Chasing an idealistic dream

In April 2016, Edinburgh University rolled out its new research management system, Worktribe, having jointly developed and implemented it with Heriot Watt University. Hamish Macandrew, who leads the research support office at Edinburgh, describes the efforts to create an integrated system that enables paper-free working.

For the past four-and-a-half years, many of my waking hours have been taken up with chasing an idealistic dream – having a research management system that would do everything. Well, not quite everything but one which would allow us to do away with paper for good; no more filing cabinets, much less scanning, no more photocopying, no more lost documents…

A system where information is logged once and re-used many times for many purposes; information which is logged at pre-award and never needs re-keyed. By anyone. Wherever they are located in the University.

A system, which on the one hand has the functionality to power a small bank but one so easy to use that anyone could use it without having to read a manual or have a PhD in computer science. A system which works fast, optimising people’s time, enabling faster preparation of proposals, faster set-up of awards. Delivering more up-to-the-minute monitoring of award expenditure.

Make sure you really need a new research management system as the effort of implementing a new one is not to be taken lightly.

A system which links to other systems, pulling information in from HR and Finance feeds and pushing information out to third party reporting and research information systems.

A system which allows all documents, and all versions of documents, relating to a single project to be coded and stored in the same place. Documents which can be added by anyone at anytime during the project.

But at the same time a system which protects the data held therein, only allowing those authorised to access what they need to access.

A system so powerful that it allows us to change the way we support research activity at Edinburgh. One that unlocks the potential of a larger community of research services professionals, connecting colleagues at school, college and centre. One that simplifies and clarifies. And one that enables us to develop and advance the range of services to enable and support our outstanding research colleagues.

The four and a half years are over, and I’ve stopped chasing. Our new system, Worktribe, has gone live across the university.

Previously, Edinburgh’s research management system was pre-award only, and mainly limited to users in the research support office. Worktribe interfaces with the university’s post-award office and management accounting software. It also features electronic workflows, enabling paper-free working, and can be accessed across the university’s five Edinburgh campuses by school-based researchers and administrators.

So has the dream come true? Pretty much actually, although if I dream a little more…

Five lessons

  •        Make sure you really need a new research management system as the effort of implementing a new one is not to be taken lightly.
  •        Scope out your needs clearly in advance of putting the work out to tender. Focus on how you could improve processes and procedures. Don’t just replicate existing practice if that isn’t really working for you.
  •        Ensure that your project team is ‘together’, gets on well, and understands and buys into the vision. This project will test them out and it’s not fair to the software supplier if your team doesn’t sing from the same spreadsheet.
  •        Identify what staffing you need to allocate to the project, then double it! If you’re buying out staff, make sure you really buy them out, and they don’t end up continuing to try to do their day job.
  •        Your new system should be better than your current one, but, unless it’s a bespoke system, it may not be perfect. Settle on it performing 80% of what you wanted really well. Negotiate with the supplier and the customer user group over the remaining 20%.
Hamish Macandrew
Hamish Macandrew is the head of the research support office at the University of Edinburgh.