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Between Two Directors: An eRA Focused Interview

Contributed by: Jessica Burnette, Sherrie Settle, Justo Torres

Justo Torres (JT), Director of Contracts and Grants, and Sherrie Settle (SS), Director of Sponsored Programs, are both members of the eRA Project Steering Team and liaisons between the Team and the Executive Sponsors for the Project. The following is an interview led by Jessica Burnette that highlights their thoughts on the eRA Project, how we can learn from other institutions, and what we are doing at NC State to encourage success in this process.

Begin Interview.

You are both aware of other universities that have gone through the process of changing their electronic research administration system, what has worked well for them?

SS: It used to be easier when we were all just automating paper processes and it isn’t that way anymore. eRA systems are complex, have more moving parts, and are expected to do much more than just process transactions.  This presents both opportunity and challenge.  Two markers of success I would like to mention are 1) realistic implementation timelines and 2) training in the sweet spot. The sweet spot being not so early that people forget the information and not so late that there isn’t enough time for users to understand what’s going on before implementation.

JT: Something that also works well is not thinking of the system as a silo or in a vacuum. It is important to think about it in terms of what it is going to connect with and who it will be used by. For instance, this system will be used by a broader audience than just Central Research Administration staff.

What lessons can we learn from other universities that have gone through a similar process?

JT: Training and reporting; we need to have both. Like Sherrie mentioned before, training within the right time frame based on implementation. As for reporting; reports have to be ready day one for our stakeholders to have confidence in the system and its accuracy.

SS: I will add that the data conversion stage is critical. Data has to be checked and we have to be sure conversion is correct before the system is used for actual work.

SS: We also have to keep in mind that there is no perfect system, and I believe we have both experienced this statement in action in the past.

JT: Yes, we need to be realistic about the expectations.

Each of you have worked at other institutions; what experience have you had with electronic research administration systems in the past?  

SS: The two universities I previously worked with have both had at least two eRA system changes. They have used both homegrown and vendor solutions.

JT: Two of three institutions I previously worked for have gone through changes and/or upgrades to their eRA systems. The first was from a homegrown system to an off-the-shelf commercial product. The second was in a constant state of upgrade and modification to its homegrown system.

How are you using your past experience to contribute to decisions made by project teams?

JT: I will say a homegrown system is not always better or cheaper. In my experience, homegrown gets you a system that is never completely finished and is seldom sufficiently documented.

SS: I believe we both have seen things go wrong. We have seen examples of really good and not so good recoveries. We are prepared to help handle that process. Inevitably some things will not work perfectly from the beginning. The important thing then is how we communicate around both the problem and the resolution to our campus users.

JT: In other words, we are not done at implementation of the new system. There will still be work to do.

What challenges would you associate with a large-scale system change project like this?

JT: Number one is managing expectations. At the end of this process we are looking for the business of Research Administration to be easier and less cumbersome. That being said, perfect should not be an expectation.

SS: The new eRA system must integrate with so many systems and sources of data that there will be hiccups, but the long term benefits are well worth the disruption.

How can we overcome these challenges?

SS: Communication and training. The focus groups we are conducting now are important to help us understand what the most critical functions are for our user groups. That resource will help us know what we need to make sure is working well on implementation.

JT: That sounds about right. We will also need to do lots and lots of testing to make sure everything is in working order. Testing will also let us know prior to implementation what the system limitations will be so we can focus on those.

SS: Justo you make a good point, there is a tendency when you invest in a new system to load everything you can think of onto it and expect the system to work perfectly. Because of this, you can end up with a system that doesn’t do anything well. We are recognizing that some functions that are important to Principal Investigators for example, likely will be provided outside of the eRA, but must connect to a dashboard they can use seamlessly.

JT: So far something we have done that has worked well is being realistic and flexible with the timeline. When you are militant with implementation dates you end up cutting corners – and the parts that end up being cut are often training and testing.

What are we putting in place to ensure success?

SS: Preparing central office staff, college research administrators, and sister offices (that don’t really see themselves as part of research administration per se) for the size and complexity of what we are planning to do.

JT: Along those lines, we have actually taken the time to understand and document the business processes. The purpose being so we don’t turn a bad process into an electronic process and expect that to fix everything. We also don’t want to make assumptions about processes and then attempt to prove them correct when we fit them into the new system.

What are you looking forward to that will come out of having a new eRA system?

JT: For me it is all about integration. We don’t need a stand alone system with data that lives only in that system. It’s like a neighborhood full of cul de sacs, you can get in but you can’t get out.

SS: Exactly. Better exchange of information between the new eRA system and our own NC State systems (e.g. PeopleSoft) and also with major sponsor systems. System to system proposal submission has the potential to streamline pre-award processing substantially. Currently, our staff are required to enter the same information multiple places in multiple systems and our hope is that much, if not all, of that can be eliminated.

JT: I’ll add, I am looking for an active system, not a passive database. A system you can interact with, perform tasks, forecast, make requests to the appropriate central offices, etc. in addition to being a system that digitizes information.

The University of North Carolina General Administration (UNCGA) is in the process of choosing a new eRA system for many of our peer universities. Can you speak a little about why we are going our own way?

JT: Going our own way gives us more direct controls over the timeline of the implementation. Our timeline won’t be impacted by other campus’ implementation schedules. Further, we have a different financial system from the other institutions that are part of the UNCGA implementation. Because of this, the solution that integrates best with their systems may not be the one that integrates best with ours.  

SS: That’s right, the two R1 (highest research activity) Research Universities in the UNC system, which both happen to be PeopleSoft Financial system schools, are not part of the UNCGA effort. Our research portfolio demands a menu of functions that might not be needed by less research intensive schools. So, the a la carte approach GA is doing, and that has some cost, may not serve us well.

Anything else you would like to add?

SS: Yes I think so; I am very impressed with the level of interest faculty, staff, and leadership have taken in this effort, including the time and resources they all are investing in the planning stage.

JT: The fact that 1) this project is jointly supported by Finance and Administration, the Office of Research, Innovation and Economic Development, and the Office of Information Technology, and 2) the Chancellor took the time to mention the importance of this project, tells me there is strong institutional support for a successful implementation.

End Interview.

Thank  you to Sherrie and Justo for taking the time to give us a little insight into their experience and thoughts about the eRA project. If you would like to learn more about the eRA Project and some of the terminology used above, click here to view a past blog post on common eRA terms. Be on the lookout for our next blog post featuring information on what the Project Teams have been up to lately.