Over the past few years there has been increasing attention toward the idea of shared services as a model for supporting research administration at research-intensive institutions (Gideon, 2012). As with any type of organization, this model has pros and cons. While there is no one-size-fits-all model for research shared services, this type of organization generally has the following attributes: a level of centralization of services that are traditionally performed by local (school/department) research administration personnel, standardization of these services across the stakeholders served, and a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that guarantees support and level of services provided to customers, which can include a feedback mechanism and metrics to measure the quality of support.
At their core, shared service centers represent a redefined organizational model coupled with the opportunity for process transformation and technology enhancement. There are a variety of different models that can be executed based on the needs of the customers and the goals of the university. Leadership must consider the services that will be provided and determine which model best balances the implementation goals with the potential impact on the stakeholders served (Cluver & Stevens, 2014). While institutions that have this type of organization vary in their approach, there are three primary models for research shared services:
Model A: Cradle-to-Grave
- Grants administrators serve as part of teams or pods and are responsible for cradle-to-grave research administration (both pre- and post-award).
Model B: Specialization
- Grants administrators serve as part of teams or pods, but are responsible solely for pre- or post-award.
Model C: Hybrid
- Grants administrators serve as part of teams or pods, but each team or pod designs their services in their unique fashion--one may have grants administrators responsible for both pre- and post-award, while another may have their administrators specialize.
In the following paper we outline the high-level steps to launch this type of organization at your institution and outline one university's experience--Thomas Jefferson University (TJU)--to illustrate the process and lessons learned from their design and implementation. As institutions begin to consider this type of model for research administration, it is critical they approach it with an eye toward change management, engagement of key stakeholders, and ongoing communication and monitoring post-implementation.
Making the Business Case--Do Research Shared Services Work for Your Institution?
The goal of research shared services is to reorganize transaction-based activities that occur in decentralized units and departments so they become the core services of a new, specialized organization or group. Before implementing, each institution should have a unique business case outlining the opportunity for research shared services. The business case focuses on the unique needs of the Principal Investigators (PI), central units, and the institution at large. It is important to define why research shared services are a good fit for your institution, which elements your model will incorporate, and what results you expect to achieve (Azziz, 2014).
While some institutions may approach shared services as a cost savings measure (as they might finance, IT, or HR shared services), with research, an organization should think about it as an investment. The higher education climate mandates that institutions consider mission over margin when approaching an organizational change such as shared services. Higher education's mission and overarching goals mean that cost efficiency will not always determine operating decisions. For example, the University of New Hampshire's implementation was motivated by the standardization of services, enhancements to training offerings, improving internal controls, and eliminating "shadow systems" (Stony Brook University Senate, 2012). The return on investment for this method of service delivery transformation works by providing high levels of training, professional development, and cross-collaboration to employees, while breaking down organizational silos and retaining PIs through delivering the necessary services with a high level of quality. If an institution believes in the caliber of its faculty and commits to building an administrative infrastructure capable of submitting and managing more complex sponsored research, then the increase in indirect costs will more than pay for this shared service investment.
High-Level Steps for a Research Shared Service Implementation
Step 1: Review Core IT and Human Resource Components Related to Research Administration
In order to understand your organization's readiness for a shared services model, it is important to consider the HR and IT components currently in place. Does your institution have an IT model that can support a more centralized model of local grants administration support? For example, at TJU, one of the requirements that became important to investigators was a detailed projection report for each of their active grants. While it was known that this support varied across departments in quality and frequency, TJU lacked the IT infrastructure to support the real-time projections that many faculty desired. To make up for this lack of IT support, the model required more staff support to create these reports manually. This was a substantial factor in determining the number of Full-Time Equivalents (FTE) required to support the research infrastructure.
Human Resources benefits are another area to explore prior to implementing this type of model. You should consider the total rewards as they relate to all benefits of other institutions in your area and what benefits they can guarantee employees. In order to attract and retain top talent to your research shared service center, you should be able to offer the same or better benefits than the local departments and local institutions offer. Another opportunity with this model is to partner with your institution's HR department to create detailed, new job descriptions coupled with a compensation analysis of these new positions reflecting the duties needed to execute this plan. For example, at TJU, HR was a key partner and member of internal committees in completing these analyses and building career ladders for the members of the new organization.
An institution should consider the current research administration talent in their organization. If the institution previously had many local schools and departments that did not dedicate individuals to the profession of research administration, then it will be a challenge to implement this type of model. You will need to add time to the implementation schedule to train and on-board your new employees.
Step 2: Decide on the Model that is Best for your Institution
Once the internal assessment is complete, it is important to present those findings to your most important constituency--the research faculty. This group should be engaged at the beginning of your process as well as throughout the design and implementation phases. The faculty are most affected by the change and will...