Financial reporting tool for PIs ready to launch

As an administrator in the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Kelly Welsh knows how arduous and time-consuming it can be to compile complex financial reports for research faculty. Like many administrators across the university, Welsh and her staff run reports in Excel spreadsheets and manually enter information gathered from multiple sources.

But now, university officials are unveiling a new financial reporting tool, PI Partners, aimed at making principal investigators' management of grant awards more complete and more efficient.

"It will be great to actually have a system that we don't have to re-enter the data and we can do projections," says Welsh, who was among a group of administrators who helped in the creation of the system.

PI Partners promises to solve the No. 1 headache for principal investigators and their administrators: the amount of time spent on financial reporting, which can distract them from research duties. The system provides a complete financial picture, facilitating staffing and resource decisions. Without complete data at their fingertips—and importantly, the ability to forecast—researchers were often operating in the dark, not knowing when to reapply for funding to support their efforts, says Mark Chisamore, of the Office of Change Management, who was project leader for PI Partners. "It was really difficult for them to get a holistic picture of their portfolio," he says.

The creation of PI Partners dates back nearly four years, when a research oversight committee convened to find ways to make the university the best environment for research and scholarship. One major obstacle to that was the difficult management of funded contracts, says Scott Zeger, vice provost for research, who chaired that committee.

"Investigators around the country spend 40 percent of their research time on research administration. That's too much," Zeger says. These duties are necessary, he adds, but "40 percent isn't a good balance. We wanted to shift that balance so more time was spent on discovery."

Faculty and staff needed a robust, easy-to-use financial reporting tool, he says. Researchers were previously using a system called Access to Financial Information, which was created with similar intentions but was limited in scope. It was built on the university's old financial system, so when the new SAP system was implemented in 2007, AFI fell by the wayside. Other reporting tools were limited and difficult to navigate, administrators say.

"It's of no use to anyone if it's not easy to use," says Anne Albinak, senior financial analyst in the Whiting School of Engineering's Business Office, who spent 10 years as an administrator and also provided input on the development of PI Partners. "That was extraordinarily important to us."

PI Partners is the answer to these woes, officials say. It draws on data from the enterprisewide SAP system and was designed with prospective users to be intuitive, allowing administrators to drill down from summary reports. What's more, investigators can project future funding periods for their grants, to help better plan utilization of their resources.

The development of PI Partners was a deliberate one. Rather than quickly purchase an off-the-shelf solution, Zeger and others embarked on a lengthy fact-finding mission to make sure that the system they chose would meet the users' needs. They recruited a group of administrators from four academic divisions to spend several months detailing their management methods and identifying the crucial features of a reporting system. In partnership with technical staff in IT@JH and central finance, they developed a series of prototype reports and solicited feedback from others on the design. IT@JH, led by Geof Corb, developed a proof-of-concept solution and, following its validation, designed and developed the new system. The team also enlisted a broader committee of users to offer feedback for refining it during the process.

The effort was made more complex by the very nature of a large decentralized university. Each department has its own process for managing and reporting grant awards. Plus, much of the research crosses departments. With limited core funding, university officials had to build support among departments and divisions, which would need to chip in for the system. They had to make a case that it would save them money in the long run and make PIs' lives easier.

"This wasn't something in their five-year planning cycle," Zeger says. "They had to realize PI Partners' value and then be creative to find the resources to pay for it."

In October, five departments and one school began piloting the system, which will be rolled out to others in mid-November. Those who have worked closely with the development of PI Partners have high expectations of time and energy savings. "I think it will be extremely helpful," says Susanne Boeke, a former administrator now in the Vice Dean's Office in the School of Medicine. "If you have responsibility for one or more research faculty, there is not a good way right now to pull up a report where you can see a list of all the awards and the balances."

This release won't have all the bells and whistles, but it does address the principal investigators' day-to-day operations. Once any kinks are worked out, officials can build on the system, adding capabilities, Chisamore says.

Posted in University News