Post Award Office New Year’s Resolution Ideas for Doing More, Better, and With Less
This article will explore how post-award administrators can help their teams and institutions be most resilient in 2021 as the impact of Covid-19 has forced the need to do more with less, all while also trying to better manage research spend.
This year has, in many sad ways, been one like no other. Like many of our personal goals and resolutions, many research administrator process improvement goals were probably put on hold dealing with the myriad of triage needs in the short term. But there’s hope for 2021, and I wanted to share some inspiration and perspectives for those managing the post-award side of research. After a decade spent in director-related roles in research administration across schools like UCLA and University of Memphis and now as one working hand-in-hand with research organizations looking to drive process improvements, I believe 2020 was a year that simply amplified the changes and improvements needed to help institutions better manage grants while often needing to do it with fewer resources.
I see three key areas post-award improvement goals and resolutions an administration office should focus on, and I’ll highlight them as questions you might want to ask yourself:
1. How easy is it for everyone involved in fund management to answer ‘what’s the balance’?
Every single person involved in research - from the VPR to the central office, to departmental administrators, to PI’s - needs to be able to have access to this information quickly. It’s why the concept of dashboards is so loved. When you’re reviewing your bank account, your 401k, etc. having that instant snapshot is expected. But for many institutions, having this sort of dashboard for grant spend has proven elusive - i.e., ‘here are my accounts, here’s how much I’ve spent, here’s my balance’. And, of course, this dashboard needs to be specific to the users logging in.
If the answer to this question for your institution is ‘it’s difficult’ or ‘it’s in our ERP’ - then my recommendation is to consider focusing on improvement in this area as a goal for 2021. Oftentimes, Enterprise Resource Planning just doesn’t provide the needed details or consider the specific needs of the various roles, and there are now tools and tech available (like Cayuse’s own Fund Manager) that you might want to consider looking at to help solve this challenge.
2. How empowered are your researchers and their administrators to manage grant spend?
Principle Investigators have lots of responsibilities, so they need the tools and resources to help them manage their research spend. In 2020 in particular, faculty workload changed (and increased) which has had a direct impact on the time that can be dedicated to research. That means now more than ever, for research faculty and admins who need to manage these funds, they must have an easy self-service option. Not every PI is going to have the capacity or skillset to manage their funds, but for those that do, what tools are you giving them?
Ultimately, in 2021 another idea that should be top of mind is a concept I’ve used in research administration for years; Shameless Sharing - not just for reports and information, but the tools PI’s use to update and manage research spend. PI’s are reliant on post-award administrators to give them the tools to manage what they need to manage. The other bonus to making a resolution in this area is that it will also free up administrator time, so it’s a win-win.
3. How much manual/spreadsheet work is required for post-award administrators?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that managing tasks in manual, labor-intensive ways is just simply no longer feasible. Numerous leaders across a variety of research organizations have told me this past year has caused a complete process rethink on many levels when it comes to managing and optimizing research in order to continue to grow research overall. I have heard from peers they are considering staying with remote working and even completely eliminating physical offices to save on costs, or in the case of a school like Widener University, rethinking their reporting processes. They used to struggle to manage data and customized reports, creating multiple Excel documents to compare them side-by-side, looking for discrepancies between the two spreadsheets to pinpoint errors. In addition to being frustrating for all involved, the process was very inefficient and error-prone. Widener has since rethought their research management-related processes where “quick and intuitive” are the new words commonly used when associated with report-building.
I know first hand that it can be challenging to even consider re-thinking and streamlining your institution's custom processes and workflows, but if you answered that third question with a ‘we could do better’ then again, focusing on solving that problem is very doable. It will take time and some effort, but the impact it can have on both compliance and spend optimization can be well worth it.
I hope some of these ideas and perspectives inspire my post-award friends and colleagues who may be tasked in this next year to do more with less. This ask requires that you reassess processes, determine what may need to be paused, identify which activities can be collapsed, and how to improve collaboration between various offices and stakeholders. Here’s to 2021 and solving those critical challenges!
Authored by Heather Winters, Solutions Consultant, former Research Administration Director