University research projects aren’t entirely about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. They’re also about routine tasks such as applying for funding and keeping track of the money once it arrives – and accounting for research projects is rather different from accounting for the day-to-day operation of a business.
That’s why the University of Alberta needed a custom approach to accounting for the more than $400 million worth of research undertaken at the university every year.
“With research,” explains Paul Sorenson, vice-provost for information technology at University of Alberta, “financial reporting is very much project-based, as opposed to what you might called ongoing-project-based.”
The university needs to set up the accounting for each new project quickly, Sorenson says. Projects can be short-term, so researchers are often in a hurry to get underway and may be waiting for funding. Sometimes a department head will even authorize temporary funding from the department’s budget so a project can begin, and the accounts have to be balanced later.
While there is some consistency among projects, Sorenson adds, requirements vary depending on the type and source of funding. Many projects are funded by research granting agencies like the National Research Council (NRC) and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), but others may be partnerships with private companies.
The university uses PeopleSoft accounting software – now a product of Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp. The standard software fits many of the institution’s accounting needs, but for research projects, it needed some customizing.
IBM Canada Ltd., to which the university has outsourced the operation of its administrative systems, customized PeopleSoft to create the first version of what University of Alberta calls its Electronic Tracking of Research Awards and Contracts (eTRAC) system. There were problems with this first attempt, Sorenson says, many of them having to do with getting historical data into the system for projects that had already been under way for several years. The reporting capabilities of the system also needed further work.
So the university put out a request for proposal to three companies with which it maintains relationships for development work. The contract went to Sierra Systems Group Inc., of Vancouver, which started work on the upgrade at the beginning of 2006.
The main task was to improve reporting, says Abe van Dorp, director at Sierra. The principal goal was to give researchers more information to help them understand how they are doing against their budgets. That meant changing the system from a revenue-based approach to a more budget-based approach, says van Dorp.
When Sierra started testing, van Dorp says, some data in the new reports appeared to be wrong. As the developers looked for the source of the problems, they found it was not the reports that were at fault, but the underlying data in the system. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, van Dorp adds – the university “went in knowing that there were some concerns about the data with eTRAC prior to us even winning the contract.” So the project schedule wasn’t significantly affected by the need to correct underlying data problems. Development was completed around the end of April.
The system lets the university set up some standard project types quite fast – it might take a week to get 400 or so separate projects funded by one major granting agency set up, says Sorenson. Other, more ad-hoc projects can take a week or so each.
There is still work to do. The new system “works well for some facets,” Sorenson says, but “we need to go through even a third phase in the future to get this thing the way we’d like to have it for our researchers.” Some of that work will have to wait until the university completes an upgrade of its PeopleSoft financial modules.