Towards Research IT Support as a Service

Our team’s overarching strategic goal is to create a set of centralized and scaleable research-related IT services in order to attract and retain top quality researchers.  Sounds simple, right?  However at Wharton (and perhaps Penn), it turns out that teaching is much more efficiently and centrally served than research is (at least from an IT perspective). What’s the best way to attack the problem?

I tend to think of the research process like this:

Generic Research Process
With apologies to actual researchers–I majored in Literature

Seems simple, right?  However, multiply that out across the large number of researchers at Wharton and you start to see a fractured and idiosyncratic beast:

Too many processes at too many times
“O fractious beastie!” (didn’t Robert Burns say that?)

Moreover, there’s no set time cycle for when resources are needed and few standard tools to support the research process.  So how do you scale and find efficiencies across such a disparate set of needs? One way is to map your teams’ activities and tools around points along the research process, like so:

Map activities to the process and look for ways to consolidate, repeat, etc
You know what they say: Teach a researcher to scrape, s/he has data for a day. Teach a researcher to use a cloud-based, point-and-click web scraping service with an easy-to-use GUI, s/he has data for a lifetime

Then you can start to work on each activity to make it either more repeatable, more scaleable or more self-serve.  You need to have a customer-service mindset: Always be a partner in the process.  You need to be vigilant in identifying custom work that can be made into re-usable tools and you need to be ruthless in  outsourcing work that doesn’t fit the team’s strategic goals. Bottom line: FInd common problems and focus on solving those in a repeatable way and then get the word back out to your researchers so they know not to re-invent the wheel.

Alec Lamon has over 18 years experience in a variety of technical environments and is currently Senior Director with the Wharton School's Research and Innovation Group, a diverse team of talented technical staff dedicated to providing premium solutions in support of world-class researchers. Previously, he led the Custom Applications and Online Services group and was a founding developer in the Al West Learning Lab. He has a degree in English Literature from Middlebury College so he is still a little bit surprised he ended up in the field of technology.