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Two SAP school coordinators discuss new challenges

Long-time MIT staff members Judith Stein and Eileen Nielsen began their new positions as SAP school coordinators on September 14. Previously, both women had been administrative officers -- Ms. Stein for the Program in Anthropology and the Program in Science, Technology and Society, and Ms. Nielsen for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab. Now, they will assist departments, labs and centers with the rollout and use of the SAP financial system. They and the other school coordinators have two-year appointments, reporting jointly to Assistant Provost for Administration Doreen Morris and Senior Project Manager John Hynes of the Management Reporting Project.

Robert Murray, the Management Reporting Project's director of communications, recently spoke with Ms. Stein and Ms. Nielsen about this new step in their careers.

RM: How will your work as school coordinators differ from your previous jobs as administrative officers?

Stein: This is much more focused than my AO job. An AO deals with things on a broad spectrum in a department -- doing everything, worrying about everything. In STS and anthropology, we had 20 faculty and 11 staff, but I was the only administrative staff -- the "chief cook and bottle washer." That meant that the breadth of my duties was enormous. I enjoyed tremendous variety and autonomy as an AO.

I'm not going to deal with that variety of problems now. The school coordinators have a narrower focus: helping administrators at MIT conduct their financial business in a new way.

One of the things that excited me about working with Management Reporting was that I would be working on a team. The AO position can be very isolating; now I have five colleagues who are doing exactly what I'm doing.

Nielsen: I saw the school coordinator position as a chance to develop a specialized expertise in SAP. The change from the generalist nature of the AO position really appealed to me. As a school coordinator, I face real-life opportunities to apply a broader range of the material from my graduate school studies.

RM: When the school coordinator positions were first advertised last December, neither of you applied. What changed your minds?

Nielsen: When [Assistant Dean] Sheila Kanode first announced the new positions, I was interested, but didn't pursue it because I was not quite sure what that position was turning into -- or where the [Management Reporting] project was going. I was very happy at the AI Lab and felt no great desire to go elsewhere.

A colleague of mine from the Lab for Computer Science -- Jennifer Kratochwill -- became one of the first three school coordinators. Each time I saw her, I asked about her new job. And each time she said that the job was great and she was having a wonderful time helping people through the process. When the article about the school coordinators came out in Tech Talk [on July 15] and mentioned that there were still positions available, I decided to apply.

Stein: I had a similar experience. Earlier this year I had decided that it was time for me to leave departmental administration and look for some new challenges. Bob Davine had been an AO in my School. He became the school coordinator for SHSS and was assigned to help us with our financial setup for SAP. When I asked him how he enjoyed the job, Bob said it had been a great move for him.

I was considering some positions outside MIT, but I really didn't want to leave the Institute. After my conversations with Bob, I spoke with the other school coordinators and John Hynes, and then with [Management Reporting director] Katie Cochrane. They all said that although there were difficulties along the way, they really enjoyed what they were doing.

I'm interested in communication within organizations and organizational change. These are areas that I hope to be working in over the next two years.

RM: Both of you are talking about change.

Nielsen: The old ways of doing business don't work the way they used to. The whole culture of American business is changing and MIT is changing also. There is great complexity involved with transitions and organizational change. I want to make this transition as easy as possible for everyone.

RM: You've both joined a temporary organization, and have two-year appointments. You left permanent organizations with permanent appointments. Do you worry about the risks you're taking?

Stein: Before I took this job, I had a chance to speak with [Human Resource Practices Development team leader] Patricia Brady. She suggested that I think about which opportunities would close and which would open if I took this job. I didn't see anything closing, and I saw a lot of opportunities opening as I gain experience with SAP and organizational change.

I did have to get accustomed to the idea of a limited appointment. But it seemed that the most interesting new positions at MIT were on short-term projects. Once I understood that, I stopped seeing this move as a risk. Now, I don't think of it as a big risk but as a big change.

Nielsen: I see this as a fantastic opportunity -- where I want to be professionally. I know I'll come out of this temporary assignment with great knowledge about something I think is important. I didn't see any big risk. What do I have to lose? I have everything to gain.

RM: Do either of you see a particular focus for your work as a school coordinator?

Stein: One of my hopes is to help break down the "we/they" mentality that some folks have about Management Reporting or SAP and the rest of the campus. Everyone knows that mistakes have been made as MIT has gone through this process. To me, that goes with theterritory on a project like this. I'd like to focus on where we are now and how we can all move forward together.

Nielsen: Like the other school coordinators, my role is to be a liaison between Management Reporting and the MIT community. Right now, my goal is to help departments, labs and centers use SAP to meet their individual needs. My focus may change as the rollout of SAP proceeds, but I see my main role as continuing to be a resource for them.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 7, 1998.

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