For many colleges and universities, revenues from sponsored programs often exceed revenues from tuition, room, and board. This is especially true of the Research 1’s that invest millions in support of their research missions—bringing on researchers, building facilities, and putting in place people and practices to make the research process more efficient. It is well known that a strong research program attracts students, post-doctoral candidates, industry, and donations. Competition for research funding has never been greater, with schools looking for that additional edge to increase their chances of selection and scouring the landscape for new sources of funding. Thus, the submission of quality, compliance, and, in some cases, a higher volume of proposals is critical to meeting the expected outcomes of a research program. Key to support is a robust proposal development tool, arguably the most important component of a research administrative system solution.
The proposal development tool streamlines the proposal development process and alleviates the administrative burden for research faculty and administrators. Faculty members and proposal preparers in departments and laboratories must be able to easily interact with the system, be directed to what needs to be done, and have visibility into the process. The tool must provide the research administrator with capabilities that allow them to aggregate the information, review it for completeness and adherence to proposal and institutional requirements, and ensure risk to the institution is minimized. Tools should also minimize duplicate data input, help avoid rework, and have a robust workflow engine to move the proposal package through to review, approval, and submission in a timely fashion. Visibility into the stage of completion and outstanding requirements are necessary in any tool.
The steps to create and submit proposals may seem straightforward, but they are fraught with complexity. There is a myriad of compliance requirements. Budget decisions need to be made. The work to be performed that merits funding must be clearly represented. And, of course, submission must meet the application deadline. After submission, there is negotiation, tracking, and award setup. All of these steps must be performed within the boundaries of time. Although deadlines are clear, there is invariably a rush to get the proposal assembled, reviewed, approved, and submitted on time.
Researchers are notorious for waiting until the last moment to submit. This adds undue pressure on administrators to complete their work. A good proposal development system can alleviate stress by guiding the user through the process, bringing assurances the proposal will be complete, compliant, and submitted by deadline. Schools have increasingly been moving away from homegrown systems for reasons that include less-than-adequate workflow and automation, which, in turn, make the process cumbersome and inefficient. Vendor-provided solutions address these issues and, in many cases, provide more robust capabilities to address compliance, reporting, and tracking needs.
Research affiliated with an institution, no matter the size, must comply with federal, state, and institutional guidelines. Of the several areas of compliance, all the major vendors offer modules to address conflicts of interest, as well as the needs of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). Some vendor solutions are more robust and more mature than others. Modules can be implemented stand-alone, where institutions need to address immediate needs, or selected as a best-of-breed solution. Schools appear to be moving toward research administrative system suites, which offer much greater interoperability, lower cost to maintain, and an improved user experience with common user interfaces. How vendors address compliance needs is an area of differentiation when making selections. Some solutions are still evolving or require considerable customization to meet a school’s needs.
The proposal development solution market is very competitive. Major vendors offer products that meet the basic requirements, making them viable solutions but, without capabilities to address a broader set of needs, may limit them to a certain market sector or school characteristic. Vendors in this market are generally well known and have been providing products for years. Over the last two years, there has been an evolution both in products and revenue opportunities. The prospect of increased revenue has likely attracted the significant investment by private equity and venture capital firms. Firm portfolios include proposal development, faculty information systems, fundraising, and student relationship management products. However, these investments come with strings attached. Outside investors usually allow only a few years for the companies they invest in to execute on the business plans before demanding a greater return on their investments. Schools can consider the importance of company ownership in their evaluation.
Vendors are using the influx of millions of dollars in smart ways. They are moving their environments to SaaS, adding analytics, building or improving compliance modules, and making acquisitions that broaden their offerings. Investment in cloud services is essential. Schools demand it so vendors need to deliver fixes and upgrades and reduce maintenance costs. Changes to regulations and application forms, which occur every year, can be made more efficiently. In the future, expect to see better integration across vendor ERP systems (e.g., Workday, Oracle Cloud) and tighter interoperability across modules in a move toward a fuller research administration suite offering.
How will vendors define and deliver on analytics? Will they be able to bring in data from other modules, from funding opportunities and discovery databases? Will they be able to benchmark against trends in research funding and improve the overall quality of the proposal? Watch to see how this all plays out as the evolution continues.
What differentiates vendor offerings when they all do the basics well? Look for the extent of automation, ease of use for faculty, validation of system-to-system submissions, and number of modules within the family. Other factors to consider are the cost and complexity of the implementation, the availability of an institution’s staff to be assigned to the project, and the level of vendor customer service. Research administration departments are not typically involved in software evaluation and selection. Faculty are sometimes challenged to articulate needs, and the barriers in an institution’s process are not well understood. With a wide range of options available, a readiness assessment is recommended to help prioritize needs, identify available resources, and make the proposal development system selection more efficient.
The Tambellini Group has recently completed a capabilities assessment of major vendors’ proposal development products. Vendors include Cayuse, Huron Consulting, InfoEd Global, Kuali, and Streamlyne. Contact Tambellini for more information.
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