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Why eSign Software Doesn't Solve Automation Needs for eRA Administrators

April 2, 2021

About half of academic research time is spent on administrative work rather than active research (2018 FDP study).

Core administrative work is typically carried out using a comprehensive electronic research administration (eRA) and compliance system. The best eRA solutions automate processes, support complex workflow, integrate with other key systems, and create a single repository for proposal, award, COI/COC disclosure, protocol, and export control management information. 

Inevitably though, there are processes and forms unique to every institution that fall outside the scope of this core functionality. To automate these unique processes, institutions require additional tools to extend the capability of their current research solutions.

That’s where many institutions supplement with an eSign tool. However, eSign tools don’t adequately solve many of the automation needs for research administrators. In this post, we’ll dive into why, including processes outside the eRA system that require automation, the functionality of an eSign tool, and alternative solutions, such as workflow and forms automation software, that better meet the needs of eRA admins.

Processes Outside of the eRA

Research administration requires many processes, some of which fall outside the scope of many eRA systems. Here are a few examples:

  1. Update Principal Investigator Status
  2. Subaward Requests
  3. Date Use Agreement
  4. No-Cost Extension
  5. Memorandum of Understanding

Because these processes are not managed within the eRA system, administrators use other avenues to manage the processes, sometimes resorting to an electronic signature (eSign) tool. 

However, an eSign tool does not offer much functionality beyond the basic PDF. Let’s dig into eSign capabilities in relation to these processes.

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Functionality of eSign Software

An eSign tool allows an administrator to fill or share a PDF document. Essentially, it digitizes paper forms. Some tools also offer limited workflow capabilities. Think of tools like Adobe Sign or DocuSign. 

Most eSign tools have the following features and characteristics:

  • Build a form using a PDF
  • Easy to use
  • Mobile-ready
  • Process mapping
  • Workflow testing
  • Process oversight

eSign tools are excellent for simple processes that require very few steps. A contract with a vendor is a great example. A vendor may only need one or two signatures from your department.  

What about more complex processes?

Let’s look at the Award Memorandum of Understanding process mentioned above. This process requires approvals from multiple individuals, sometimes making it through over a dozen departments. 

The University of Massachusetts Amherst attempted to use an eSign tool to manage this process, but the eSign solution could not provide the functionality administrators needed. UMass Amherst tested an alternative solution, workflow and form automation software platform, Kuali Build. It didn’t take long for UMass Amherst to realize they could use this workflow and forms automation software to manage complex research processes throughout the department. Take a look at their success story to see how UMass Amherst streamlined research processes.  

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Functionality of Workflow and Form Automation Software

Workflow and forms automation software allow administrators to create a form using a variety of field types, then build the appropriate workflow. Kuali Build is one example of a workflow and forms automation platform. 

Kuali Build includes the following features and characteristics:

  • Automate any custom forms with an easy-to-use form builder
  • Create cloud-native and mobile-ready forms
  • Easily map processes with a drag-and-drop workflow creator
  • Automate approvals to key people and roles on campus 
  • Integrate with your eRA platform and other key campus systems
  • Simplify testing of approval processes and notifications with built-in simulation 
  • See where a process is at any point in time and record approvals for future audits 

A workflow and forms automation platform delivers a more comprehensive set of features that research administrators need to automate complex processes successfully. 

If you’d like to see a more complete list of Kuali Build’s functionality, take a look at this side-by-side comparison between workflow and forms automation software and eSign tools. 

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Complete Your Research Administration Tech Portfolio

For complex processes that cannot be managed within eSign tools, consider a forms automation software like Kuali Build. 

Kuali Build can be used to manage complex processes and can help administrators build them quickly. For example, Colorado State University needed to create a return to research process for their campus following the onset of COVID-19. 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. 

Other institutions have reported monetary benefits from using forms automation software for research processes. Southern Connecticut State University saw savings of approximately $675,000 by automating a complex research process. Find out more about saving money with a forms and workflow platform in this page.

Get the functionality your department needs to properly automate processes with Kuali Build. Take Kuali Build for a spin yourself and see what you can build.

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