Accurate reporting of how employees are using their time is not only critical to managing projects profitably, it is also a means of analyzing and improving essential business processes. According to John Balla, senior analyst in charge of e-content research for Doculabs, an e-business consultancy in Chicago, time reporting is a way to handle this demand. Sales, he says, provides an example of how analyzing time records can reveal ways to improve business processes. "For example, how much is the sales force spending on flying to New York City to close a deal?" he asks. "You're looking at trends. What is it costing me to close a deal on average?" Answers to those questions could lead to a more profitable deployment of sales staff.
In the case of academic research, accounting for time can mean the difference between renewed grant funding and losing it. The Clinical Research Computing Unit (CRCU), the core research entity for the University of Pennsylvania's health system and school of medicine, is aware of this imperative. The unit performs clinical trials for federally funded research; for example, the federal government might contract with it to run studies on the efficacy and safety of a new use for an existing drug.
As a service provider for the U.S. Government, CRCU must comply with federal regulations concerning the reporting of time spent on research projects. Without an accurate mechanism, the unit could be addressing project time lines too late to rein them in, according to Jim Kaylor, technical director of core operations at CRCU in Philadelphia. Such a development could jeopardize future funding.
"We needed a better way of reporting time," Kaylor recalls. "We had a home-grown accounting system, and it was a manual operation. We'd pass around project information on an internal network, people would track their time and we'd collect that information on a monthly basis."
By last year, CRCU had grown from 10 to 40 people during its three-year existence. As the group grew, so did the possibility of ballooning project time frames. "The records would come in a lot of different formats," Kaylor recalls. "By the time we produced an actual report, it would be a month and a half later."
He and his colleagues began searching for a new way to do time accounting. Rather than undergo the long and costly process of developing a program in house, the research unit drafted specifications for the type of services it required and sent them to vendors. CRCU eventually selected TimeDirect, a Web-based time reporting service from World Anthem Technologies, an application service provider (ASP) in New Hope, Pa. "They addressed 90 percent of our needs at a price I couldn't match" through in-house development, Kaylor says.
Research Project stopwatch
TimeDirect provides each of its customers with a private time-entry database and a secure Web page. An administrator within the customer company sets the level of data access afforded to each worker and sets up user accounts in the database. Employees can use the system to see their own time cards, and managers can view the same data and run reports on it.
Putting the service in place and checking it for kinks usually takes about 24 hours, according to Bob Lavenduski, president of World Anthem. But the greater value of the service, he claims, comes after a company uses TimeDirect for a period of weeks and discovers the business-process information it can glean from custom reports on employee time records. World Anthem created one such report for a customer that wanted to display time entries as approved by employees' supervisors, so the program administrator could see employee performance and time approved under each manager. "You can report on time cards in any phase-draft, final or approved-and reveal things about what's happening in that group," Lavenduski says.
Because the service speeds rapid approval of time records, users can extract information without delay, according to Kaylor. "I can pull reports out even when data is being entered," he says.
CRCU, whose research workers update their time records weekly, cannot afford delay in exposing lags in the project process-an issue known as "project creep." "A week's window is a lot of time when you have an eight-member team that works 320 hours or more," Kaylor explains. "That can put you way out of scope if you're focusing on the wrong thing. A month turns into 1,200 hours that you're trying to manage after the fact."
CRCU and World Anthem worked to develop ways in which researchers could enter data with exact and accuracy. "We wanted clear, uniform descriptions of customer, project and task so everyone would know how to code their time," Kaylor says. "They extended their definition field and added it to our database so it knows what items to check. When I report X number of hours toward a federal project, there are no mistakes about the time reported."
According to Kaylor, CRCU also is benefiting from TimeDirect's ASP model. "Our teams work not only in the office, but in the field and at home," he says. "Having an ASP minimizes costs for my organization. We don't have to have an additional server or person looking over that application. Also, the Web-based service is a secure link, and that makes me comfortable with having some of our data out there."
In addition to TimeDirect's current features, CRCU hopes the service eventually will provide a way of tracking actual time lines against proposed project schedules. "A module showing proposed times would allow me to use it as more of a project management system," Kaylor says.
In response to customer requests for handheld or wireless access, World Anthem is considering development of phone-enabled or voice-activated use of the service-something that the vendor's competitors are surely considering as well. Among them are Databasics of McLean, Va., whose Web-based service TimeSite provides for tracking project costs, billing, payroll and performance measurement. Journyx of Austin, Texas, offers time and cost reporting as well as project tracking. QuickArrow, also located in Austin, offers hosted time reporting via the Web and includes modules such as time and expense workflow, partner management, resource management and knowledge management for finding and utilizing information across organizations.