How might universities improve the experience of their research communities?

Discovering new ideas and thinking


We know many universities are grappling with how to provide administrative services that enable the successful delivery of their research and innovation projects. There is no shortage of challenges, and it can be difficult for institutions to provide the support that their research community needs to thrive.

At Social Origin we’ve had the privilege of working with many talented and inspiring academic researchers. We wanted to share an approach you can take to understanding and improving the performance of your services. These lessons are drawn from our own experiences of supporting research-intensive institutions to rethink how they work.

The challenge (as we see it)

The nature of research has changed and is still changing. The demand on researchers to be more innovative, demonstrate the impact of their research and be financially sustainable continues to grow.

Despite this many universities we speak to say their internal administration has not kept pace with the demands on their research communities.

This can often look like:

  • Services that are organised around administrative definitions. Historically, universities structure their administrative support around the largest volume or value of activity – typically Quality-related (QR) eligible research or commercialisation
  • Services that are organised around internal structures or teams, often distributed across both faculty and central offices
  • There can be gaps in responsibility for different activities that might not be considered ‘traditional’ research. Support for innovation-type activities (such as knowledge transfer or certain industry partnerships) can be unclear or not available at all.

This can result in more work for researchers, delays to projects, tension between staff and sometimes outright conflict.

This won’t be true for everyone, but many researchers have told us that research is an ongoing process that can span entire careers. It can sometimes be hard to say when it starts or stops, and doesn’t always neatly fit within administrative definitions, structures or responsibilities.

In our discussions with universities these themes seemed to resonate the most. So how might we approach this challenge?

The research and innovation lifecycle

It’s natural to organise services around commonly understood internal structures such as processes or departments. For classic research projects support is frequently arranged into pre-award and post-award administrative support.  This approach has value, but it can be too high level and doesn’t represent the experience of researchers delivering projects. We find it more useful to relate what is happening to the research and innovation lifecycle.

The lifecycle shown below, provides a useful series of steps that can be used to understand both administrative services and the experience of research communities.

It is not intended to reflect the complexity or dynamic nature of these activities. Many projects can flow back and forward between steps over time as new ideas emerge and thinking changes.

1. INFLUENCE For researchers who are leaders in their field, this is an outward-facing activity where they aim to shape the direction of a particular discipline.
2. IDEA DEVELOPMENT Ideas for research and other applications can be years in the making, and often rely on a network of people for testing and refining the idea until it is ready.
3. PROJECT PLANNNG The process of writing grants and other proposals, including assessing the projects scope and complexity. This is what is normally “pre-award” activity.
4. PROJECT SET UP The process of setting up and starting projects. This includes recruitment, contracting, estate needs and administrative set up.
5. PROJECT Facilitating the management and tracking of projects to ensure they can successfully deliver. This includes risk and budget management, as well as reporting progress to partners, funders and other key stakeholders.
6. PROJECT OUTPUT The creation, sharing and management of all project outputs. The outputs produced will vary by project and may include things like publications, research data or patent applications.
7. PROJECT CLOSE AND REVIEW The administrative process of closing down a project and reflecting on its success. This includes reconciling budgets, reporting and supporting staff at the end of their contracts.
8. IMPACT In practice impact is considered from the start and continues throughout the lifecycle. Researchers will draw on a range of support and collaborations to maximise the impact of a project.


Understanding the experience of researchers

The lifecycle provides a simple structure to explore both the experience of research communities delivering projects, as well as the challenges faced by professional services. Using a common structure has several advantages – it allows us to:

  • Understand all the different the steps researchers take to set up and deliver projects
  • Understand where different services fit into this journey
  • Identify the gaps and disconnection between services
  • Better organise services around the goals researchers are trying to achieve at each stage

We recommend using it to understand what happens today, but don’t feel too constrained. People’s day to day experiences can be messy. They may not neatly fit inside each of the phases or follow them in order.

Most universities we speak to share a desire to gain consensus amongst colleagues on the issues and need for change, and taking a researcher’s perspective is a powerful way to achieve this. By doing this in collaboration with your research community, you can build trust and a better understanding of what people need.

Common problems across the lifecycle

Collaboration is always a common theme. There appear to be many opportunities to strengthen collaboration between the different people, teams and services involved throughout the entire lifecycle.

More specifically, we’ve seen a need to reduce the administrative burden of the planning step. Planning is also the key opportunity to assess and manage the risk and complexity of the project.

It’s also common for delays and other issues to arise during the project set up step, especially when agreeing contracts and recruiting staff, which can put projects at risk early on.

It’s also worth considering if your university is providing the right tools and information for people to manage projects. For example, there is a need to manage project budgets and research outputs in more integrated and automated ways.

Co-designing services with your people

Once you’ve mapped people’s experiences using the lifecycle, you will likely have a list of things to improve. Some big, some small, some obvious and some more radical or contentious.

We propose using co-design to address these challenges and opportunities. It is a method for designing products and services with the people that use and deliver them. Not every problem needs this approach, but complex challenges usually benefit the most from a range of expertise and perspectives.

This doesn’t mean a process of design by committee or crowdsourcing ideas to solve your most difficult problems. This is about meaningfully engaging the right people to work together to develop innovative solutions to shared problems.

And it is also important to note that improving people’s experience and improving overall performance aren’t mutually exclusive. Improving the quality of services can also bring more efficient and compliant services, whilst also reducing the overall risk to projects and the university.

Ideally you should try to engage a diverse range of researchers depending on the topic, for different perspectives, such as (but not limited to):

  • Academic roles: Principal Investigators, Early Career Researchers, PhD students, etc
  • Research discipline: needs vary across disciplines such as those working in clinical research compared to social research
  • Background and experiences: not everyone will have worked in academia throughout their career. Those with experience of other industries may have different expectations.

To get people involved and enthusiastic about co-design, it’s important to focus on the areas that matter to them most. Work with your community to identify and prioritise the solutions that will benefit them and ultimately make their lives easier.


The administrative services that exist to enable researchers to innovate and generate new discoveries should be designed with them, not for them.

Researchers have specific needs and goals relating to their career, their field and specific projects. Like many research projects, a collaborative and shared venture offers the greatest chance of success.

In our experience, this approach can:

  • Create services that are more user-friendly and aligned with the needs of the users and service providers
  • Help to build better relationships and a partnership between researchers and professional services teams
  • Promote innovation and creativity from all staff involved
  • Deliver processes which are more efficient and effective.

We appreciate that this is all easier said than done. So, if you want to find out more, or want to take this approach in your university, please get in touch.