Electronic Research Administration and Data Analytics
When asked on NPR’s morning edition if he were in anyway scared of the prospects of Artificial Intelligence getting out of control, Apple CEO, Tim Cook replied, “I don’t really worry about machines thinking like people; I worry about people thinking like machines. Because it’s the absence of humanity in products that create the issue.” He added that automation of certain tasks possibly giving us back an hour in our day to help boost our productivity is generally a good thing. (Inskeep 6/5/2018)
An ERA software solution for research administration and compliance is not about removing personal interactions and support services. Instead, it focuses on improving time utilization and productivity.
Electronic Research Administration
Over the last few years, the research community has experienced a shift towards a more efficient and eco-friendly environment. This shift has resulted in the development of a system known as Electronic Research Administration, or eRA. The eRA system enhances a research administrator's ability to manage proposals and awards while simultaneously providing department administrators and faculty greater transparency into the proposal and award stages of projects. Additionally, more functionality allows for the continuous improvement of award monitoring and management processes.
Auburn's vision for an eRA system is to integrate a set of roles-based tools accessible from multiple devices while supporting research administration and compliance. The goal of implementing these tools is to improve the efficiency of the administrative staff and reduce the non-science related burden on investigators. A major benefit of the system is the ability to provide transparency and performance metrics of various aspects of sponsored programs and compliance which will then be used to continuously refine research administration procedures at Auburn.
The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and Auburn's Chief Information Officer, Jim O'Connor have obtained the services of IBM Public Customer Engagement & Design process improvement experts to conduct an assessment of Auburn University’s research administration and compliance processes. The IBM team will evaluate the current state of the organization and processes with the intent of developing a shared perspective around improvement opportunities including technology solutions, improvement project recommendations, and best practices for exemplary research administration enterprises at universities. The engagement is from May 17 through July 19 with on campus workshops between IBM and campus stakeholders held May 17 through June 15.
On July 19, 2019, IBM made their final presentation to the leadership within the OVPR and others engaged in research administration efforts on campus. After 31 workshops and interviews with over 200 faculty and staff members, IBM provided a summary of the approximately 400 concerns identified, recommendations for improvements, and guidance for the capabilities we should pursue in our procurement of an enterprise-wide electronic system. Identified concerns, or "pain points" were grouped by common themes and the top five themes were discussed. The top five areas of concern relate to process delays (24% of responses), process variation and inconsistencies (17% of responses), System functionality (14% of responses), insufficient reporting capabilities (12% of responses) and Policies (10 % of responses).
IBM then provided some strategies for moving forward including, but not limited to, implementation of proper change management efforts, team building, education and awareness programs for Investigators and staff, improved communication of policies and practices throughout the entire research administration and compliance enterprise, and improved customer service expectation levels and transparency. IBM also suggested some rapid improvement events that are generally easy to implement quickly with relatively high impact.
Next steps include meetings with ISS to make improvements to the e-Cover Form, evaluation of process maps to identify non-value added steps, beginning work on rapid improvement events for implementation within 30-90 days after start, meetings with College and Department leaders related to identified "pain points" to improve understanding of the concern and create change, and developing multiple communication strategies and outlets for assuring the campus community is engaged in this improvement process as it unfolds.
The Office of Sponsored Programs maintains a homegrown database containing 17 years of a proposal and award records. The current database was built in Microsoft Access and is limited in the ability to share widely across campus users. Data and system security is a concern therefore the Office of Information Technology is converting the current database from MS Access to SQL to improve data protections and open the door for greater campus access to the information. The first phase of database conversion is underway with testing to correct for data errors and table conversion close to completion. Once stable, the OSP database will be closed in its current form and the SQL version opened for new data entry. This is anticipated within the next two weeks. Phase two of the conversion project includes development of a graphical user interface that is roles based for campus users to access reports and data directly through a web-based portal. Once the current converted database is stable the process for phase two will begin. The entire effort will hopefully be completed soon after the start of the new fiscal year October 1, 2018.
Martha M. Taylor
Assistant Vice President for Research
202 Samford Hall
Auburn, AL 36849