By Lauren Wilson, Research Systems Manager
On Wednesday 7th September 2016 I attended an RCUK regional workshop, hosted here at the University of Stirling, about the new grants service which is being designed to provide new technology to support the grants process, eventually replacing the functionality provided by Je-S (Joint Electronic Submissions) interface. Over 50 managers and academic staff from across Scotland made the trip, for a very interesting and informative day.
Je-S is a system that researchers and research offices all over the UK are familiar with as it’s the application portal for Research Council funding. At the workshop, we heard from the Project Manager of the new grants service project about why the system is being replaced, and the approaches that are being taken to ensure the development meets the user needs and will deliver the required functionality to support the application process.
The day was in two parts, a presentation in the morning and then some user testing in the afternoon. I was unfortunately not able to join in for the afternoon, but the presentation was a really interesting overview of a project which is going to have lots of impact and, by the sounds of it, will bring about lots of improvements for research funding in the UK.
From a project management perspective, I found the presentation really interesting. The project is being managed using a specific approach, which is very popular for building software, called the ‘Agile’ methodology. The presenter compared this to more traditional ‘waterfall’ projects, where the full set of requirements are laid out at the outset, and some time later the project team delivers a product, which may or may not be suitable to the requirements of the organisation by the time it is delivered. In comparison, Agile is a more iterative approach, where requirements are analysed and discussed by the project team, and then development is carried out, followed by user testing and feedback, in short sprints (this RCUK project has three-week sprints). An agile methodology & the three week sprints means that the progress of the new software is being released gradually, and stakeholder engagement is regularly sought to ensure that as the system develops, it is continually meeting user service requirements. Equally, where the development is going off-track, this can be identified quickly, to minimise waste in terms of development and time.
During the presentation we heard about the RCUK project’s progress over the last 18 months and the user stories that have been collected in order to understand the different stakeholder requirements of the grant service – including Research Council staff, academic applicants, peer reviewers, research organisations. There were pictures of lots of sticky notes on the walls, lots of user journeys to collect and display! A copy of their Service Blueprint was displayed on the wall at the meeting – it’s a really interesting view of the different users involved in the process, and the complex interactions they have with the process and each other during the process, that the system needs to support.
We saw initial prototype web pages, showing a dashboard of applications in the system and an application form. Because of the agile methodology, we were informed that the prototypes would not be similar to the finished product, as it will iterate and change due to user feedback. Examples were given where it is planned that the system will bring about time saving and efficiency to the process, in order to add value. For instance, it is intended that the new system will no longer require attachments that contain core information, which takes users’ time in uploading/downloading.
We heard that the plan for the project is to have some calls available on the system in March 2017, in order to test and obtain user feedback on the system which will, you guessed it, be used to improve and develop the process. That process will carry on to the point of full use of the system for all applications during 2018.
This regional workshop was the first of a series of regional workshops. I also saw the team present at the ARMA conference back in June, and they have also held other meetings and events over the summer. The team are obviously keen to interact and involve institutions across the country in this project. If you’re interested to hear more about the session, and would like to hear about any future meetings that are organised, contact your funding officer or RDM for more information. The RCUK website is being kept up to date with progress, you can check it out here. In the meantime, I certainly picked up lots of insight about project management and even managed to keep the copy of the big wall poster (aka Service Delivery Blueprint)!