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What is Automation Software and How Can it Improve Your eRA System?

April 13, 2021

An electronic research administration system (eRA) is a powerful solution. The best eRAs can automate processes, support complex workflows, integrate with other key systems, and create a single repository for proposal, award, COI/COC disclosure, protocol, and export control management information.

However, there are essential research processes that fall outside the scope of an eRA. Those processes may include Principal Investigator Status Requests, Memorandums of Understanding, No-Cost Extensions or similar processes. 

While a newer eRA may handle some of those processes, replacing an eRA is costly and time-consuming. To meet the needs of researchers, administrators often use the tools available to them: PDFs, Google Forms, and other low-functionality solutions the institution already licenses. 

Extend the power of your current eRA and delay the ‘rip and replace’ event while still meeting the needs of researchers through automation software.

What is Automation Software? 

Automation software helps institutions automate complex processes. Many of those processes include forms; another term for automation software is forms and workflow software. These software solutions enable users to build forms and create workflows, integrate them with campus systems, and track progress throughout the workflow. This allows administrators to put their time and effort into more important tasks than form processing or manual data entry. 

Selecting the right automation software for your institution is an important step. If you’re beginning on your journey to the right automation solution, take a look at the five challenges of selecting and implementing workflow automation software in higher education and what to look for in a vendor partnership.

Graphic about what to look for in a vendor partnership. A girl having a webinar

Next, we’ll dive into the benefits of automation software for electronic research administration systems.

Benefits of Automation Software for Electronic Research Administration Systems

Save Time

About half of academic research time is spent on administrative work rather than active research, according to a 2018 FDP study. Form and workflow automation software can help research departments save time by automating many manual administrative tasks such as form processing and data entry. 

In addition, automation solutions help research departments build and launch processes faster than if they were to use PDF-based processes. For example, following the onset of COVID-19, many institutions needed a “Return to Research” process for their campus. Colorado State University turned to an automation solution to help them get back to research. Leadership requested the process, expecting to receive the form and workflow weeks later. In just 30 minutes, IT built the form and workflow to return to research. The campus launched the process shortly after. 

Without the eRA software automation solution for this process, the institution would have likely used a more basic solution, such as Google Forms, that would not allow the same level of agility.

Decrease Potential for Error

With the right forms and workflow automation solution, research administrators can decrease the potential for error across all forms. For example, when a research administrator builds a form, they can use integrations to decrease the amount of manual entry for those completing the form. 

Here’s how it works: a great form and workflow automation software can integrate with your institution’s Single Sign-On (SSO) provider. When a researcher fills out a form, they would log in using their SSO, and find the form they need to complete. Using integrations, their name, email address, department, and other fields can automatically fill on the form. And, with additional integrations that take into account your institution's unique roles and hierarchy, their supervisor can automatically fill as well. 

After those integrations, at least four fields on the form are auto-filled for the researcher. Now imagine you integrate the automation software with your eRA. Fields such as project title and protocol number could automatically fill. 

Form automation and auto-filling fields mean less manual entry for researchers. For research administrators, that translates to a streamlined information management process. There will be fewer misspelled names, mistyped protocol numbers, and overall, more consistency from researchers’ forms.  

an animation of a person browsing his laptop and having coffee

Improve User Experience

Filling out forms can be frustrating. 43% of research administrators feel “maddened” by duplicated information on forms, poor formatting, and the time consumption of routing workflows, according to an SRA study on research administration forms. 

Already, automated fields provide a better experience. Those filling forms don’t have to input information the institution already has such as name, department, email, and project name.

A form automation solution can also help with formatting. For example, some forms have multiple sections that only need to be filled out in certain circumstances. Form automation software allows you to build your form with conditional formatting. Therefore, the form filler only has to fill out the sections of the form that apply to them, significantly reducing the complexity of the form. 

When the form is filled correctly, you spend less time fixing forms. Instead, you can allocate your time to something more impactful. 

Last but not least, a form and workflow automation software streamlines the routing experience. In the SRA study, administrators indicated routing forms took too long

Automation software can completely automate workflows. For example, an administrator can build a form and create the appropriate workflow based on institutional roles before the form is launched. Then, when the form is filled out, approval reminders will be sent to each individual in the workflow automatically. The research administrator no longer needs to play such an active role in collecting approvals because the software emails the necessary parties when their sign-off is needed. Forms can be automatically routed to a dean, the vice provost for research, finance, and so on. 

With the right forms and workflow automation software, you can knock out all three of the most maddening aspects of research administration forms. 

Increase Reportability

Once you’ve collected data, the information submitted can be stored in a data table and sorted or exported to a powerful data management system such as Tableau.

Because so many steps were automated along the way, your data looks the same. Protocol numbers were entered correctly. College titles such as “Agriculture and Life Science” were properly filled and you don’t need to manually fix inputs such as “Life Science and Agriculture” or misspelled words. 

Additionally, great automation software will also provide additional data. The solution might provide time on approval step or time to completion, giving you additional data points to report on and new insights into your processes.  

an animation about software automation. A man sending a digital folder to a woman.

Save Money

Finally, eRA software automation can potentially save money for your institution. 

Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) experienced issues with one of their research processes due to paper-based dependencies. After a researcher filled the required form, it sometimes took weeks or months to complete the workflow due to lost paperwork, delayed transportation from one desk to another, and manual data entry errors.

SCSU used a forms and workflow automation software to streamline the process with impressive success. The institution now completes the particularly problematic process within two weeks of form submissions, and the research department saves an estimated $675,000 by reallocating staff time from simple paper processing to actual information management.

Extend Your eRA Software with Automation Today

Automation software can clearly extend the life of an eRA. Save time, decrease errors, improve user experience, increase reportability, and save money on processing essential research administration forms that fall outside the scope of the eRA and delay the need for more significant interruptions to research.

It all starts with selecting the correct forms and automation software. Check out Higher Education’s Buying Guide to Forms and Workflow Automation Software for more information. 

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