Blog Post

Electronic Research Administration Systems: A Work in Progress

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In Brief: Research organizations need to be proactive to avoid common pitfalls during eRA system implementation.

Up until the late 1990s, planning, managing, and analyzing grants was a cumbersome process requiring plenty of paper. Fortunately, the research industry started moving from paper to digital in 1998, fueled by the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. In the 20-plus years since then, we have witnessed the rapid growth of the electronic research administration (eRA) market, with dozens of private vendors offering products that promise efficiencies in research administration and hundreds of research organizations going digital.

But whether the eRA products have lived up to the industry’s expectations is another matter.

Beyond eliminating paper, eRA should provide a seamless, integrated research administration platform that fully complies with regulatory requirements while elevating management reports and analysis. However, organizations that have adopted eRA systems tend to have two common complaints:

  • Painful implementation experiences
  • Suboptimal product functionalities

To be sure, eRA systems aren’t perfect. But the stress and disappointment surrounding them is greater when organizations aren’t fully aware of the complexities of implementing an eRA system or the realities of what the product can actually offer. Therefore, it is important for research organizations to understand those realities and proactively deploy countermeasures to avoid common pitfalls during and after the system implementation.

Realities of eRA Systems Implementations and Functionalities

The eRA system implementation process is complicated in nature.

  • Processing and managing grants involves many stakeholders from multiple departments.
  • Different platforms—such as electronic medical records (EMRs), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and eRA Commons by National Institute of Health (NIH)—need to be integrated and interfaced to fully achieve the efficiencies portrayed by the vision of eRA systems.
  • The end-to-end integrated testing entails development and execution of hundreds of test scenarios to fully validate the functionalities of an eRA system.

These complexities are often exacerbated by five common pitfalls:

  1. Lack of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Vendors and project management offices often lack SMEs who understand the detailed business of processing and managing grants, making it challenging for end-user testers to communicate technical issues to the vendor.
  2. Misalignment of Business Processes: Organizations hope that the eRA system will fix their broken processes, but the system is only as good as the fundamental process flows on which it’s based.
  3. Lack of Change Management: Without transparency into the project vision and progress, many end users are afraid of the unknowns, and leadership has a hard time engaging these key stakeholders to meet the implementation needs on time.
  4. Inadequate Resource Allocations: The eRA implementation requires a significant time commitment from the organization’s end users. Underestimating the resource needs constrains the staff’s ability to focus on either the implementation work or their everyday responsibilities, leading to low quality of work on both sides and eventually burnout.
  5. Insufficient Trainings: While most organizations generally understand the importance of end-user trainings before the implementation, they often miss the mark on designating a team of dedicated trainers, developing comprehensive training materials, and organizing training schedules that allow for high attendance rates.

Even after a successful implementation, organizations often find that the product’s functionalities don’t meet their expectations. One common area of disappointment is reporting. Many eRA systems in the market are unable to provide insights into the organization’s research portfolios, return on investments, average grant application turnaround time, and changes in application statuses. Without basic insight to their research operations, organizations’ leadership struggle to make sound, data-driven business decisions.

Most eRA products also fall short of expectations in overall system stability and interface capabilities. After go-live, many organizations experience various technical bugs requiring patches, hot fixes, and in some cases, system-wide upgrades. These are detrimental to the end-user experience and pose risks to daily operations for those staff who are constantly asked to troubleshoot technical issues.

Lastly, interfaces between the eRA product and other systems are often established unidirectionally or even not set up at all, requiring additional effort to manually connect isolated systems.

Countermeasures against the eRA Implementation Challenges and Limitations

Despite the challenges and limitations associated with eRA systems, research organizations can reduce the gap between expectation and reality if they proactively develop countermeasures based on lessons learned from other organizations or their own past.

  1. Establish a Formal Project Management Structure: While a typical project management structure with a steering committee on top and a project management office coordinating work among multiple departments is encouraged, it is critical to have an engaged executive committee with C-suite representation across all relevant functional and technical business units. Establish a consistent cadence for meetings and create action-oriented status reports that are comprehensive yet concise. Only by keeping the steering committee invested and engaged throughout the process can the organization successfully navigate change management and maintain tight communication.
  2. Secure SME Resources for the Duration of the Project: Ideally, the vendor should provide SMEs who understand both the technical and operational aspects of the product. SMEs should take an active role throughout the entire life cycle of the implementation or upgrade project, from design to go-live, with minimal turnover.
  3. Streamline the Business Processes Prior to the System Implementation: Business processes impacting the eRA systems should be examined, modified, and documented before implementation. Dedicate resources to streamline and document detailed process flows, roles and responsibilities by department or user type, and situation-based job aids.
  4. Be Realistic with Resource Allocations: Prevent staff burnout by setting clear expectations on the overall project timeline and hours to commit each week. Overestimating resource needs is better than underestimating them. Out-of-box solutions, such as deploying temp resources, may be required to respond to the increased responsibilities by the end users.
  5. Determine a Long-Term Reporting Strategy: Clarify with the vendor what reports are going to be made available by when. Based on the vendor’s capabilities and capacities to produce viable reports, you may need to engage a separate reporting platform, such as Tableau, to elevate your reporting suite to be more diagnostic or even predictive.
  6. Push the Vendor for More Thorough Unit Testing Prior to End-to-End Integrated Testing: The overall testing experience can be dramatically improved if the eRA vendor goes through a more thorough unit testing before having your organization dive right into an end-to-end integrated testing. Ask the vendor for their unit testing plan, vendor resources to be allocated for it, and regular progress updates to ensure as many foundational technical errors as possible are addressed before engaging the end users for the integrated testing.

Be Proactive

While they’ve been around for more than two decades, eRA systems still have a long way to go before they’re fully stable and sophisticated. The best course of action for research organizations is to be proactive by combating the known challenges with the collective experience of the communities.

  • Be proactive with understanding those challenges and countermeasures as outlined in this post.
  • Solicit feedback from peer institutions that have used the product.
  • Have an open conversation with the vendor about known challenges and possible countermeasures rather than relying on the vendor to lead the implementation projects.

By adhering to these steps, research organizations will be able to take advantage of what the current products can offer to their full capacities, and the end users’ experience in subsequent implementations or upgrades will be enhanced.

Does your organization have proactive measures in place?

Contact our experts if you are looking to enhance your eRA system.

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Edited by: Matt Maslin