Recap of Ask SET Anything: Research Administration Edition

Rob Munro - 29 April 2021

Last Friday, the SET team hosted another edition of our Ask SET Anything event series specifically for research administration staff and researchers to raise questions, concerns, and share feedback with regard to administrative restructuring and transitioning. Despite our technical difficulties, we had another great turnout with approximately 85 staff joining us for the live Zoom meeting and another 230 watching the livestream. Thank you to everyone who joined the event to make it so successful, and we do apologize for the unexpected capacity limit that was placed on the live Zoom meeting, preventing some registrants from joining us live.

Along with myself and our research administration workstream sponsors, Dr. Walter Dixon (Interim Vice-President, Research and Innovation) and Dr. Steve Patten (Interim Dean, Faculty of Arts), our panel was rounded out by members of the SET team and subject matter experts from across the university:

  • Dr. Florence Glanfield — Vice-Provost (Indigenous Programming & Research)
  • Dr. Ania Ulrich — Acting Associate Vice-President (Research)
  • Michael Walesiak — Executive Director, Research Services
  • Denis Fortin  —  Research Administration Project Manager, Service Excellence Transformation
  • Brian Stewart — Program Director, Administrative Transformation, Service Excellence Transformation

For those who were unable to attend the event, a recording is available:


Ensuring researchers are supported

Much of the discussion and preliminary discovery findings shared during the event focused on the need for researchers to be supported in the new model with efficient processes and procedures. With more streamlined and effective support, researchers can focus as much time and attention as possible on their research instead of spending time on administrative work. We understand there is a need for quick and reliable support—often from a single, trusted point of contact when navigating research administration. With more than 250 non-standardized processes identified in the research community, we are also aware that redesigning these processes to optimize them for the new model is a large undertaking. It’s even more important when high-calibre research is a pillar of our university’s mission that the SET program is determined to uphold.

The panelists emphasized that our goal is “not to do more, with less.” Difficult decisions may have to be made and some activities may need to cease. However, by reviewing the overall approach to research administration, we expect to be able to maintain the key support structures that will enable these activities to be successful.

Discovery and next steps

While the research administration stream is really just getting started, the team did achieve its first milestone by completing the discovery phase just days before the Ask SET Anything event. Engaging faculties and units from across the university, 146 workbooks were distributed, 12 focus groups were held, as well as several other consultation meetings and Q&A sessions, totalling 300 participants. The information gathered is now being analyzed to prioritize which processes will be redesigned first. This discovery data will help us understand what work is being done by whom, so we can ensure the proper supports are in place for transitioning to the new model. In early May, the research administration stream will begin the prepare phase of the functional review process, where we will consult with staff currently doing the work. As the subject matter experts in the processes, we want to ensure key stakeholders have the opportunity to be part of the workgroups that will redesign the processes end to end.

We have prepared a short presentation that provides further detail on the operating model for research administration as well as preliminary information and data gathered through the discovery process. 

Research administration web page

To keep you informed about ongoing changes and updates within the research administration stream, a dedicated web page has been created. This web page tracks progress and provides updates as research administration functions transition to the new administrative operating model developed under the U of A for Tomorrow initiative. Here you will find an overview of the research administration stream’s approach, working group members, upcoming consultation events, FAQs, and more.

Consultation and upcoming events

As we continue through this process, we want to ensure that staff have their questions and concerns addressed and learn more about the opportunities and roles in the new model. We will continue to host engagement events and are planning to host another Ask SET Anything event for research administration in the near future, so be sure to check the UAT consultation page for upcoming dates. 

Below, you will find answers to some of the questions asked during the event. Stay tuned for these, and more that were submitted, to be answered on the SET FAQ web page and research administration web page.

Rob Munro
Executive Lead, Service Excellence Transformation

Questions asked and answered

The new administrative operating model separates HR, finance, and research administration as three streams distinct from one another, but our experience clearly shows how intricately connected these three components are within research administration. How can this siloed structure allow for the delivery of comprehensive advice, access, and support to researchers?

While we agree that HR and finance are important components of the support required by the research community, the HR and finance processes and practices supporting research operations are not fundamentally different from those supporting other activities at the university. The same accounting rules apply, the same collective agreements apply, and the same experts from both HR and finance need to be involved. There is a gain in simplicity and responsiveness when all these processes are handled the same way by the same group of individuals. We recognize that there may be nuances when it comes to research, but HR and Finance Partners can then interface with their research counterparts to ensure seamless coordination.

Will SET be conducting a GBA+ activity to use multiple and intersectional lenses when developing the process used to create, move or recruit staff into new roles? 

We have provided GBA+ training to all members of the SET team and are in the process of looking for more resources to increase our knowledge of EDI and build these learnings into our processes. The research administration stream has just completed the discovery phase and is about to begin working through the information collected from the workbooks and focus groups. Being this early on in the functional review, we haven’t yet conducted a specific GBA+ or EDI activity, but we anticipate doing so, and will be sure to communicate our efforts to the university community.

During discovery we specifically discussed systemic barriers that exist in our current practices which are creating some issues for early career researchers and our equity deserving faculty members. We are hoping to establish new processes that can help decrease these barriers. Our tri-council funding agencies are expecting a lot from us and we need to work in a holistic way, so we're not simply relying on the Associate Dean - Research or the research facilitators to bear the brunt of educating our faculty members and providing those supports. We also need to pay attention to our postdoctoral fellows because they are the future early career researchers and there’s an incredible opportunity for us to bring in an EDI lens with them as we look forward.

Will the consolidation of research administration affect the way we apply for research grants?

There should not be any major changes to the way you apply for grants. We are still working to determine what is going to happen at a particular level, for example what activities will be elevated from the departments, to the faculties, to the colleges. As that structure becomes  clearer, we’ll better understand how these processes will work within the new model.

However, in terms of standard discovery or operating grants we do not foresee any major changes in the processes that are going to be followed. We are working to create better opportunities for application review as we create these new systems. The expectation is that for areas that have had less research administrative support, these new structures will provide more opportunities for early guidance and mentoring through expansion of services that are already offered in other parts of the university.

Should we expect any interruptions or delays in processing grant applications and receiving funding with the shift to the new administrative operating model?

The expectation is that there will be as little disruption as possible. These applications generate funding that is vital for our world-class research projects, so we need to facilitate, not inhibit these applications. Our goal is to make the transition as seamless as possible and it’s also important to remember that any changes to processes will not happen overnight. We will socialize changes well in advance of implementation and we will make sure that the people who are responsible for receiving those submissions are in place before we advise researchers and research administrators that there is a new process or person to whom applications are to be submitted.

Will the administrative work of research awards remain within the faculties/departments or will it be moved to a Centre of Expertise?

Having just completed the discovery phase, we have yet to determine which roles or activities will be done where.  We have to be very clear from project initiation right to final report completion who’s doing those tasks and where they belong in the new model. We certainly realize that some support is needed as close as possible to the researcher; for example, where research area-specific knowledge is needed to initiate  processes, monitor deadlines, apply for extensions, etc. The need to have people embedded in the faculties is not lost, we know it's a critical place where these kinds of activities and processes are initiated.

Ultimately, the SET model is trying to create consolidated service entities so that we can have more streamlined approaches. While we want to avoid tasks being routed multiple places before it gets to the right person, that doesn't mean we cannot have efficient methodologies for asking questions, or getting the ball rolling on a number of standard activities. 

Have there been any conversations or plans to establish self-serve resources for researchers?

We are looking at some form of well-designed and well-integrated self-serve processes for staff or students, especially for transactional activities. The intent is to keep our resources in the more strategic areas where we need people to be more interactive: this is essentially the whole SET model.

A large portion of the discovery phase will help us better understand what the needs are. There may be instances where it's going to be valuable and beneficial for the researcher to be able to do a task themselves—if we can make it as direct and simple as possible. In other situations, it may be better for others to do the work because it is more efficient. In short, we want researchers to be able to focus on their research, not be drawn into complex administrative tasks.

We're still open to suggestions about processes that can be improved or turned into self-serve options, so if you hear of good ideas from research teams in your faculties or units, we’d be very interested in hearing them.



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