“Wait… I’m done? There’s nothing else?” asked Dr. Adriana Heguy, the director of the Geoffrey Beene Translational Oncology Core (GBTOC) at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). This was not the typical end-of-week billing slog to which Dr. Heguy had become accustomed; this was more like a five-minute process. Dr. Heguy was now on the phone with the team that had implemented her new project tracking and billing system, trying to figure out “the catch”.
Started in 2007, Dr. Heguy’s core had grown quickly. Over the last three months, the core had worked on nearly 100 products, providing close to half a million dollars worth of services to more than 20 principal investigators. The rapid growth to this level of service was exciting, but it had begun to cause management challenges as well. The spreadsheet-based system of tracking requests was taking an increasing toll on productivity, and maintaining a full history of requests was becoming unwieldy. Fortunately for Dr. Heguy, in early 2010 the leadership at MSKCC had begun working with iLab Solutions to implement a new core facility management system. When Dr. Heguy heard about this, she eagerly signed up for the first implementation wave.
Dr. Heguy’s decision to move forward aggressively paid off more quickly than she expected, starting with the first painless weekly billing process. “I have gained a day to a day-and-a-half of time per week,” she said, adding that the new process is “really, really good.” This extra time allows her to focus on more important responsibilities, such as managing staff and researching new technologies for the core.
Dr. Heguy is not alone – many cores face similar challenges
Many cores face similar challenges. These challenges crop up throughout the work flow and can include inefficient scheduling tools; difficulty tracking actual equipment usage; weak tools for communicating project progress; invalid account numbers; time-consuming invoicing and reporting processes; and incomplete recharge recovery.
How can research institutions successfully address these challenges?
MSKCC’s approach provides the template for a well-designed process that addresses the range of problems faced by cores. MSKCC’s process, which iLab believes represents a best-practice, includes the following steps:
1. Defining the needs
2. Selecting the solution
3. Implementing the solution
4. Maintaining the solution
Defining the needs
Diane Tabarini, the Director of Core Facilities Operations at MSKCC, led the process of implementing a core facilities management solution. Her first step was to develop a short list of requirements that encompassed the needs of all 35 cores. The solution needed to flexibly accommodate the different ways that cores manage requests from their customers. At the same time, it needed to consistently compile user data and payment information in order to streamline billing and reporting. Furthermore, it needed to integrate into the existing IT infrastructure (in MSKCC’s case, SAP financials and Active Directory identity management). Finally, the system needed to be user-friendly and intuitive, so that cores and customers would willingly adopt it and view it as a valuable tool, rather than an administrative burden.
After defining the high-level needs, an institution can assemble a more specific list of requirements. Exhibit 1 represents a composite example of common requirements, drawn from across multiple research institutions.
Selecting the solution
In order to minimize execution risk, complexity, cost, and time line, the MSKCC leadership chose to partner with a proven core facility management system vendor. In selecting the right vendor, Tabarini and her colleagues involved critical stakeholders from across the organization, and drew upon multiple data sources. Tabarini asked iLab Solutions to provide live system demonstrations to the heads of all cores, the administrative leadership group, and the Information Systems team. She also solicited feedback from existing iLab customers, including making a site visit to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and discussions with the research leadership at Weill Cornell Medical College, MSKCC’s Manhattan neighbor.
Comparing iLab to other solutions she had investigated, Tabarini said that the decision was clear. “For anybody who has been looking at this for a while, iLab is the best solution,” she said. For MSKCC, the key decision criteria included the strength of the software, iLab’s experience working with other cores, and the company’s hands-on approach to implementation. “The price, the people, the team’s approachability,” she said, listing important factors, adding that “iLab is not pushy, the group is very talented… if you want a system over a large number of cores, cores that are all very different, iLab is the right solution.”
Implementing the solution
A successful implementation must coordinate a number of goals. Important elements in the deployment include:
• Setting up data for each core in the solution, including services, equipment, prices, and forms;
• Developing integrations with other institutional systems, such as financial and identity management systems;
• Determining work flow rules and responsibilities, such as spending approval thresholds or visibility of services to external customers;
• Training core members and customers.
Every institution will have specific time lines, goals, and constraints that lead to a unique implementation process. However, successful implementations across institutions share certain factors. Perhaps the most important is the development of trust-based relationships among all the participants. For Tabarini, the ability to reach out to any member of the iLab team at any point was critical. “The relationship [between MSKCC and iLab] is very, very, very good,” she said, explaining that she felt confident in receiving a prompt response whether she reached out to a member of the implementation team, called the head of technology, or emailed the CEO.
Active management from the institution is equally important in ensuring successful coordination. MSKCC assigned an experienced project manager, Sashi Ghosal, to partner with the iLab implementation team. Ghosal served as the single point of contact, facilitating interactions with Finance, Information Systems, and the individual cores. Ghosal also played a key role in prioritizing and developing consensus on decisions which have an institution-wide impact. For example, he helped to ensure all MSKCC stakeholders were aligned on the desired approval work flow and spending thresholds.
Finally, successful implementations generally follow a phased approach. The project team often dedicates the first several months to developing integrations between systems and to implementing a small number of “pilot” cores. The pilot group generally consists of those cores which most urgently need a new management system and/or whose managers are eager adopters of new technology. The pilot experience helps to refine and improve the deployment process for subsequent cores. Equally important, a successful pilot deployment builds internal momentum for the cores that follow.
Maintaining the solution
Successful core management systems require ongoing maintenance and support. At a minimum, any software system requires periodic updates to respond to developments in security requirements, hardware design and other technological innovations. Additionally, the introduction of new research technologies and techniques necessitates corresponding software upgrades. Updates to other institutional information systems (e.g., financial systems) also require ongoing updates to maintain the integrity of integrations. Finally, active monitoring of system usage patterns is important to maximize security and performance.
Maintaining, monitoring and replacing hardware is another critical part of supporting a solution. Multi-server redundancy helps to protect against data loss in the event of a machine failure. Geographic redundancy across multiple locations similarly protects against data loss in the event of a fire or natural disaster. Controlling physical access to servers is an important element of ensuring data security.
Customer support is also vital to a successful and widely-accepted core management solution. Many stakeholders across the organization require some level of support, ranging from researchers who use the system to place requests, to core staff who manage the execution of requests, to institutional administrators.
Different solutions place different maintenance burdens on organizational resources. For internally-developed solutions, the institutional technology group is typically responsible for the full spectrum of maintenance and support activities. Alternatively, organizations can choose a solution where the vendor is responsible for almost all maintenance and support activities.
MSKCC chose to partner with iLab Solutions partly because it operates on a “Software-as-a-Service” (SaaS) model. Under this web-based model, iLab is responsible for providing and maintaining all hardware, software updates, and user support. MSKCC’s cores do not have any on-site hardware requirements, and the Information Systems team has minimal support responsibilities. An added benefit for MSKCC of this model was a faster implementation time line.
Realizing the vision
Successfully implementing a core facility management solution can profoundly improve the operations of shared resources. Streamlining and standardizing recharges, reporting, status updates, and equipment usage tracking liberates time to reinvest in the conduct of research.
Realizing this potential requires a carefully-crafted and well-executed strategy. MSKCC provides an example of what can be achieved and a model for how to get these elements right. iLab is proud to contribute to MSKCC’s success in this endeavor.