Redesigning Research Administration for Stanford’s School of Engineering

The engineering school established a steering committee and engaged the Alumni Consulting Team (ACT) to evaluate and explore various research administration service delivery models.

January 15, 2011


A production line of 1980s computers.

The Stanford School of Engineering (SoE) is widely hailed as one of the world’s preeminent engineering programs. At the crux of its renown are its research breakthroughs — from information technology to nanoscience and nanotechnology to energy and the environment, to bioengineering, and more.

Research represents about 40 percent of the school’s $316-million annual budget so a viable infrastructure for securing and managing research funding has been, and continues to be critical. The problem? The growth in SoE research proposals, increased regulatory requirements, changing standards for research management, and constricted budgets had put pressure on its key research support function, the Engineering Research Administration (ERA).

In 2008, a third party consulting team evaluating all aspects of research administration for the University recommended abandoning the existing ERA organization, yet failed to provide actionable strategies for moving forward to improve research administration for SoE.

Committed to ensuring the success of this important support function, the engineering school established a steering committee and engaged the Alumni Consulting Team (ACT) to evaluate and explore various research administration service delivery models. An ACT team of nine MBAs, including several engineering school alumni, explored the pros and cons of various research delivery models with regard to faculty satisfaction, resource requirements and cost, process efficiency, compliance, robustness to staff absences, and consistency of services and training. The team worked closely with key faculty and staff at the SoE.

According to ACT Consultant Debbie Byron, MBA ’84, “We addressed this ACT engagement as an organizational and process question — how could we improve ERA so that the Principal Investigators would be able to submit winning proposals and be confident enough in the support system to expand their research efforts? We found the ERA had limited resources, expanding demands, an unclear charter, and inadequate tools making it difficult for them to provide the needed services.” ACTs primary focus was to address the faculty’s serious dissatisfaction with the existing research administration process, and do so within the Schools budget constraints. In addition, job satisfaction of research administrators was addressed as well to further ensure the success of the engagement.

Since ERA was established in 1994, there had been significant changes in the demands on research administration. As an example, research volume had been growing at six percent compounded annually since the mid-1990s, with faculty submitting far more proposals with increasingly complex requirements. The funding portfolio in Engineering had diversified significantly as well, and as many as 180 different sponsors with ever-changing requirements were being tracked. Further compounding the situation, Stanford’s internal IT systems had evolved, audits had become more frequent, and proposal submission was moving to electronic format. The penalty for errors and omissions had grown substantially. To avoid serious problems today and in the future, the ACT team recognized the importance of standardizing the research administration process across all departments and faculty principal investigators.

Getting Down to Business

The ACT consultants partitioned the work into subgroups — interviewing faculty, staff, and external parties; conducting surveys, task audits, and reviewing activity logs; and establishing benchmarks. An early outcome was that the ACT team identified criteria for successful delivery of research administration. At the forefront was a need for ERA to become more customer-centric. This was determined to be essential before recommendations for process improvements, clarified roles, organizational changes and integrated software solutions could ensure success.

According to ACT Project Lead Dave Plough, MBA ‘86, “Our fundamental observation was that the ERA needed to re-orient and treat the faculty as its customer. They had to figure out how to make the faculty more successful. One immediate, structural change ACT recommended was to move the ERA staff physically closer to the research teams they were serving rather than be cloistered away in a trailer.”

After three months of study and evaluation of models, the ACT volunteer consultants came up with a number of ways the Engineering School might organize its research administration. Through considerable healthy debate, the team narrowed its recommendations to two models. The management of the administrative function was proposed as either “departmental” to acknowledge unique department needs, or “central,” reporting to the Associate Dean, to acknowledge increased requirements for compliance and consistency.

While change is never easy in any organization, the ACT volunteers say they were impressed with the level of commitment and sponsorship they had from the ERA team and from the Dean of Engineering, James D. Plummer, as well as from a steering committee made up of SoE faculty, the office of Sponsored Research, and the Stanford University CFO. Once the ACT team turned over the findings to Dean Plummer, he and others spent the next several months presenting the ACT recommendations to the faculty and staff to win buy-in for one of the two approaches.

According to Dean Plummer, “We’ve been really pleased with the work of the ACT volunteers. Their logic and analysis was impeccable. They helped us resolve a difficult and sensitive challenge we faced, and did so with the utmost professionalism — providing guidance and strategic consulting expertise second to none. We have now completed implementation of the ACT recommendations.”

Project Take-aways

Says Debbie Byron, “This was my first ACT project, I found it very interesting and challenging to work with my peers and to see each of us come at the problem in so many different ways, with different expertise, but with the same level of commitment to solving the problem.”

Pam Versaw, a veteran ACT team member reported: “This engagement reminded us all the importance of remaining open minded and analyzing the issues completely before deciding on a course of action. When we started the project, the faculty was not satisfied with the performance of the ERA, and there was talk of its dissolution. Working closely with the various constituencies at the School of Engineering, we were eventually able to identify viable alternatives that were less disruptive and yet met the essential administrative needs of the Engineering Faculty. We also had an opportunity to work with an incredible team of GSB alums — very smart and experienced, adding to the fun of the engagement.”

Dave Plough reflected on the value of participating in ACT projects, “ACT is a great forum to reengage with the Graduate School of Business and provide incredible leverage to help change lives, change organizations, and change the world. I think what everyone on the team looks for is leverage; in other words, how do I make these few hours in the non-profit world worth many more hours downstream. It was pretty clear as we got into this project that we would have the ability to make a huge impact on the Engineering School. For a group of GSB alums to have this kind of opportunity was really exciting. Ten years from now, the Engineering school will continue to be a leader on the world stage, and the work we did through this engagement will have played a small but important role in allowing SoE to continue to push the frontiers of modern science and engineering.”

Stanford School of Engineering Consulting Engagement: Fast Facts

Challenge: Stanford University School of Engineering is one of the world’™s top-rated engineering programs, yet its Engineering Research Administration function faced critical challenges: it had become inefficient and outdated in its approach, with limited resources, expanded demands, an unclear charter, and poor communications and tools to provide the needed services.

Solution: ACT consultants were called in to assist with a strategic assessment of research administration needs to define an optimal organizational model for managing sponsored projects.

Results: ACT recommended two options: a distributed and centralized managed model, and a distributed and department-managed model. Two ACT consultants were hired to help with implementation.

ACT Consultants

  • Dave Plough, MBA ’86 Project Leader
  • John Berg, SLOAN ’03
  • Debbie Byron, MBA ’84
  • Dave Hoyt, MBA ’79
  • Raja Kapadia, MBA ’04
  • Dave Olson, MBA ’83
  • George Petracek, MBA ’93
  • Pam Versaw, MBA ’84
  • Rick Warp, MBA ’82

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