Database company Oracle claims to have revolutionised the management of grants. Natasha Loder reports
A quiet revolution is under way in the research administration of a handful of universities around the country. Oracle, the giant database supplier has moved into financial applications and has produced a grants management software package, which it claims is "crucial to meeting the requirements of establishments managing research grants". The package marks part of Oracle's re-entry into higher education software, a field it left two years ago.
Oracle Grants Management allows universities to track funded projects from notice of award, through to final reporting.
Lucy Brown, Oracle's public sector marketing manager, said: "In projects where there are potentially many sponsors you need very good decision support and control over the project and how you're spending the money to report back intelligently to the people funding you. If you're required to provide a lot of information to sponsors on how it's going and forecasting what's going to be happening in the future, you need intelligent systems."
Oracle says it gives "flexible control" over a project - something not previously possible with standard accounting packages. Ms Brown said:
"People would have to go in and dig out the information and ringfence things themselves in order to have a view of where they were. OCM automates it, providing an intelligent view."
OCM can report in standard forms satisfying government reporting requirements and it is easy to access figures such as proposal, submission and success rates. "During the lifetime of the grant, as people need to spend money and raise the purchase requisition, it does all the intelligent checking to make sure you've got approval to spend that volume of money against that budget," said Ms Brown.
The package is already extensively used in the United States. In the UK, University College London, the University of Durham and Imperial College have bought the package, and Oracle says it is negotiating with a number of other significant prospects. Durham recently bought the package as one of the modules in its new complete management information services package, which will cost Pounds 15 million over the next seven years and is being supplied by Unisys.
"At the moment there's a big revamp of financial systems in HE establishments because existing systems are not providing the level of management information needed," said Ms Brown.
OCM cannot be bought on its own, but comes within Oracle's financial package - making the cost of OCM "difficult to estimate".
Universities buying the package appear to be recognising the increasing importance of meeting the reporting requirements of funding organisations, as well as seeing the need for project tracking and instant reporting - which allow more informed decision making throughout the lifetime of a project.
Researchers and administrators know what has been spent, what percentage has been split into what areas, what the remainder can be spent on over what time period - and who has the authority to sign it off.
"As soon as some start being able to report back in this way to their sponsors, other universities will need to follow suit," Ms Brown claims.
In the new year, Oracle will be releasing a pre-award module -developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - which will allow research establishments to build a project in order to present to potential funders.