excellent example of a project. Boundary planning can mean opening new schools, balancing student population among schools and even closing schools.

This boundary planning process is definitely a temporary event and has a stated beginning and end. Scope and resources are defined based on the district’s needs. It is unique, because it is meeting a specific objective or set of objectives, and is not a routine operation.

Other examples in school districts that would fall into the definition would be the following:

  • Upgrading the phone system across the district
  • Reconfiguration of offices or classrooms
  • Implementation of new software (i.e. payroll system, student information system, transportation routing system)
  • Changing bell times

Sometimes it is easy to be confused about whether an event is unique or not. Although changing bell times will have a permanent result in the district, the process of determining new bell times is only temporary. This task is unique because it is meeting a new objective.

Payroll is a great example of something which is sometimes a project and sometimes an operational function. Payroll processing is an operational function because it is repeated regularly and has no defined beginning and end. However, the process of selecting and implementing a payroll system would be a project.

Of course, these are some larger examples of projects, and you will encounter smaller projects as well which may be less formal. When you receive an assignment, use the criteria above to help identify what it is that you’re dealing with. If you determine that a particular task or job is a project, then approaching it with defined methodology will set the stage for the project to be successful. We’ll discuss that methodology in my next post.

SOURCES:

[1]Project management body of knowledge (5th Ed.). (2013). Newtown, PA: Project Management Institute [PMI].