Friday, 26 November 2010

What’s wrong with MIS systems?

Reading the MIS forum contributions on Edugeek, it’s interesting the number of people who are apparently happy to come up with 'workarounds' to get round the failings of their MIS.
Someone, an IT technician in a school usually, will post a query on the forum asking for help with a particular issue he’s having with the school’s MIS. The replies usually run along the lines of “No, you can’t do that on SIMS (CMIS, e1, Integris, whatever) but you can ...” there follows some description of a workaround usually ending with “Dunno why, but it seemed to work for us”. I suppose this is okay if you were paying 150 quid a year, you might expect to have to do that. But MIS systems are very expensive; I could buy a decent car for what some high schools are paying annually for their MIS. Would I be happy to pay £20k for a car, only to find that it did not, for example, do left turns and I had to ‘workaround’ that by doing three right turns? I think not. So why do schools apparently seem happy to do that with their MIS solutions? One reason is the perfectly human and understandable desire to stick with what you know and are comfortable with, foibles and all. The other reason is ... well, what is the alternative? This is a good question; all the MIS systems available from the major suppliers are all (more or less) equally expensive and each has its own particular drawbacks. So, the argument goes, you might as well stick with what you know, workarounds and all. I’m sure that these MIS systems like SIMS and CMIS were good bits of software when they were first introduced. However years of bolting bits on, adding extra functions, being worked on by a succession of different software developers have taken their toll and the software becomes less and less reliable over time. These sea changes happen slowly, not in quantum leaps, so that the shortcomings creep up slowly on data managers in schools. After a while you just get so used to a way of working that you don’t question it.

There has been a rather unfortunate tendency from MIS suppliers in recent years to try and provide a ‘complete solution’ for schools. MIS systems come complete with attendance modules, parent portals, achievement trackers, finance packages and more, usually all at extra cost. Alongside this there is the suspicion that some MIS providers contrive to make it difficult, by means of stiff licence fees and conditions, for smaller independent companies to compete in this ‘add-on’ market. Frequent changes and updates to the MIS software also serve to make things difficult for the small provider; though to be fair, the situation is complicated by the continuous stream of demands coming out of the DfE. Constantly having to update MIS systems to accommodate these statutory requirements has been cited as being one of the reasons for them being so expensive. Schools vary so much in size and character that it is unlikely that the solutions bundled with the MIS system will be flexible enough to provide exactly what each school wants and needs. This is why we need to small, independent suppliers who can fill these niches with bespoke products. Unfortunately, the tendency for MIS providers to want to dominate the whole supply chain is stifling this market.

Increasingly, schools are beginning to question this status quo and are looking to alternative solutions. This has been accelerated by the growing concern about possible financial cutbacks. There are some other commercially available MIS systems around, but they tend to be so poorly featured that they are not really suited to use in a big secondary school. Many fill a niche market, providing for small independent and private schools. There are some open source (OS) solutions available; but data managers in schools tend to be wary of these, citing lack of support, documentation, inter-connectivity and training as being some of the reasons for not using them. There is also the old adage ‘nobody ever got sacked for buying IBM’. Bring that into this context and it becomes nobody ever got sacked for buying SIMS. It’s a safe choice, Capita is not likely to go bust anytime soon and there is a big support base available, both formal and informal. So there is a gap in the market for a fully featured, reliable, simple, low cost, inter-connective MIS system for schools. Any takers?

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