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Pilot projects to make research administration more efficient and effective

Two new service centers in research administration, one in the Rollins School of Public Health and one combining cancer and imaging in Winship and School of Medicine, began operation this spring. The centers were implemented as pilot projects to test business processes designed to make research administration at Emory more efficient and effective and better able to serve faculty. The initiative is similar to efforts under way at other research universities, including Yale, University of Michigan, and UC-Berkeley, among others.

Staff who administer sponsored research grants for faculty perform a variety of tasks that help keep research both on track in terms of funding and in compliance with complex regulations. Such work entails, for example, setting up research awards in a database, managing and reviewing award expenditures, processing invoices, assisting with budget development, and preparing financial status reports for sponsors, to name a few. Performance of these tasks behind the scenes enables funds to keep flowing from sponsors, ensures that bills are paid promptly, and allows researchers to stay focused on their research. The more such tasks can be streamlined and standardized across the system, the easier it will be for all research administrative staff to provide consistent service to faculty as well as avoid duplication of work.

"This is something we have to do to remain competitive in the research arena," says David Wynes, Emory's VP for research administration, who is overseeing the pilots until an associate VP is hired later this year to oversee all such service centers. "Because our faculty have been so successful in garnering grants, our research enterprise has grown enormously over the past decade, and the administrative infrastructure to support grants needs to evolve to best support that growth. This is an opportunity now to make it work better and more efficiently."

Over a period of six months, the two centers will test some 30 new standard operating procedures as well as newly revised roles and responsibilities of staff members. Once these first two pilots have been tested, another 10 to 12 service centers across the university will be rolled out over the next 12 to 18 months, starting this fall.

"The pilots will be working out the kinks and figuring out what works and what doesn't," says Wynes. "They will incorporate some functions that previously have been handled centrally within the university and will operate as local units, accountable to the departments, schools, and faculty they serve but with central oversight to assure consistency and quality in their performance across the institution."

 Lori Snead Bill Lambert
 Lori Snead
 Bill Lambert

Two of those on the front lines of discovering what works and what doesn't in the new service centers are Lori Snead and Bill Lambert, who lead the pilots in the schools of medicine and public health, respectively.

Snead's pilot center combines research administrative services for cancer and imaging, specifically Winship Cancer Institute and medical school departments of hematology-medical oncology, radiology and imaging sciences, and radiation oncology. One of the goals of the service centers, she says, is to provide a balanced workload for staff as well as adequate backup resources so that customer service remains unaffected by individual staff vacation or family leave. "We have plenty of cross coverage," she says. "Melding our processes will take time, but the team is already starting to gel and is ready to take ownership."

For his part, Lambert says his team in public health is excited to be at the forefront of testing to help blaze a trail for the future in research administration. "Rollins has been working collaboratively in the past, but the pilot will allow us to take that to a new level by adopting new tasks and responsibilities that better serve faculty."

The effort to help ensure the success of the pilots going forward is cross collaborative, involving not only those in central finance and administration but also people and offices throughout health sciences, including executive associate deans Dean Surbey in public health and Barbara Schroeder and Heather Hamby in the medical school.

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