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Are Personal Work Projects Worthwhile?

I suppose one could argue that the term “personal work projects” is a bit of contradiction but I think you know what I mean. I’m referring to those projects that are somewhat under the radar that you feel passionate about but which can contribute to the organization.  However, they also tend to mean little/no resources and something you sometimes have to do “off the side of your desk” in addition to your regular tasks. They can be a test of your commitment and resolve.


The Opportunity Presents Itself

In the spring of 2010 when I was given the option of doing one personal project, I jumped at the chance. While I loved (and still love) the opportunity to start something new and to fail forward/upwards, I soon learned that a strong but flexible vision and a lot of help play a large part. First things first, however; since it was already well into the year, I had to make a quick decision and start executing. I settled on a developing a pilot student dashboarding club that you may have read about on SCN, primarily through Tammy Powlas’ blogs


Having been a recently reformed life-long student, I saw opportunity in reaching out to this audience especially since most of our (very good) work has primarily been with faculty. I spoke to a handful of colleagues and each thought it was a good idea – but many ideas are likeable – can this work and if so, how? Here are some of the questions I pondered at the start:


  • Since I’m based in North America, do I stick with North American schools or go beyond? If outside North America, how will the logistics and coordination work?
  • Which schools and what type of students do we want to work with?
  • How do I quickly “recruit” students and faculty given that the summer break is fast approaching? Am I too late since school terms are planned well in advance?
  • What we will offer that students would find valuable? What do they get out of it and what does SAP want out of it?
  • How will we fit this club into the academic life of students?
  • How will this club scale to become mostly self-sustaining?


The Scope

To narrow down the scope for the pilot, I settled on dashboard design as the focus since it’s a fairly self-contained, not overly technical, and highly practical topic. Further, there was a free version of SAP Crystal Presentation Design (Xcelsius) available until the end of 2010 that I wanted to capitalize on. Next, I contacted our University Alliances Community team who recommended 25 business schools in North America. I chose business students to focus more on the practical business application and less on the technical implementation of our solutions since we already have a strong and growing technical community. Limiting the pilot program to North America was out of practical necessity, unfortunately, but the plan was and is to expand globally.


Over two months, I was able to get interest from about 10 of the 25 schools although I knew strong participation was a different matter. There were going to be a host of obstacles to face – different school terms, scheduling conflicts, and academic demands, to name a few. With the pilot schools on board, I approached a few of our leading dashboard design experts in the community to help, and without hesitation they graciously agreed to be mentors for the students. This pioneering group included (in alphabetical order) Ingo Hilgefort, Tammy Powlas, Kumar Subramanian, Kalyan Verma, and Mico Yuk.


Summer Break

By now summer break was well underway and to complicate matters I committed to a non-SAP project in Kenya, Africa for 5 weeks, starting late July, which meant that I had to find some way to coordinate the tasks while I was away. This meant many calls over a (low bandwidth wireless) Skype connection. Note to self:  it helps to be around leading up to the launch!


On a related note, I tried to recruit the #2 business school in Africa, Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. I met with a professor who expressed enthusiasm for the program and then promptly asked for my dashboard design book. When I followed up with him over the next several weeks, I was repeatedly told that there were technical issues installing the software and that he would contact his IT department to resolve them. I never heard from him again and never saw my book again. I’m not sure if he actually called his IT department and in the absence of further information, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. 🙂


Start of the School Year

The launch was scheduled for Monday, September 13th when the club would be announced to the students. Over the following week, students were asked to apply for one of 25 volunteer student dashboarding club representative positions. To my pleasant surprise, I received interest from over 60 high quality applicants. To get them orientated to SAP Crystal Presentation Design (Xcelsius), the mentors held a series of 5 Saturday training sessions ending in mid-October.  From this point on leading up to November 19th, students were assigned in groups to four of the mentors, asked to promote the club, help other students learn the dashboard design software, and to participate in the small dashboarding contest. I also set up a StreamWork room to facilitate communication, coordination, and knowledge sharing. The goal was to keep things a low touch as possible to make the program manageable for the students. If at the end of the pilot the students achieved active contributor status on SCN and made meaningful attempts (if appropriate) to incorporate dashboarding into their projects, then they would receive a recognition certificate.


While I knew that the students would be fully engaged with their studies, I was still hoping that they would take advantage of the opportunity to fully engage their mentors – they didn’t, really. Even the small dashboarding contest to wrap up the pilot had low participation. I heard from the students afterwards that they did not know where to get data sets to build models and that in comparison to other competitions, this one had lower incentives. Lesson learned.


This year the scope was expanded beyond dashboarding and our initial group of schools. The club was open to other UAC-affiliated schools and included other BI client tools such as Web Intelligence, Analysis, Crystal Reports, and Explorer. Ingo Hilgefort gave five webinars on the integration of these tools (and Dashboard Design) on SAP ERP/BW. Derek Loranca (Aetna), Brian Durning (PepsiCo), and Tammy Powlas (Fairfax Water) each presented universe design, Crystal Reports and universes, and BusinessObjects Analysis, respectively, on Saturday afternoons no less! The feedback about the content, real-world experiences, and presenters has been very positive.



Despite the challenges along the way, I think that this personal project was worth it for the students and for SAP. The students get to learn highly valuable and marketable skills and SAP is able to teach future business users how to use its BI tools. Considering the level of enthusiasm and positive feedback, my belief in the club is even stronger than when the mentors and I started this journey. As the song goes, “this time a ripple, next time a wave”.


Here are a few reflections:

  • Make it directly applicable, practical, and simple – When working with students and faculty, a program cannot be seen as simply an “extra” activity to tack onto their many other activities. Make it easy for your audience to get on board through applicable, useful, and reusable samples and data sets (I wish I had had more time and resources to develop this).
  • You won’t get all(most) of them – No matter what you do, the club will likely never be the a focal point for many of them
  • Don’t be overly enamored with the idea – Even if you and others think it’s a great idea, your audience may not feel the same, which leads me to my next point…
  • Be prepared to pull the plug – You need to be prepared at the start of the new idea to pull the plug on a personal project, especially in light of other, changing priorities
  • Choose your most passionate audience first  – In retrospect, I would have approached the student technology clubs first since they would likely be the most passionate about merging technology and education
  • Provide symbols of achievement – For students entering the workforce, some way of showing their competence using our solutions would be helpful. At the time we launched the club, the dashboard design certification was under review.
  • Talk about the value – It’s important to talk about the value in learning BI in terms of their future careers


2011/2012 Student BI Club

For this year, I’m looking into the feasibility of a student business case competition, perhaps working with a non-profit organization to develop a real-world business case which would require the use of an SAP business analytic tool to solve. There will be a strong emphasis on providing 4.x learning materials, growing a dedicated collaboration workspace, and recruiting student leaders. Do you have any other ideas?


What have you learned working on personal work projects? What would you have done differently in my case? 


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1 Comment
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  • For taking on these personal projects in your own time.  I met some of the professors in person last week and they all liked the real-life experiences of the webinars.  You have been the person behind the scenes getting it all done!

    I hope the business case competition works out and we get a chance to work together again soon.