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What We Do in the Shadow Systems in Research Administration

By SRAI News posted 01-13-2022 10:53 AM


What We Do in the Shadow Systems in Research Administration

Research administrators often use information shadow systems as essential tools for data management, analysis, and communication of relevant project management data. 

We are indeed in the digital age. Reliance on technology, the internet, and information systems weighs heavily in the work carried out at universities, colleges, and research institutions.  Think of a function at your institution – human  resources, purchasing, grants management, finance and accounting, compliance, student services – and there is probably a “system” built or used to handle it. Thank your vice presidents or instructional technology departments for these systems because institutions large and small would be lost without them.  With all these systems, however, come innate challenges. 

Research Administration and Information Systems

Research administrators rely on institutional information systems for their work, with access to these systems normally controlled centrally by numerous functional offices. Since institutional systems are set up for specific functional purposes,  they may lack compatibility when information has to be shared across functional units.  Even if compatibility is high, end users may face challenges when it comes to getting access to all the information needed to carry out tasks promptly and efficiently. In research administration, it is not unusual for end users to access multiple data management systems to effectively monitor and manage grant projects. Further, separate central units may administer various systems.  

Troubleshooting and answering operational, financial, or accounting questions often involves communicating with several functional areas, accessing multiple systems and retrieving data that needs to be combined into a usable format. Extracting information from different institutional systems and aggregating data into an end-user defined format leads to numerous “shadow systems” that are used more effectively and more routinely in research administration.  

Solutions in Practice

Shadow systems are working, functional, custom-made systems or tools research administrators build to combine, manage, and share data in a timely and easy-to-understand format. Common shadow systems may include the use of user-developed Excel and Google worksheets, webforms, databases, and custom reports, among others. These systems effectively inform decision-making and functional communication with relevant stakeholders at the unit and local level.  Have you ever tried to share an “unaltered” printout of a report or screen from your institutional system with a researcher or faculty person?  How did that go for you? 

Instead, you may have shared a customized report or spreadsheet from your shadow system that presents data from multiple sources and is much easier to read, interpret, and understand.  The ability to combine data from multiple sources (e.g., human resource and payroll, procurement, external funding, student services) is a hallmark of these custom-made tools.  Another hallmark is that these tools are end-user developed and flexible, meaning they can be easily changed, updated, and edited for a specific data sharing purpose and audience.  These custom-built tools allow research administrators to answer management and decision-making questions more easily.  A huge drawback is that these tools may take time to build, customize, and implement, requiring a significant investment of time and resources. Finally, what happens when the developer of these tools leaves or moves positions, and what about new employees who need to use the tools?  The permanence of these systems may be fleeting if they depend only on the local developer’s expertise and are not institutionally available to research administration practitioners. 

Live and Learn Lessons

Research administrators must navigate data access issues and systems management challenges, the resolution of which are vital for success in their work. Typically, access to all necessary data for effective grants management may vary across the institution and may include unit level considerations. Data access may also present security concerns and time implications. Access to necessary data may not be easily obtained and may take higher level authorization.  

Institutional systems should work for all stakeholders, especially the end user; successful shadow systems work from the user standpoint and are built with that in mind. In essence, information systems should be built backwards, not from the top-down but rather bottom-up, with foundational feedback from end users. This is essential where institutional systems may not be initially designed specifically for research administration use. In theory, information systems are built with the end user in mind, but in practice it may seem like the end user was not consulted at all.  

Shadow system development is an integral part of research administration as a way to manage, analyze, and communicate data from multiple institutional sources.  Successful shadow system development takes a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of the research administrator, yet this time and effort goes largely unnoticed by central units, who assume the data they provide is suitable or should be appropriate to answer questions of practice.  Until institutional systems and data sources acknowledge end user needs and challenges, shadow systems will fill the gap at the local and unit level.  Thank goodness for spreadsheets!

Authored by

Dr. Jose Alcaine, Director of Research Services/Affiliate Faculty Foundations of Education, School of Education
Virginia Commonwealth University​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Carla Dannouf, Finance Manager, Center for Teacher Leadership
Virginia Commonwealth University