Cloud-based eRA solutions are all the rage in research administration and for good reason. They provide tons of convenience with minimal cost. So, why are institutions so reluctant to modernize? In my opinion, it stems from the fact that our industry is fear-based.
- If we don’t review a contract correctly, we might commit our institution to something we can’t comply with.
- If a signature is missed, we might not be able to meet cost share requirements.
- If we miss a section of a proposal that describes work that falls under Export Control regulations, we might actually go to jail!
The best way to make sure none of these things happen is to keep tight control over all aspects of our job. The idea of relinquishing some of that control and decision-making ability over to a third-party is downright terrifying.
However, if you are considering a move from a homegrown electronic or paper-based system to a cloud-based eRA, here are five compelling arguments that might help alleviate that fear:
- Anyone can sign a piece of paper
Literally, anyone. If you are currently on a paper system of proposal review, how are you ensuring that the right person signed your authorization form? Do you get any signatures that look suspiciously like stamps? Have you recently seen signatures from folks you know aren’t currently on campus? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, how do you know that department-level people are actually reading and understanding the work they’re authorizing?
In my former life as a research admin, I was forever questioning whether signatures were authentic and whether the person signing really had the authority to approve a proposal on behalf of their unit. I know, for a fact, that one department on my former campus kept a stack of pre-signed authorization forms just in case the dean was out of the office and a proposal needed to be submitted!
A primary component of any good cloud-based eRA system is the ability to allow only appropriate, authorized individuals to review and approve proposals electronically. Good eRA systems will also have a method of delegating or allowing multiple authorized persons to approve records rather than creating an artificial bottleneck if the signatory is not available.
Electronic RA systems should also facilitate and encourage department-level proposal review. Not having to flip through physical pages, being able to search for and find specific information and having that information in an accessible, portable format means signatories could actually spend time reading about what their people are planning to do! I’m not saying they will … but anything is possible! Good eRA systems will have an interface that isn’t intimidating for a non-technical person to navigate, making documents easier to actually read, understand and make a confident decision about whether to authorize the work.
- Balance the checks, check the balances and get rid of the Franken-stuff
Paper-based and home-grown electronic systems are a popular option, because they do exactly what your institution needs to accomplish at a specific moment in time. If you have a paper routing form that your PIs fill out and you decide you’d like to have them provide one extra piece of information, adding a new question to a paper form is easy! Home-grown electronic systems follow the same model: adding a new field or a new question is just a matter of asking the person who built your system to add it, and that sure sounds great. But, here’s the trap. Additions and changes are never re-evaluated over time. It’s a syndrome we call “Franken-forms.” The form that started out asking for some basic information now looks more like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and is about as much fun to deal with!
Franken-forms happen with paper or electronic systems that have been customized, tweaked, added to, supplemented, copied and copied over and over so extensively that their original meaning is completely lost. Questions that made sense to ask five years ago don’t make sense any longer, and no one has taken the time to revise the process.
It’s not just limited to routing forms. Reports become Franken-reports! Many years ago a dean wanted to know how many proposals from a particular agency were being submitted through the department. Fast-forward five years, and now that institution emails an incredibly detailed report of all proposals submitted within the last 30 days with filters and sortable columns to all the deans at their institution every week, and no one reads the report. The dean who originally asked for that report has long since retired, and no one has asked the rest of the deans if they still even want this report!
Franken-policies that were created years ago to deal with a particular situation might not make sense any longer. Maybe years ago, a Proposal Reviewer in the Office of Sponsored Programs had a terrible time remembering to obtain letters of commitment from potential subcontractors. So to deal with that particular situation, a policy was created that stipulated that every proposal with subawards needed authorization from the Contract Review Officer to make sure all required components were present. Fast-forward to the present. Does anyone remember why they started doing that in the first place? Has that problem resolved itself organically, and we can get rid of an outdated Franken-policy?
In my experience implementing eRA software at institutions all over the country, Franken-stuff exists everywhere. A good eRA consultant will question the things you’ve always done, the information you’ve always collected with your PIs, the actions you’ve always performed and the reports that you’ve always sent out to make sure the new system facilitates only the work you should be doing. In effect, using your implementation is a great chance to check and balance all your checks and balances!
- Give your brain permission to be brilliant
Imagine for a moment that you didn’t have to double-check a DUNS number ever again. Imagine if you just knew that a proposal was going to follow the correct authorization chain and couldn’t get to your office for review with any required information missing. What would you be able to do if you actually had the capacity in your day to do it?
What if you read the actual content of a proposal, if for no other reason than to learn about what your PIs are passionate about? Would you do it? What if you saw that your PI had inadvertently included language that implied cost share that wasn’t detailed out in the proposal? Would reading proposals be worth your time then? You have an amazing brain that should be used for more than checking rote portions of a proposal or award. Instead of checking the DUNS number for the umpteenth time, you could use that time to check if a trip overseas discussed in the broader impacts section seems to complement how they answered the Export Controls section of the eRA form. I’m not suggesting that you work harder – just that an eRA system could afford you the opportunity to work differently, to know about and care about the work you help facilitate.
I used to work with a research admin who would take his lunch hour every day to walk around our campus. He would read the presentation posters in the halls outside of faculty offices. If doors were open he’d walk right in and ask the researcher what they were working on. The next time that researcher had to submit a proposal, they would walk over to our office, sit down with my colleague, and tell him all about the proposal they were putting in. He chose to create a personal relationship and foster genuine interest with the PIs he worked with, but I never felt like I had the time. Truth is I had the same amount of hours in my day that he did. He chose to spend the time he had facilitating a sincere relationship with PIs, and he was a more successful research administrator for it.
The old adage “people make time for what’s important” is 100% true. If you had more time in your day, would you be willing to spend it learning something new about someone you support through your work? Would it help you work better? I contend that it would. You’re not a computer. Let computers be computers and let research admins be brilliant people!
- Work anywhere, anytime … but not everywhere, all the time
The ability to work anywhere is a great advantage when going to a cloud-based system. The important thing to remember is that just because you CAN work anywhere, there’s no law that says you SHOULD work everywhere.
At my organization, we’ve heard stories of personnel at institutions who have implemented eRA systems being able to review and authorize work from anywhere. PIs who are travelling to a field site can still submit a proposal. A dean who is speaking at a national conference can authorize pre-award spending. A department administrator who is home with a sick child can still review a budget set-up for one of their PIs. These are all wonderful uses of telecommuting that result from not being tethered to your desk.
However, the potential problem is clear. If you’re always able to work, will you always be expected to be working? You can view a cloud eRA system as an open door to work 24 hours a day. You can also view a cloud eRA system as a method to draw boundaries around your work and home life. For example, I use several systems in my job that are similar in nature to a cloud eRA system. When I’m at home, I can choose to log in to those systems and check on what I need to accomplish the next day. I use that as a method to see how early I need to plan to be in the office the next day, not as a method to do more work while I’m at home with my family. I use that ability to check on work as a way to plan out what I’m going to do. If implemented correctly, with the appropriate policy decisions and expectations in place, a cloud-based eRA solution should promote your work/life balance, not threaten it.
- Let someone else do the heavy lifting
In a paper-based or homegrown system, you’re reliant on someone at your institution to maintain, change and enhance your current system. You’re also reliant on your own knowledge of policy, procedure, law and best practices to create a system that works for you and is still collecting all the information you need.
A cloud-based eRA removes the requirements for your institution to house the IT personnel required to maintain a homegrown electronic system. A cloud-based system also has the added advantage of what that vendor has done and learned from industry-wide implementations. You are one institution, but cloud-based eRA companies are working with hundreds of institutions just like yours. You get to leverage all the awareness, best practices, industry knowledge and success stories from all those institutions, without having to do a thing. The peace of mind that comes with knowing that you’re conducting business in a compliant manner consistent with current best practices is well worth the cost of an eRA solution.