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Managing Grants with BPM

MUSC cuts error rates and improves efficiency with automation

The Medical University of South Carolina depends heavily on grants to finance its medical research. After those grants are awarded, the university manages the allocation process, including up to 3,000 requests for fund distribution changes every quarter.

Before the university began moving to business process management (BPM) software two years ago, the grant allocation process was entirely manual, relying on disparate legacy systems to process the high volume of information. That meant that the same information had to be keyed into different front-end and back-end systems, resulting in significant delays and errors.

When Chief Operations Officer Stewart Mixon joined MUSC seven years ago, he immediately saw problems with the existing legacy systems and how they interacted. Prior to his arrival, the university had used a "best of breed" determination in purchasing its solutions, in which each software package selected was considered to be the leader offered by any vendor in a category. That approach had left the university with expensive legacy applications that weren't integrated, including the ERP and HR systems, and extra software modules that often simply weren't needed.

Interoperability issues were the rule rather than the exception. For example, because system access was so difficult, so-called "shadow systems" were created as work-arounds. Something as routine as a salary increase or classification change entered into the ERP system resulted in a printed request that was then delivered by courier to the medical university's offices. There it sat in a queue until, days later, it was entered into the shadow system at MUSC.

Clearly, change was needed in terms of how systems communicated with each other, as well as overall efficiency and effectiveness. A new ERP system was considered but dismissed as too cumbersome and expensive for the 3,000-student university. And an initial solution, to develop a custom solution internally, ended up creating as many problems as it solved.

A better--and more cost-effective--answer came in the form of a solution that has become more and more common in business but is still somewhat unusual in higher education: business process management software. Such software is designed to help automate the many manual business processes within an organization, from human resources to financial systems and beyond. The results can be significant improvements in efficiency and time savings and large reductions in data entry errors and duplicate systems.

At MUSC, the new BPM system has reduced the per-grant error rate dramatically, from 85 percent to 90 percent to just 20 to 25 percent initially, then finally 2 percent to 3 percent as users learned to use more efficient processes. And "human touches" during the grants allocation process, traditionally a source of errors in any process, have dropped 65 percent.

Mixon said the school researched the market, then selected a BPM tool from Lombardi. It helped that Lombardi had a relationship with the company that owned the software the university had worked with previously and that the university also had a relationship with Lombardi already. Still, Teamworks sold itself on its merits, Mixon stressed.

At the university, the BPM software has proved to be a solid solution that has allowed the university to avoid replacing its legacy software. Instead, the BPM software works with the legacy systems. The rollout process was slower than Mixon had hoped, but an initial project was implemented some six months after the software was purchased. Each of the six colleges at the university, of which the medical school is the largest, is now using the BPM system in some capacity. Department business managers throughout the campus, perhaps 50 in all, use Teamworks to access information such as grants and contracts.

Implementing BPM software typically requires setting up numerous business rules--in essence, automating the workflow that users follow to manage information daily. At MUSC, Mixon structured the first implementation process to involve many of the business managers using the system now--a process he highly recommends. That helped to avoid implementing business processes that weren't very efficient, but that become entrenched over time--a common problem at many institutions. The first step was to streamline processes and eliminate poor ones, then to begin developing business rules that aligned with state as well as the university's internal requirements. That approach, Mixon said, "worked extremely well."

The strategy was both to involve a wide swath of participants--including Mixon's internal IT group, consultants from Lombardi, users from the back-end office, and other representatives--and to select a high-volume, highly visible area for the first implementation. For that reason, Mixon chose grants and contracts. "I thought, if we could find a successful solution [there], involving all those constituents and stakeholders, we'd have a big win and it would gain some ground-level support," thus fostering user interest in further uses for the solution.

The approach worked. "We all put our professional interests aside," Mixon said--with him acting as a referee--and after its success in the grants and contracts area, the IT group has moved to a second and now a third BPM project on campus.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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