Gerald Haigh, independent writer to Microsoft , has written a couple of blog posts in the past  for us on Serco’s “Progresso” Management Information system including a Pioneering Days and Learning Progress blog. Here, Gerald came back to us on how this is continuing to develop and is now currently being installed in a group of 25 “pioneer” schools, all existing users of Serco’s current “Facility” MIS.

Microsoft has a strong interest in Progresso as it’s based on Microsoft’s SQL Server 2008 R2 and offers direct integration with other Microsoft technologies such as Exchange and Live@edu. And, of course, it’s cloud-based, which means it’s very much in tune with Microsoft’s own vision of “ICT as a Service”.

Gerald  had several chats with early adopters all about to go live with Progresso who all  have high expectations of which we will blog about in the coming months.

However before then, Gerald has continued with following Serco and how their Progresso Management System has developed. One was with Mohamad Djahanbakhsh, Managing Director of Serco Learning and Tim Rocke, who commissions IT services at Telford and Wrekin Authority who selected Progresso in a recent tender.

Mohamad has led and nurtured Progresso through its long development process. Tim is also leading and nurturing, although with him it’s about working directly with schools some of them pioneers, others just being introduced to Progresso.

What interested me mostly was how similar are the key messages coming from Tim and Mohamad.

Tim, for example, remembers Progresso people spending time in Telford schools long before the product appeared.

“They spent some time with our schools a year or more ago talking to them about their day to day work,”

That phrase, “day to day work” seems to be the key to Progresso’s long development phase. There’s been a real attempt to produce something responsive to real school life. Mohamad described some of that effort to me.

“During the time we had both with pioneer schools and others we observed how users interact in their own environment, how they take different reports and distribute them, and how often. We looked at organisational structures, and all the bottlenecks. Some bottlenecks were unique to individual schools, but some were common to the majority,”

From that period of observation have come many of Progresso’s features, such as the automatic generation of reports based on key data, attendance, for example, and behaviour and their distribution to the appropriate members of staff.

“Many schools spend a lot of time producing and distributing printed reports, but through our innovative use of SQL Server Reporting Services, Progresso can generate and distribute reports automatically on a scheduled basis. So key information is sent in a timely manner, to the people who need it, saving time and money.”

Mohamad is clearly proud of the way the design team have concentrated on ease of use, something that’s not always been achieved by other systems.

“If you look at MIS throughout all industries, not just education, you see people still downloading stuff into Excel and not really making use of the MIS. It’s not because they don’t want to, it’s because the process is so convoluted.”

Tim Rocke, who has been demonstrating Progresso to all of Telford’s 72 schools, not just the authority’s two pioneers (one primary, one secondary) is finding that ease of use is striking chords.

“The feedback we have had is that people think it looks intuitive and flexible and they like the idea it’s accessible from anywhere. The conclusion is that it offers the real possibility of putting data directly into teachers’ hands. We’ve all been moving along that road, and Progresso puts in place the tools to make that a reality.”

When I asked Tim what questions had been raised by school leaders when he’d shown them Progresso, he confirmed Mohamad’s views on the need to be in tune with real life in school.

“All schools have particular ways of doing things day to day, and so the questions were framed with that in mind – how do we record behaviour events, how do we mark a register or record an assessment and analyse the results.”

That said, when it comes to using new management software with enhanced features, there’s the possibility of not only supporting existing practice but of doing things differently.

“I (Tim Rocke) was particularly encouraged by the number of people who realised that they could look at changing some of their processes, finding a better way.”

In this regard he mentioned the welcome given to Progresso’s automatic scheduling of reports, already highlighted by Mohamad.

“One very popular aspect was scheduling information reports, or emails at a specific time, or alerts and notifications triggered by a certain number of occurrences. In most schools that’s a much more manual process, so this is something that would save them a lot of time.”

Senior leadership team members were also impressed by Progresso’s personalised dashboard.

“….powerful information on the screen in front of them, in real time without the need to run a report or ask for one.”

Now, both Tim and Mohamad are looking at next steps. For Tim the question is how to build on the experience of the pioneer schools.

“What’s in my mind is to ask the senior leaders in the pioneer schools to talk to the heads of other schools. It’s very powerful if they can learn from colleagues about tangible benefits.”

Mohamad is looking further along the development line than that.

“We’ve started a clear product vision for Progresso which will be enhanced and informed by what our customers have to say and our customers’ customers, learners, parents, governors; a continuous feedback loop.”

So far, Progresso is being developed and initially introduced within the Serco family, to existing users of Serco’s Facility MIS. The challenge, of course, is to go beyond that user base and start capturing market share.

“I just hope that there are open minds,” says Mohamad. “That people will give it time, have a look at what it’s got.”

He points to Progresso’s strong Microsoft underpinning and integration as a good reason for potential customers to show interest.

“A great many of them will be Microsoft customers already, so why not come and see how the power of Microsoft has generated something which is easy, intelligent, and efficient? As the Microsoft tools have become more collaborative and integrated, we’ve created a platform that takes advantage of that collaboration and integration.”