Project based scientific organisation

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How CABI improves lives and Timesheet improves CABI

CABI’s mission is to improve people’s lives worldwide by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. For example, you may have heard of Japanese Knotweed spreading uncontrollably in the UK and other western countries. CABI’s scientists identified a tiny bug (a psyllid) that limits its spread in Japan, and has been testing it in the West to determine whether it is safe to release it. This is just one aspect of the Institute’s work. It publishes massive amounts of material for use by scientists and farmers around the world. It sends people into the field (no pun intended) to help farmers improve their crops, in both volume and quality. It works with charities, governments, companies and other research institutions to help discover and share a rich body of knowledge. It leads the global Plantwise programme to help improve food security and improve rural livelihoods by reducing crop losses, mostly in developing countries. A YouTube video shows how several Africans have been lifted out of poverty, enhancing the lives of their families and their communities, thanks to CABI’s help in making them more effective farmers and enabling them to sell their surplus outside the village.

The search for an acceptable time recording system

Bill Fell, a man with over 30 years of project management experience, was looking for a time management system that would suit the CABI operation in Egham, Surrey. At the time, in 2009, this comprised some 60 scientists working on a variety of projects, each contributing to four or five at any time. Staff would make lists or use spreadsheets to capture details of how they spent their time. This was sometimes an unreliable source of intelligence for the individuals, their supervisors and the company as a whole. It was, however, a necessary chore because many donors wanted a detailed breakdown of how their money was being spent. In any case, an audit trail is always helpful should someone decide, retrospectively, to demand details of a particular project. The IT department was using an Access database, the HR department was looking for a payroll system, so the natural first port of call was to see if these systems could be adapted or extended with a time-recording facility. Once Bill decided the answer was “no”, he considered a number of dedicated applications. Some were totally over-engineered and overpriced for CABI’s modest needs. His next step was to investigate what was then called Sage Timesheet, supplied by DSA.

Why DSA?

He chose DSA because its people understood the nature of his business very quickly and were able to relate its requirements to the capabilities of the software. When he asked for the ability for submitted timesheets to be retracted and amended, prior to supervisory approval, DSA immediately tweaked the software to provide this facility. When CABI wanted to share timesheet information with its CODA Dream project accounting system, DSA added a CSV (comma-separated values) file export function that exactly matched the demands of the Dream system. The system suits CABI so well that it hasn’t been extended or adapted any further. It has, however, been adopted by all of the organisation’s offices around the world.

How is it for employees?

For the employees, it’s a simple way to capture the time spent ‘at the coalface’. They have to account for 100 percent of their work time, even if it’s beyond the normal working day. They can log in from remote locations, so they’re never far from the Timesheet application. Despite some initial apprehension when it was first introduced, the staff quickly saw the sense of it and even thought up new ways of using the information gathered. For the first time, they could see clearly how they were using their time and, sometimes, how they could be using it more effectively.

And for supervisors?

Supervisors get a clear idea of what’s going on, not only from a time and budgeting point of view, but also from the perspective of spotting people overdoing it. It’s apparently easy if you’re a researcher, to get so absorbed in the work that the hours slip by unnoticed. All staff are obliged to record all their working hours and allocate them to predefined activities – for example, projects, business development, writing tenders, quality management, leave and sickness. An ‘other’ category doesn’t exist although someone was once out in a pool car when the windscreen wipers broke and they had to wait for the AA. This was the closest CABI ever came to the need for an ‘other’ category.

And for the organisation as a whole?

At the business level, it’s easy to see how much is being spent on which projects. This helps when planning competitive bids for research work. “We can see what any given type of work typically involves,” said Bill Fell. Since 2009, from the top to the bottom of the organisation, the TimeSheet system has proved its value, and continues to do so.