Making the most of technology to ease the burden of research administration

Increasingly, technology is stepping in to help balance the burden of administration for Australian researchers and the teams that support them. But how do you get the most out of a research management solution?

Any Australian researcher can tell you about the hours they spend on administration—probably at length.

A traditional breakdown of an academic’s workload is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% administrative tasks. However, according to a recent case study, the workload actually experienced by academics in Australian universities can be comprised of something more like 35% administration—and it’s their research hours that suffer, dropping down to one quarter of working hours.

One of the key sources of administrative tasks is in the area of funding and grant applications, the burdens of which are well known and have been thoroughly reported upon.

Applications are long and time consuming, and the level of supporting detail requested often seems absurd at the time of writing. One submission to the Inquiry into Funding Australia’s Research mentioned both the minute details required and the grinding futility of the experience: “[Y]ou have to make an assessment of travel costs three years in advance[…] when in actual fact the budget you apply for you never receive.”

These pressures aren’t necessarily decreasing: the 2018 Australian Competitive Grants Register included 80 active schemes across multiple funding agencies, which each had varying guidelines and formats, different deadlines and submissions, and assessment processes that operated in dissimilar ways.

As the administrative burden of research has become better known, some efforts have been put forward to streamline processes. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has reviewed their grant structure, with funding under the new arrangements to commence in 2020—changes which will create their own administrative burdens for applicants.

So what’s the solution? Well, in this time of rapidly-changing policy and expectations around the role of administration in research, there’s unlikely to be a truly clear solution until the dust has settled.

What we do know, though, is that technology is going to play a key role.

It’s already happening. Smart research management solutions that allow us to centralise information about projects, applications, grants, costing and individual researchers are already gaining steadily in popularity. While such solutions can’t actually resolve matters of competitive grant structures or uncertain future policy decisions, they can save you a lot of time. They can make administration faster and less frustrating, reduce double- or triple-handling of information to save on time, preserve accuracy and reduce tedium, and they can ensure that key people have access to the information they need—even if that one key person is busy attending a conference half a world away.

So how should you be looking at your research management solution? We’ve compiled five key elements to getting the most out of whatever solution you choose to work with:

  • Know what you need: Although a great many organisations are finding new and innovative ways to streamline their administrative processes via technologies, a good product does not look the same for every organisation. Knowing specifically and comprehensively what it is that you need your research management solution to do will help a lot moving forward.
  • Consider integrations: Be aware of what kinds of integrations are available and what you might need—as more and more organisations take on new technological solutions, the value of solutions with built in capabilities to “talk” to each other only increases. Is it vital that your system talks to your university corporate systems, ARC Grants or ORCID?
  • Look for support: Be aware of your need, going forward, to adapt and adjust to new procedures and developments as they occur. A well-supported solution is one that has a straightforward, well-developed mechanism for providing feedback and getting help and training, and one that sees continual growth and updates in response to new challenges and a changing tech and research landscape
  • You get out what you put in: Training sometimes seems like a lot of time, cost and effort for an intangible gain. However, if you spend the time and select solutions with strong support so you can be sure to get good quality and timely training, you’ll be much more likely to see a return on your investment. Make sure your admin staff and other end users know how to use your solutions—there’s no point paying substantially for a product and then leaving it to your confused end users to treat your solution like a particularly ineffective word processor.
  • Ensure adequate access: Make sure that the people in your organisation who need to be able to use your systems have access to them. This seems obvious on the face of it, but it can become a minefield when it’s not managed correctly. Key stakeholders need to be able to see and use the appropriate elements of your solution. A situation where one person takes information from a system and emails it (or worse, prints it out and carries it) to another person who then painstakingly enters the data into a second system is a waste of time and resources, and in 2020 there’s not much excuse for it.

Whatever research management solution you select, ensuring that you use it to greatest effect and get the most out of its full capacity is vital. Understanding your objectives and requirements, knowing where to get support and putting in a little time now to safeguard against common user difficulties are all valuable ways to make sure you’re getting everything out of your technology that you should be—and saving valuable time and energy for researchers.


About the Author

Anita Chai is Senior Manager, Industry Collaboration & Strategy at ResearchMaster and has over fifteen years’ experience in client services and implementation of research management software. Anita’s deep knowledge of higher education research management ensures she effectively interprets and delivers on the objectives of her clients.

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