Introducing OKRs: A New Chapter in the Office of Research Administration at Emory

By Lisa Wilson, Interim Assistant Vice President, ORAO

A Strategic Shift to Drive Research Excellence 

Emory’s Office of Research Administration (ORA) is taking a significant step forward in an ever-evolving academic environment. Inspired by John Doerr’s influential book, “Measure What Matters,” our leadership team has embraced the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) framework. This strategic decision is more than a new business practice; it’s a commitment to unify and strengthen our research endeavors, guiding us toward a major milestone and objective: achieving $1 billion in research expenditures.

OKRs: Addressing Key Challenges and Focusing on High-Yield Activities for Researchers 

The adoption of OKRs directly caters to the need for a more targeted approach in aiding faculty researchers. Key to the strength of this framework is its focus on activities that directly benefit research teams. This alignment ensures that every unit within the Office of Research Administration is working towards clear, measurable, and timebound goals, which contribute to the collective success of Emory’s research enterprise. This alignment ensures that every unit within the Office of Research Administration is working towards clear, measurable, and timebound goals, which contribute to the collective success of Emory’s research enterprise. By pinpointing areas that require improvement and openly sharing these across ORA, we are building a culture of accountability and shared success. As our Vice President for Research, Dr. Robert Nobles, says,

Using an OKR framework allows us to concentrate on activities that have the highest impact, improve efficiency, and promote a culture of accountability across the Office of Research Administration.” 

Piloting the OKR System in FY24 

In FY24, we are piloting the OKR framework, a crucial step in this transformative journey. This phase is essential to refine our approach and seamlessly incorporate the framework into our research administration operations. Through this pilot, we aim to establish a robust accountability system for tracking and evaluating our progress towards these critical objectives.

Our FY24 Objective and Key Results 

In our ongoing effort to elevate research at Emory, we have set a clear and ambitious objective, complemented by targeted key results:

Objective: Achieve $1 Billion in Sponsored Expenditures by the End of FY24 

This overarching goal is to significantly enhance the scale and impact of our research operations. Achieving this level of sponsored expenditures reflects our commitment to advancing Emory’s research capabilities and stature.

To realize this objective, we are focusing on three critical key results:

Key Result #1: Reduced Front-End Initiation Barriers for Researchers 

This key result aims to simplify project initiation for researchers. By identifying and reducing the hurdles Principal Investigators (PI) face at the outset, we aim to facilitate a smoother and more efficient research initiation process.

Key Result #2: Reduced Barriers to Faculty Monitoring & Spending Research Funds 

This involves streamlining the processes and systems faculty and research administrators use to monitor and utilize sponsored funds. Our goal is to increase the agility and flexibility of researchers by simplifying procedures for resource management.

Key Result #3: Improved Sponsored Award Burn Rates 

Here, the focus is optimizing the rate of using awarded funds in research projects. The goal is to enhance a PI’s capacity to conduct research by simplifying the billing process. Burn rates, when improved, guarantee the effective and timely expenditure of our research funding, maximizing the impact and reach of our sponsored research.

The objective, supported by the key results, is integral to the strategy of the Office of Research Administration and ensures that our progress is tangible and directly aligns with the over-arching goals of research at Emory University.  Such clear and articulated goals ensure we reach our financial objectives while fostering an environment where research can thrive without administrative complexities.

Tracking and Evaluating Progress: 

Our experience with OKRs involves constantly assessing and adjusting key results. Quarterly reviews provide an honest and transparent overview of achievements and learning opportunities, allowing for fine-tuning of KRs to culminate in an annual report. Dr. Deborah Bruner, our Senior Vice President (SVP) of Research, captures the essence of this process with her perspective:

“I’m excited that our teams are using a framework that allows them to connect many of the activities that we already engage in, including aligning goals, standardizing processes, and making data-based decisions, into one continual improvement mindset. Engaging with this framework across all departments has already shown improvements in progress towards our objective and in overall performance and our ability to keep up with the ever-increasing research activity at Emory.” 

Her words underscore the integral role of OKRs in unifying and enhancing our organizational efforts.

Future Plans: Continuous Improvement and Expansion 

The use of OKRs is not a one-time effort but a continuous process of growth and refinement. This pilot project empowers each senior leader and team within the Office of Research Administration to develop cascading OKRs that align with our collective focus, ensuring we stay agile and responsive to the evolving research landscape.

A Call to Our Research Community

Through this new OKR framework, ORA aspires to simplify and enhance the research process. Our goal is to create an environment where research thrives and is more accessible and rewarding. We invite you, our valued stakeholders, to join us in this exciting journey toward a future where Emory’s research is synonymous with innovation, excellence, and shared success. Share your ideas through our faculty feedback form Qualtrics Survey | Qualtrics Experience Management. Join us at the VPRA Town Hall on Feb 27th at 10:30 AM. Stay tuned for more updates as we progress on this transformative path, setting new benchmarks in research excellence.

VPRA Townhall Registration Link:

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