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Is Your Grant Management System Encouraging Hidden Culture?

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Those who analyze how work gets done in an organization know that looking in company manuals to find out how employees should dot their “i's" and cross their “t’s” is rarely enough. We all know that no one follows the official rules 100% of the time. Sociologists call this the difference between “ideal” culture and “real” culture, sometimes also known as "hidden" culture. Ideal culture is what may be formalized in the handbook, but real or hidden culture is what actually goes on.  A classic example of this concept comes from the vintage television series M*A*S*H. (If you are not old enough to have watched it with your parents, please tell me you at least caught a rerun or two.) When the medical unit needed supplies, military procedure dictated precise steps to take for requisitions. But that was often too cumbersome! When medical supplies were needed ASAP, Radar would get on horn to Sparky over in the next unit and trade them 100 cases or so of SPAM to save soldiers' lives. In this case, circumventing the rules was good for both patients and ratings alike, as story line after story line featured the high jinks involved with cutting red tape.

Dangerous Hidden Culture

Unfortunately, it works the other way too. Employees who veer too far off from established procedures can cause an entity to careen far from its goals and undermine its mission. In the classic study "Quota Restriction and Goldbricking in a Machine Shop," sociologist Donald Roy provided an example of how real culture affected the company in a way that was disastrous to its productivity. Roy went undercover in a factory to experience firsthand how work actually gets done. He discovered that it was the employees themselves who exerted a huge influence on the pace of production. If any industrious newbie tried to outperform the existing group, they would face repercussions from the rest of the crew. While this study was conducted many decades ago, contemporary research acknowledges that hidden culture is alive and well, and needs to be navigated to help an organization stay on track.

Organizational Culture and Grant Management

Luckily in today's world, technology can go a long way in bridging the gap between real and ideal culture, provided that it is carefully chosen to enhance workers performance instead of unintentionally encouraging them to go rogue. Let us look specifically at systems for grant management. This is an area where established procedures are put in place to avoid audit findings, and it is crucial they be followed to successfully implement awards. Yet, not all grant management software is created equal. In the "GAO's Report on the Costs of Customizing Grant Systems," eCivis Product Marketing Manager Rob Sherman looks at some potential sand traps in legacy grant management systems that force employees to write their own rules. For instance, Rob mentions that legacy systems constantly require system updates and system maintenance to keep up with ever-changing policy, procedural and legislative changes. If an organization cannot stay current, it is a virtual invitation for employees to improvise. While their motivation to do so may merely be a desire to stay in compliance with all necessary requirements, these things may occur:

  • Employees may find workarounds by putting data in fields not intended for such data.
  • Employees may violate standard conventions.
  • Employees may take part of the process offline entirely since it cannot be supported online anymore.

Unfortunately, when this happens, to put it in plain English, this can really muck up a system. Eventually that data will have to be cleaned up. That means added administrative burden, especially if outside personnel has to be brought in to correct things. Data consultants start at approximately $300 per hour, and that can add up very quickly. Then there is the time your own staff must spend retraining for the system updates. On the other hand, a good SaaS provider keeps up with all necessary changes for you, eliminating the need for impromptu innovation and thus eliminating the potential costs involved in patching up an obsolete system.

 Communication Is Everything

Another area to look at when considering how real culture affects grant management is communication, especially between program and financial staff members. Everyone knows that communication between all department members is critical to proper grant implementation. But just because they should be communicating does not mean they always do. Remember the fable about the blind men and the elephant? One is feeling the trunk, one is feeling the tail, and they come up with two entirely different descriptions of the same animal. Just as with the characters in the fable, program and financial staff members often see the same grant from disparate vantage points. Unfortunately two different worlds can make for one very unpleasant single audit. Sarah Grazier of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs provides examples in a Q&A section on Uniform Guidance Training. She frequently sees program staff electing to calculate indirect costs differently from the financial staff, perhaps the former will elect the 10% de minimus rate and the latter will not. She cautions that successful audits depend on the entire organization uniformly adhering to the same regulations. The right SaaS system helps facilitate communication between departments by capturing critical data along the way. Thus, the data is centralized and available to all the key players at the click of a mouse, so that discrepancies can be caught long before an audit—thus reducing the risk of negative findings that cost both time and money.

Removing Temptation

In the real world, hidden culture will never be completely eliminated from any organization. Nor should it be. As we have seen, it has both positive and negative consequences. In the grant world, a SaaS-based grant management system like eCivis is available to minimize those negative consequences by making it more convenient for employees to do their jobs correctly and efficiently. Thus it removes temptation for them to break the rules in the first place. The administrative burden of mistakes can be reduced by SaaS programs that help organizations institutionalize the correct controls so that they will be embraced instead of resisted. Employees will internalize best practices and the heroics can be saved for the 4077!

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