Streamlining the Higher Education Research Lifecycle

Docusign has been supporting the higher education space for nearly a decade, and during this time, we’ve uncovered three common objectives these research institutions share.

First, higher education research institutions want to deliver comprehensive support to faculty and staff in the management and administration of externally sponsored research projects.

Second, these institutions aim to optimize research administration operations by integrating services, fostering transparent collaboration and building a robust infrastructure and seamless processes.

And third, their mission extends beyond research. These organizations are committed to fostering growth in clinical and educational domains, as well as advancing their institution as a center of excellence in various disciplines.

However, in meeting these three objectives, many academic institutions still struggle with manual agreement processes that are prevalent throughout their organizations.

According to the Federal Demonstration Partnership in their Faculty Workload Survey, 44% of researchers’ available work time is spent on administrative tasks. In addition, it took an R1 school 76 days on average to turn around a contract within their Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

If your educational research institution is facing similar challenges, now’s the ideal time to examine which processes are causing these administrative delays.

Manual processes

When looking at the overall research proposal workflow, there’s a wide range of activities involved with managing a research proposal—from preparing to reviewing, editing, signing and ongoing management. Many of these workflows are primarily done manually. For example, faculty and researchers will often leverage a previous proposal template or even manually rekey data into a Microsoft Word document or a PDF during the preparation phase.

During the collaboration phase, multiple campus stakeholders are typically involved during the review process. These include department administration and chairs, central office pre-award staff, export control staff, as well as Institutional Review Board (IRB) committee members who ensure that the proposal submissions meet all compliance guidelines. It’s common for institutions to rely on email to manage the collaboration and communication process among all these stakeholders, which often causes ongoing version control issues.

During the signature phase, some research institutions have implemented electronic signature solutions. However, many are still manually printing, signing on paper and faxing or scanning documents for the next person to sign. In addition, when someone is out of office, the agreement can get stuck in their email inbox, causing delays or even contributing to missing a submission deadline.

Finally, after a proposal has been submitted, central office staff need to manually enter proposal data into a database or system of record, again increasing the risk of human error.

Challenges stemming from outdated procedures

When higher education research institutions face bottlenecks in the pre-award process, not only does this slow down the time to submission, but it also increases the turnaround time between each collaboration step. The worst-case scenario is missing a critical deadline.

In addition, a lack of transparency in research administration is a common problem. An Office of Sponsored Projects can sometimes be thought of as an information black hole with faculty not receiving up-to-date information about the status of their research proposals—including deadlines, bottlenecks and workflow step owners.

This limited visibility and siloed information can also create challenges for maintaining compliance while increasing risk in the event of an audit.

The reliance on traditional, paper-based agreements and documentation workflows slows the research process. Not only does this create disjointed collaboration and lack of transparency in the pre- and post-award process, but it also places the Office of Sponsored Projects in a position of potentially missing deadlines and subsequent funding opportunities.

A new way to streamline the higher education research cycle

Fortunately, higher education research institutions no longer need to operate in this redundant environment that lacks transparency and increases risk. The research process can be optimized from preparation to management to reinforce your mission and objectives.

Here’s how Docusign can help:

  • Clause Library: This feature allows you to incorporate a list of preapproved terms and conditions, as well as the latest sponsor policies and templates, to ensure that no one is using an outdated version in their proposal submission.
  • Workflows: This feature allows you to assemble and connect workflow steps that help automate manual tasks and manage complex processes. Adding automation to your research processes helps eliminate unnecessary risk and reduce errors.
  • Comments: This feature is used for seamless feedback collection with campus partners by creating tasks outside of workflows.
  • AI Workflows: Historically, capturing key terms from proposals has been a manual, time-consuming and error-prone process. Using artificial intelligence to extract document metadata helps ensure that agreements are discoverable and reportable.
  • Signing Groups: This feature allows you to set up your whole office as a signing group to ensure no documents get stuck in someone’s inbox when they’re out of the office.
  • Integrations: Integrate your day-to-day business applications such as Oracle PeopleSoft, Salesforce, Workday, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft SharePoint and other enterprise research solutions, such as the Huron Research suite, to send, collaborate and sign directly from these applications.

The good news is that Docusign can streamline the higher education research cycle incrementally, initially digitizing one or two key areas. This will showcase early successes and help make the case to digitize the full lifecycle.

The value Docusign brings to higher education research institutions

When undertaking process modernization, working with a trusted and experienced provider is essential. For almost 10 years, Docusign has been implementing intelligent workflows and solutions to help institutions deliver a frictionless, digital experience at every step of the higher education research lifecycle.

There are tremendous efficiencies to be gained throughout the process, including: 

  • Reducing the time and cost of the agreement generation process
  • Mitigating risks introduced in negotiations
  • Improving quality control of final versions of research 
  • Optimizing pipeline management and funding forecasting

More efficient workflows for all research activities enhance support and collaboration with faculty, staff and research sponsors, as well as streamline operations through a robust digital infrastructure. The most significant outcome is that Docusign helps strengthen your organization as a center of research excellence.

Looking ahead to a more streamlined future

By embracing a more streamlined lifecycle, higher education research can thrive through more efficient workflows that allow organizations to focus on what truly matters: driving groundbreaking discoveries and advancing knowledge. The Docusign team is ready to work with your office to help you unleash real efficiency.

Watch the “Efficiency Unleashed: Streamlining Higher Education Research Lifecycle” on-demand webinar to learn more.

This post was authored by Melissa Britten, Vice President, Docusign CLM Sales.