5 Items to Automate in your Technology Transfer Office
By Steve Lott, Inteum Company
It can be a scary word. Throughout my careers I have come across automation a number of times. Initially the subject was met with some trepidation, but in every case the outcome was positive for the company I worked for at the time and for me.
The first time I came across the word was while working in a lab as a forensic DNA analyst. All of the lab work was carried out by hand, which got us through around 30 samples in a day.
After 5 years we were told we were being automated. Robots were coming in to do the lab work. It sounded awful. Would jobs go? Would it even work?
Here’s what happened. The amount of work going through the lab trebled. Not only were the robots quicker and could do more samples in a single run without getting confused, but the number of errors went down, so rework was at a minimum.
As for my colleagues and I? Far from being let go, we now had the time to do the work that really needed attention, because we were no longer in a lab plunging pipettes. Some went into researching better forensic techniques, some moved into training, and some joined the project teams in between the analysis that still needed to be done by humans.
A career change later and I was in charge of IT and databases for a busy office servicing 43 hospitals and health care trusts.
There are a lot of important things that need to be done to make sure your data stays clean and accurate in a database and none of them are the most fun thing to do on a Friday afternoon.
There are dates to be checked, tasks that are due, records that are no longer relevant, and information that is incomplete. Not every office is in the position to have someone dedicated to this task and the office I worked for was no exception. However, by automating these processes, I was able to leave the system to take care of itself while I got on with the more complex and interesting parts of my job.
It wasn’t always easy convincing others of the benefits. I heard “it would be nice but it will take so long to set up we just don’t have time” a lot. However, later that year when it took most of the people in the office almost a week to pull out a report, due to incomplete data, things changed. Our newly appointed CEO embraced my idea to automate.
We had the system set up to send email reminders as important dates approached. It would check records to make sure the necessary fields for all of our reporting requirements were complete. It would update records automatically to make sure they were accurate. Yes, it took a week of planning and implementation to set up, but how much time did it save?
Extrapolating what was usually done manually by five people over a week chasing up incomplete data for the reports, we have already saved ourselves 80% of the man hours. Adding a Friday afternoon check for expired, out of date records, and records to be updated or archived is another three hours a week for 48 weeks (you have to have a holiday). The Monday morning check for important dates coming up is another two hours a week.
So far we have saved 440 hours. OK, so during those times it wasn’t constant staring at the records but you get the picture. All this time saved by one week’s work
The best part? The automation was put in place in 2009 and is still running, so that is 5 times the 440 hours that people at the office have been able to use to get on with their actual job.
With all this in mind, here are five things you should automate in your technology transfer office so you can spend more time on valuable tasks and less time on data management:
It is pretty obvious that if you are storing data you have to be collecting it from somewhere. I am surprised that I still see people collecting information on Word based forms. Yes, they are easy to set up and have a few customizable aspects, but they don’t help with your data collection.
Whomever is completing the form has to sit and type the answers into the form and then you have to sit and type the answers from the form into your system.
At the very least, try to find some other type of electronic form.. You will be able to pull the data from the form and import it into your system
Even better is to create a limited access website that will allow those people to populate your database for you.
Integrate your systems
Following on from the previous point, this about cutting down on data entry. In a perfect world, we would all be able to find the one system that fit our business perfectly and took care of everything.
In real life, we have finance systems, HR systems, and project management systems, just to name a few. A lot of the data in them is going to be the same. If we are running a project and are working with XYZ Inc. we want to know the details of the company and our contacts in project management. But wait, if we are paying them for a service they’ll need to be in our finance system too.
Integration of these system can push the data from one to the other and keep records across the different tools up to date.
If there is anything time sensitive in your data, you need to be sure it is not going to be missed. If you don’t have much data then searching through the records isn’t a difficult job, but it can still take time. If you have a large amount of data, it becomes nearly impossible.
Automated alerts, those which can scan your data and let you know when a date is coming up, are essential at this point. Not only will it save on the time but if your deadline is for something like Patent Renewal fees it could also save you a lot of money.
Everyone needs to produce a report at some time, that’s the main reason for collecting the data in the first place. But your report is only as good as the data you collect. If you are missing crucial information on a record, it might not show up or it could skew the information. I am sure we have all had the frenetic rush to check and update records just before reporting time as I described.
It is much better having a tool check your data regularly to make sure anything that needs to be filled in for your report to properly work is filled in. You can go a step further and check that any data that has been added is plausible (you can never check it is accurate).
Automated work flows allow you to focus more on doing what should be done at this moment as opposed to wasting time trying to work out what should be done next.
There are a number of ways you can drive and manage workflows, but what they all need are:
- An indication of where you are in the workflow
- Each step beginning when the last is completed
- A timeline for the completion of each step
- The flexibility to work around all of the above
I don’t expect you all to close this article and put all five points into practise. But if you are one of those people that thinks it would take too much time to set up any automation I hope that you think about this the next time you are entering data into your system, from the word forms you use, and think… maybe?