From Runners to Research with DocuSign | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

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From Runners to Research with DocuSign

With the Office of Sustainability’s “We Are Papersavers!” program in full swing, the University is reducing its dependence on printing through digitization of paper processes. We’re taking a look back at one of our first successes — the implementation of the eSignature Service (DocuSign).

When Jennifer Woodward transitioned from academia to overseeing research administration as vice chancellor for sponsored programs and research, she was immediately struck by the inefficiency of the paper-driven grant approval and research administration process. She reached out to Pitt Information Technology to usher in a new era of electronic research management at Pitt.

In addition to improving the speed, convenience, and transparency of getting approvals and signatures, Woodward saw ripple effects that she didn’t anticipate. By digitizing work, OSP has drastically cut its use of paper, printer toner, and office supplies. Digital routing of forms, agreements, and contracts helped to support Pitt’s pandemic mitigation efforts and continues to make remote and hybrid work arrangements possible.

Buried Under Mountains of Paper

When Woodward joined the Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP), the entire process of putting together research proposals and administering grants was done on paper … lots of it. “This office was imploding with paper,” Woodward recalls. “Every action, every transaction, everything that had to be done at a central level through this office was being done on paper. We were killing a lot of trees!” Woodward immediately began to consider the fiscal and efficiency costs of the way things were being done.

With each research project comprising multiple file folders, often as many as five or six, the risks of keeping all those papers in one file room were immense. “When it rained heavily, there would be leaks. There could be a fire or a flood. These were the legal files of record supporting hundreds of millions of dollars of research,” she notes.

Paper-based processes were also incredibly inefficient. Files had to be routed manually from person to person in yellow jacket folders. There were literally student and staff ‘runners’ who spent days walking across campus with interoffice envelopes containing forms to be reviewed and signed.

The time necessary to get approvals from all relevant offices was enormous. The intricacies of the records system were a huge impediment to collaboration, agility, and transparency. Faculty and researchers were frustrated too. “We never want our researchers to feel like their documentation just goes into a black hole. They need to have transparency into the grant application and management process,” Woodward says.

Getting on the Information Superhighway

Woodward realized that the University needed to develop an electronic research administration solution and proposed the PERIS™ (Pitt Electronic Research Information Solution) project. The PERIS™ platform has several goals: Reduce the administrative burden for faculty, increase efficiency, enhance transparency to researchers and administrators, integrate the University’s research operations, create a user-friendly system, and promote sustainability through electronic processes.

Digitizing research documentation was only part of the project. It was also necessary to create a digital process for reviewing and signing agreements, forms, and other paperwork. So, Woodward worked with Pitt IT to evaluate the available options for an e-signature solution. “I knew we needed to fix this part of the process first, as it was causing so many delays and hassles. This could be a quick win with immediate impact,” Woodward explained.

Turns out, this wasn’t the first time Pitt IT had looked into an e-signature service. Jay Graham, chief enterprise architect for Pitt IT, had explored the concept, but there were institutional concerns about safety, practicality, and legality. But as Woodward puts it, “I don’t accept ‘No’ very easily.”

Woodward and Graham worked closely together to understand and overcome the issues that had stymied the adoption of an e-signature solution in the past. They found institutional partners to help champion the effort. And they found the right tool for the job: DocuSign.

DocuSign was selected and embedded into the PERIS™ system in 2020, enabling faculty to certify the information, sign in all the required places, upload the documents, and see where the document was in the review process. Most importantly, DocuSign is HIPAA-compliant and nearly every governmental body, funding agency, and partner organization accepts it as the legal file of record.

Success Beyond Expectations

As DocuSign was fully implemented, OSP and researchers were fully trained on its use and immediately saw the value. From there, other areas across the University began to explore the use of DocuSign. As Graham notes, “Sometimes you just need someone to be willing to go first to prove the viability of a new way of doing things. Seeing that Jennifer Woodward and Sponsored Programs committed to it and that is was going so well for them gave others confidence to get on board.” DocuSign is now used across the University, from Research to Human Resources.

Woodward feels proud that her efforts gave people the confidence to adopt a new technology. “It's not that glamorous of a project, but it helped people to consider, ‘Hey, we can do this differently.’ That can be really difficult. And in the end, it makes a huge impact.”

The PERIS™ system and its DocuSign integration has been a game changer for the University, helping Pitt to streamline its research administration. According to the Pitt Research 2023 Annual Report, Pitt now ranks third in NIH funding, in large part due to its ability to propose and win bigger, team-oriented awards.

And they are doing it all with hardly a piece of paper in sight!

-- By Karen Beaudway, Pitt IT Blogger