Cost reduction drives decision-making in higher education. But when it comes to ranking as a world-class institution, competition remains the mother of invention.
One of the best examples of this can be seen in the procurement function, arguably the most cost-conscious department at a university. Procurement executives like myself must find new and innovative ways to provide fast access to goods and services at the lowest possible price.
At Arizona State University, electronic procurement helps the university compete on an international level for world-class researchers — an inconceivable role for procurement in the paper-driven days. Business chiefs throughout higher education now recognize the benefit of automating procurement activities.
Procurement — the underbelly of operations on most campuses — shines as a beacon of modernization and innovation in this age of cost reductions and cutbacks. Forward-thinking schools have converted their paper-driven functions, automating the entire process online through e-procurement technologies, such as those offered by SciQuest, our solution provider. The result? Millions of dollars saved annually and improved services to faculty, students and administration.
The value extends across the enterprise because procurement touches every part of the university, and e-procurement provides schools with a way to quickly and significantly lower costs in the face of limited funding and resources. Over the last five years, ASU has expanded by 25 percent in every area, including physical size, staff, student body, research centers and more. But the supporting administration functions have not developed at an equal pace to keep up with this growth. Technology lets ASU manage this growth.
A Higher Calling
Schools that strive for educational excellence generally are more exclusive, difficult to gain admission to and available to the top echelon of students.
ASU wants to provide excellence and accessibility for all students capable of college-level work who seek the benefits of a higher education. The university strives to find a place for these students and empower them to achieve their potential through superior tools, instruction and resources.
Obviously, this lofty mission hinges as well on ASU recruiting the best and the brightest professors. The university can’t outspend the Ivy League to attract the world’s top research talent nor does it have the “old-school” prestige that some researchers seek. To counter that, ASU can offer something compelling: speed. Innovation and agility are redefining what researchers look for when selecting where and with whom they want to work.
To that end, ASU has focused on removing the administrative burden on researchers when it comes to lab procurements. The less they have to deal with outside of their job functions, the better.
The ability to conduct research unfettered by administrative tasks is paramount to researchers for legitimate reasons. Researchers and professors have about six years in which to make their names known, publish important works and achieve tenure. If they don’t succeed, they will lose their jobs.
By automating the procurement process, ASU shortened the turnaround for setting up labs and making purchases for research staffs, which can include as many as 50 or 60 people. Researchers make their purchases in a familiar and convenient online shopping environment with access to multiple vendors.
They care about e-procurement. Researchers considering joining the ASU staff actually contact the procurement office to find out how fast they will be up and running.
The Biodesign Institute, which investigates the underlying causes of life-threatening diseases, renewing the environment and helping create a safer world, offers an example of e-procurement use at ASU.
The Institute is Arizona’s single, largest R&D organization, with 350,000 square feet of research space organized around a dozen large centers. The Center for Innovations in Medicine has approximately 10,000 square feet of lab space and employs 65 researchers. According to center manager Pattie Madjidi, the ability to get supplies and materials in a timely fashion is critical. If researchers want to run an experiment, they don’t want to wait days for paperwork to route through purchasing.
“Before implementing our e-procurement system, it could take up to five days for orders to get processed,” says Madjidi. “But now, orders are immediately put into the approval queue, which can take as little as seconds to process. Because the system is online, I can conveniently check on the status of orders while traveling. Nothing gets backed up, researchers get what they need faster, and it makes my job much easier.”
Every dollar saved can be spent fostering better instruction, research and community support. Every minute researchers don’t have to spend searching for the items they need and filling out forms lets them focus on research. This message resonates with those looking for a supportive environment in which to conduct their work and advance in their fields. In the end, that’s what matters most to researchers.