Quality and Productivity Database

Descriptive Title of Proposal: Multi-Service Approach to Manage Complex Funding Projects - The Strategic Project Management Group
Year Submitted 2019
Awarded National prize - Administrative Efficiency
Person(s) Responsible for the Idea
Name / Nom Title / Titre
Christian Beaulé Director, Strategic Project Management Group (since 2015)
Sylvain Charbonneau Vice-President Research (formerly Associate Vice President Research)
Denis Cossette Associate Vice-President Financial Resources (left University in 2016)
Name of Institution University of Ottawa
Office Address University of Ottawa
1 Nicholas, Suite 303
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B7
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Telephone: 613-562-5800 ex. 3405
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Name (Senior Administrative Office of the Institution) Christian Beaulé
Title (Senior Administrative Office of the Institution) Director, Strategic Project Management Group
Office Address University of Ottawa
1 Nicholas, Suite 303
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 7B7
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Telephone: 613-562-5800 x3405
Email Address: Email hidden; Javascript is required.
Abstract

To manage complex research projects effectively, institutions must have adequate structures and functions as well as sufficient and appropriate resources. Institutions are also encouraged by funding agencies to adopt a risk-based approach for the management of their portfolio of projects. 

Before 2010, the University of Ottawa (uOttawa) managed its Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) portfolio of complex projects in a classic “silo” approach where the research, financial, procurement and facilities services were working in relative isolation, resulting not only in poor communication between these services, but also between these services and researchers. This approach, combined with an increase in the university research intensity and with the launch of our Core Facilities program, resulted in pre- and post-award management challenges of these highly complex projects. The impact was also felt by researchers who received little support, were often confused on who to contact to get support and were regularly bounced around support services. All of these challenges led to delays in project implementation, delays in agency funding and, cost overruns, and poor client satisfaction. 

In answer to these challenges, the Associate Vice-President Research and Associate Vice-President Financial Resources created The Strategic Project Management Group (SPMG) to improve the management efficiency of complex research projects. This group comprises four key services: Strategic Development Initiatives Office (Research), Financial Resources, Procurement Services and Facilities. The steering committee of the SPMG includes the Associate Vice-Presidents Research, Financial Resources, and Facilities as well as the senior directors of the four key services. 

This multidisciplinary team, led by the Strategic Development Initiatives, now offers full support to researchers, from project inception to its closure, and has led to significant improvement in project management. Implementation times have improved and the conformity with funding agency requirements has been strengthened. Collaboration, information sharing and awareness between services has led to constant improvement in funding agency reviews and to citing uOttawa as having some of the best practices in terms of capacity for managing complex infrastructure projects.

Criteria Please submit one paragraph describing how the proposal fulfills each of the evaluation criteria.
Transferability

The SPMG model is readily transferable since all research–intensive universities have the same key support services (research, finance, facilities and procurement). The first step requires upper management leadership in the creation of the multidisciplinary service unit. Once the group is in place, the establishment of a clear role and responsibility framework is essential to start collaborating and sharing the same vision for the management of the projects. Whereas the University of Ottawa engages the SPMG for its Canada Foundation for Innovation portfolio, any large-scale complex institutional project can benefit from this management structure. This model is particularly effective in a centralized environment where the management of the institutional funding envelopes is within the Office of the Vice-President, Research.

Quality Impact

The primary outcome was the general improvement of the institution’s management capacity for CFI projects. One of the first outcome was an increase in the quality of support for researchers throughout the project life cycle on all aspects of the project (financial, purchasing, expense eligibility, funding agency guidelines, application support, etc.). 

Combined with strong centralized leadership, pre-award strategic planning was put into effect to leverage CFI programs for the acquisition of large-scale research infrastructure and the establishment of a vibrant Core Facility program. 

With Research, Procurement, Finance, and Facilities now closely collaborating within the same unit, there is an increased ability to plan, identify challenges and find solutions. For example, during the planning stage, close interaction with Facilities allows a clear identification of renovation costs. Considering these costs during the pre-award budget preparation minimizes the financial impact on the institution and maximizes the use of external funds. Another example is when procurement services identifies a cost overrun during the procurement process. Mitigation strategies can be quickly discussed with the research project manager to finding a solution. Examples of solutions include combining purchases to obtain economies of scale, finding an alternative source of funds or using savings from another purchase to cover the difference. Financial resources are also informed in a timely fashion to avoid cash flow issues. This can only be achieved if the services are collaborating within a group and not working in silos. 

Enhanced collaboration and communication between services also led to the possibility of a portfolio approach to CFI project management. This means that cost savings from one active project can be applied to another active project that is in deficit, if both project share a common discipline. The portfolio approach requires coordination between all key services to align project financial information and completion milestones. 

Another example is with the Advanced Research Complex (ARC), a state-of-the-art research building combining photonics and earth science laboratories. The University has leveraged funding through multiple CFI competitions (2 Innovation Fund Competitions, multiple John R.-Evans Leaders Fund) to establish a world-class photonics research program, leading to the creation of the uOttawa Max-Planck Centre in Extreme and Quantum Photonics (1 of 3 in North America). The ARC also houses the only accelerator mass spectrometer in Canada within the A.E. Lalonde AMS Laboratory, a national research facility. The ARC complex financial structure includes private, public and CFI funds that needed to be carefully planned and integrated to maximize the respective investments while maintaining integrity and compliance with funding agencies’ policies. SPMG’s role in the implementation of the ARC has been instrumental to this success. 

Finally, the SPMG steering committee allows for enhanced strategic planning, especially for large initiatives with major impacts on campus activities as well as a conduit for the escalation of issues to the Vice-President level if needed.

Productivity Impact

Prior to the creation of the SPMG, performance indicators were not formally collected. A before-after comparison is therefore difficult to perform. The impacts of the creation of the SPMG have been primarily qualitative as described above. We do have a few quantitative measures of interest, however. 

Finalization time for projects funded through the John –R. Evans Leaders Fund, measured as the time between the CFI Board decision and the submission of the project finalization form, decreased by 55% since 2010, from a three-year average of 310 days prior to the creation of the SPMG to a three-year average of 141 days (2016-2018). 

Implementation time (i.e. project length) for projects funded through the John –R. Evans Leaders Fund, measured as the time between the finalization and the end date of the project, decreased by 19% since 2010, from a three-year average of 648 days prior to the creation of the SPMG to a three-year average of 527 days (2016-2018). 

The number of project extension requests has also dramatically decreased over the same period. The proportion of projects needing an extension went from 35% prior to the creation of the SPMG to 7% for the past three years (2016-2018). 

In 2018, Procurement Services generated savings of 18.5% on average on the proposed budgets for CFI items (12 projects). This translated into savings of over $700K. With the centralized management of the CFI portfolio, and the close interaction between key services, strategic utilization of these savings was implemented to maximize returns. The University used the following strategies: investing in extended warranties for mission-critical infrastructure in core facilities, equipment upgrades, compensating for installation cost overruns, portfolio management approach (see section 3 above), acquisition of additional infrastructure and return of the unused CFI funds into the institutional JELF envelope to reallocate to a future application.

Innovation

To our knowledge, this was the first formal initiative to fully integrate key support services in Canada. We are not aware of a similar initiative previously submitted to the Quality and Productivity Awards Program. Since its creation, the SPMG has been cited many times in the Canada Foundation for Innovation best practices:

Supporting Documents Organization-Chart-SPMG.pdf