RI Management


6.1. Introduction

This last (but not least important) chapter will detail more deeply what the management of a RI covers. In chapter 3 it has already been underlined that managers of a RI should be given full executive powers and responsibility to use at their best the resources allocated by the owners/shareholders. These resources are not only financial but also human, instrumental and, not to be forgotten, they are relational and cultural capital, which has been accumulated previously (i.e. the visibility and quality already reached by the RI).

The task of the manager is therefore critical and there is “solitude” when she/he is confronted with ultimate decisions to be taken after having listened to, understood, and digested a very large number of very different inputs, to be able to understand the full picture. This chapter will try to convey this notion also to the governors and the policy makers in general who must understand and help to smooth out the procedures which finally allow managers to fully express their capabilities.

It may be useful to share best practices and lessons learned and building a human network as the RAMIRI programme is trying to do, could be an important asset. This effort will have to be continued to include a sufficient number of different types of case examples: single sited, distributed or virtual, national or international, single discipline or multidisciplinary, etc.

RI management is not a one-size fits-all concept, this HB can give only (or mainly) some common principles and best practice tips, which can be used also in the several RIs that are now in the preparation and/or implementation phase. As pointed out in the introduction the number of well developed cases is limited when we refer to distributed infrastructures, but many of the issues are largely similar to those in the more extensively experienced single-sited ones. It is also necessary to note that the same approach does not necessarily fit to all RIs without modifications, which sets a requirement to think twice about the potential consequences before applying suggestions coming from previous practice. The continuous development of ICT should be an instrument widely used by the managers, to acquire and select the necessary information.

One specific aspect of management in research, and even more in RIs, is the fact that most managers have had to learn by doing, and to evolve from a scientist’s role gradually into what many scientists perceive as a bureaucrat’s role. Very often this transition can be difficult and painful and not as rewarding as, e.g. becoming the CEO of a successful private company. Differently from other activities (e.g. in industry) the availability of some type of formal training and reference literature is still lacking. However, since operating/managing an existing facility or an industrial company have many practical things in common, many benefits can be obtained by wisely applying the lessons learned by others, therefore many good tips can be found in the existing and vast literature about management in other enterprises.

The RAMIRI courses and this HB are trying to focus on the differences and make this learning period easier, but at some point there is no better learning than having to “swim”: we only give a possible reference and, hopefully, a bit of help.

One important tip for managers is to have junior people as assistants, and allow them to learn by doing, e.g. delegating some aspects and trying to select those people who have the right attitude and qualities. Structuring in a more “flat” way (see also chapter 5 matrix structure), instead of a pyramidal hierarchy) the upper RI management is useful to involve more people in this learning by doing.

To ensure the effective planning and the successful governance and operation of open-access pan-European RIs, a new generation of professional, full-time managers is needed, having a strong scientific and technical background, but also a solid base in other needed aspects. This can be achieved by making the transition from "pure scientists" to managers smooth and attractive.

High demands are placed on this new class of managers, to ensure efficient and cost-effective exploitation of the available resources, as well as ensuring that top level science is carried out at all times. RI managers also need to communicate the ways and rules by which RIs can make an effective contribution both to established research programs and to the economy. This communication must be aimed at policymakers and stakeholders in general, and must be able to take the uniqueness and complexity of every single RI into account.

The chapter aims also at giving a better understanding of some characteristics of different RIs, sharing the information and know-how to develop the capability to combine various areas of work together to enable better management of RIs. An important suggestion is to link and use the network of RAMIRI students and lecturers as a valuable community, which can help in future sharing of expertise and best practices.


6.2. Managing an established facility (general outline)

Managing and operating an established facility combines most of the other aspects and activities approached in the HB, such as Human Resources, Legal issues or Finance and adds to these other practical elements such as ensuring the continuity, the push and the drive (by the users and the management itself) for the constant development and improvement of the facility, ensuring its quality and attractiveness, the outreach to the users, etc.. The HB presents also some examples, through which the best practices and lessons learned have been discussed in the RAMIRI courses.

The interaction with industry and other collaborations as an essential part of RI must also be covered in analysing this phase. The topics to consider vary from daily practicalities of an organization to the need for proper communication, to the interaction with industry, discussions with trade unions, preparation of the meetings of the Council (or Board of Directors), keep abreast of the scientific literature, but also of the complexities of EU regulations and programs, etc.. As seen in chapter 2, in the lifetime of a RI there are several stages at which the focus of activity for the managers need to be different, e.g. in looking at finances: from lobbying for the construction funding, to achieving longer-term sustainability, to either decommissioning or re-building an upgraded facility. Whatever the stage, there is a constant need for development: people, technology, services, cost structure, organization, efficiency etc. The management of RIs needs to take this into account – being dynamic is one key requirement. Even if things look stable, something is constantly burning underneath. This is typical for innovative organizations where people always want to find a better way of doing things. To set the direction and also to meet the internal expectations, the target setting and strategy need to be both challenging and clearly communicated, without forgetting to get the local staff, and the external users and stakeholders involved in developing it.

Be prepared for the unexpected, make scenarios in advance to tackle the more common as well as the less common challenges. Examples of these include a key person leaving, a financial or technical crisis, budget cuts or overloaded personnel, delays in delivery of new critical spare parts, etc. During the RI lifetime these will happen and it is much better to have a plan available in advance than to start to make it in panic after the unexpected scenario materializes. Ensure the commitment of funding bodies and users. Make sure you serve and respond to the changing needs of the users and do not consider their support automatic. Be in constant discussion with your funding and steering bodies and make sure you understand their targets. Be prepared to discuss and constructively argue about some of them in case their opinion does not sound optimal. Remember that you, as a manager and a 100% employee of the RI know probably best the overall situation, but the external advices can have a new and useful insight even if the persons giving them are not as deeply involved.

Communication is one key topic. You need to be able to tell about your achievements in such a way that a standard politician understands that it is important for society. This is important – but sometimes it is much more difficult to make sure that also your internal communication works well: people must know the developments that are happening next door and outside but at the same time they should not be overloaded with non-useful information.


6.3. How to set the course: mission, vision and strategic planning

One aspect that is normally clear and explicitly addressed in industry is (1) what the mission is, (2) what the vision is and how strategic decisions are made (see also the RAMIRI training slides). This is not always the case in research and in RIs, where these aspects are either related to tradition or expected to be indicated from the funding agencies. The use and meaning of these aspects are often almost unknown to most researchers and staff members.

The process of defining these aspects and update them systematically is a major instrument for the management.

What are these “strange concepts”? And how can they be developed?

  • The Mission should be the shortest (and sharpest) possible definition of the scope of the RI: it should be so short that it fits on your Tee-Shirt. The best way is to start from what is written in your statute, and cancel as many words as you can, involving the staff, or at least the upper layers of the management.
  • Also the Vision should be the shortest sentence stating what the management and the staff believe should be the direction in which the RI intends to move.
  • The Strategic planning can be developed in two steps: (a) what are the strategic priorities and (b) what are the strategic projects to be developed in what time scale.

While the Mission and Vision, once defined (see EMBL and CERN examples), can last for several years (but need to be repeated at every possible occasion), the strategic priorities and the strategic projects may need to be verified and eventually revised/updated yearly or earlier, as soon as external boundary conditions change (new science opportunities, financial crises or opportunities, etc.). The management must, therefore, have a process and appropriate structure/people to be able to verify and update them, and to defend these choices when presented to the governance.

The strategic priorities are defined by a selection process, involving the top and mid-level managers, and the limitation is given by the understanding that there are always more interesting aspects, choices and activities than the ones which can be fulfilled by the available and acquirable resources. The best approach is to ask these management levels to write a list of all priorities they would like to see implemented by the RI. This will produce a very long list, which will be submitted to a “decimation (or “triage”) process” at a meeting of the proposers, who should competitively specify which priorities can survive. This process starts by defining how many priorities can be kept at the end (typically about ten), and then by “voting out” priorities, until the target number is reached (this process, if successful, has, as a byproduct, the building of a “corporate team feeling” between the people involved, it is therefore useful to involve the largest manageable number of internal decision makers at the various levels).

Once the strategic priorities have been defined, the selection of which projects to pursue with the (limited) resources available becomes a (somewhat) easier task, giving both the possibility to prioritize projects, and to be selective when there are new proposals being put forward (either by the staff or by external entities). A general weakness in research institutions is the tendency to follow any opportunity to get funding, and it is easy to end-up with each researcher involved in several different and not always very coherent projects, with a potential dispersion of focus and efforts, and a definite lack of capability to respect time-schedules. This is not sustainable in an RI, where, if the mission includes the service to users and the vision the wish to be best at world level, then any strategic project must be allocated the resources to be completed in time and within the planned costs. Introducing the capability to operate by projects, and developing a project culture respecting time and cost boundaries is an important aspect also in the management of the staff (e.g. see matrix structure), and should be a strategic priority in an RI.

If the whole process is accomplished and made visible to the staff (and to the outside stakeholders) its outcome is a powerful instrument for the management, as a strong “boundary” foundation to argue and defend the choices to be made.


6.4. How to ensure quality and users satisfaction

The management of an RI will often feel alone in taking some decisions, but can use some powerful tools and allies. The most effective ones are the Advisory Bodies (see also chapter 3). An RI must have one or more independent Advisory Body/ies composed by the best international experts in the issues which need critical advice. Most often these experts turn out to be involved in competing RIs and their advice can be rather pungent when it comes to advice based on comparing the scientific and technical results and capabilities with other RIs. Their presence, far from being avoided, should be sought being an excellent way of benchmarking the RI achievements against other facilities. The discussions taking place in these bodies are also an excellent way to make your RI known and to build networks between motivated and capable people.

Which Advisory Bodies? Definitely there should be a Scientific Advisory Body helping in finding about the weak spots in your RI and in new strategic proposals, also involving the research staff in presentations which need to be clear and convincing. RIs having complex and uncommon instruments may need a Technical Advisory Body composed of people who have developed similar instruments and facilities. An Administrative and Procurement Advisory Body is required in those RIs that need to ensure appropriate use of resources contributed, e.g. by different countries, and to satisfy them of the appropriateness in the procurement approaches (avoiding, however, “juste return” requests). In some cases it may be useful to link to some important stakeholders by setting-up ad hoc Working Groups and/or Committees, e.g. an Industrial Advisory Panel, which could advice on how to liaise best with potential industry users, providers and co-developers, and how to improve the returns from development and training activities.

The input from users and the selection of user proposals are two important aspects: a Users Committee should be set up and operated independently by external users, helping them to involve in proposals for improvement and to develop a forward look. Care should be taken to involve also potential future users and to outreach would be users who may not yet appreciate the improvements which the use of the RI may provide to their research: new users have traditionally been a driver for quality and an help to avoid falling in a pure routine. The selection of user proposals or the selection of uploaded information on a data-bank needs to be carried by an independent and capable peer-review approach. In some multidisciplinary facilities, this may require setting up several panels and nominating a large number of external referees, as in the case of an editorial board and referee system of a scientific journal.


6.5. How to Communicate

The need of appropriate communication to the various stakeholders has been referred-upon in chapter 1 and chapter 2. This is one of the trickiest parts for the top management, in particular if there is the need to develop a fund-raising effort either for a new RI or to upgrade an existing one (or, worse, to fight off a possible lack of funding). There are parts which must be developed directly by the top management (e.g. communication with policy makers – local or national/international, interaction with top managers of other RIs or companies) and parts which must be developed by a communication expert and/or by the scientific staff, also by developing the appropriate material, to interact with the media, the public (e.g. visitors), the schools, fairs, posters in conferences etc.. The scientific communication and publication of results is one further aspect, better known by the staff, but also, sometimes, in need of some coordination in terms of format, logos, pictures etc.

A large part of the effort in many RIs may be required by communication with visitors of various kinds (from school children to industrial or citizen associations). Typically a large single sited RI may host 5 to 10 000 visitors per year, and around 1000 visitors per day during open-day events. There must be an organized effort, and a specific address from which potential visitors may request the appropriate date and support. One bottleneck may be the lack of staff members willing to volunteer and be capable to use the appropriate clear but correct language. This may require some preparation, both in terms of training and of motivation (here group/corporate identity of the staff may be a main driver).

One further aspect which should not be underestimated is the Corporate Identity, i.e. the Logo and the way in which a number of documents, letters, publications etc. are presented. Also in this case it may be useful to have the staff involved in a “competition” to choose the logo (maybe with the help of a professional graphic expert).


6.6. How to liaise with Industry

The need to liaise with industry has been implicitly raised in several parts of the HB, and the possible use of an Industrial Advisory Panel has been referred to above. It is however useful to recall some concepts which were also introduced in chapter 1, in particular about to feed and exploit the interaction between Research and Development (and Innovation), to develop a better interaction with industries. This responds also to the growing need to explicit better the industrial part of the socioeconomic returns.

The prevailing attitude in many RIs is to set-up some support to Technology Transfer and/or to Industrial Use. In most cases the technologies developed at an RI are not immediately transferrable to industry (except very specialized ones) and the industrial use of RIs for research (or, better R&D) can be very limited, while a two-way interaction between industry needs and RIs innovative and development capacity can be much more fruitful. The concept should be that of Industrial Liaison meaning the development of a two-way (cyclical) interaction where also training, consulting, and personnel mobility can take place. This type of connection can be generated in several ways, e.g. by planning from the start the site of the RI in an industrial area (e.g. a Technology ark, Incubator, etc.) to favour the personal interaction and exchange, or by systematically co-developing any innovation and upgrade with industries by a careful and extensive pre-procurement policy. Both examples need to have some support by public funding, at least to get started.

Another prevailing trend in many RIs and in universities is to try to assess the effectiveness of industrial activities by the number of patents generated. This is pushed by the fact that, lacking other indicators, patents are an easy one (and nicely similar to publications). But it is commonly found (with few exceptions) that the cost of obtaining and maintaining patents is higher than the income generated by selling them or rights to exploit them. The acquisition and maintenance of single patents by RIs and most academic laboratories should be compared with the IPR policy of industries which maintain ”families” of patents, not only to protect their products but also to impede the birth of new competing products. This kind of play may become profitable for an industry if it provides a well-defended position in a market, but would be impossible to follow in a non-industrial environment. Another problem with patents is that, often, the basic principles of technological developments at an RI are either already patented or published; it is therefore very difficult to fully protect a new instrument or process.

The situation outlined above indicates one possible way to develop an IP policy: protect know-how by depositing (e.g. in the local Chamber of Commerce, at a cost much lower than that of a patent) specific designs or solutions which, connected with the availability of well-trained people can be speedily produced by the RI itself, e.g. as “specialized niche” products (very often for the market of similar facilities) or to generate some “spin-off” company which, starting from the initial specialized product as an initial booster, may be able to find a more general and wider market.

In any case, Technology Transfer and/or Industrial Liaison are specialized tasks which need specific trained human resources and a very strong motivation and focus to be developed…..but unfortunately with economic results which, in most RIs, are below 10% of the operation costs for research (let us remember that research is a non economic activity!). However, the effort is useful and very effective to increase mobility, build a better connection with societal needs, and eventually is a powerful tool in connecting better with policy makers and local citizens. In most cases, the income generated by the industrial activities, even if it is very limited compared to the needs, may be invested in specific actions with more flexibility than public contributions and allow some flexibility to otherwise inflexible budgets.

In this context, one issue to be carefully controlled is the need to ensure that the costs charged to external customers should be market related, to avoid undue market distortions. Very often researchers tend to forget what is the full costs of their activities are (e.g. by not factoring in the personnel costs, amortization etc.). This may become a source of friction with some industries, instead of a source of collaboration.


6.7. How to develop sustainability and fund-raising

The non-self-sustaining nature of RIs requires now some tips about fund-raising and sustainability. Many aspects have been addressed in chapter 4, but some extra advice may be needed for the managers.

The financial crisis and, earlier on, the onset of a trend to limit public funding in several activities (e.g. in sustaining industrial research) have been taking their toll on the predictability of a continuing state (or other public) support to the operation of RIs and even to their use by industries. Also the increase in numbers of RIs is producing a stronger perceived (and real) rigidity in national or regional research budgets. On the other hand there is a continuous increase and volatility in the cost of several items which are necessary, e.g. costs of energy, costs needed to ensure better safety, travel expenses, etc.

The situation is, therefore, becoming more complex and in most cases it requires to refer to a variety of funding sources which may be more or less responsive to different aspects of the operation of the facility. It may be necessary to produce proposals ranging from the support to more appropriate environmental technologies, to support for the training of staff, etc. These proposals have to be presented at many different levels and institutions (the EU, the state, the region, funding agencies, foundations, etc.) and this must be accompanied by a constant look-out for possible industrial collaborations, public support, etc.

In this context, the organization of most activities inside the RI as “projects” and giving the staff the habit of working for specific targets and deliverables allows always a portfolio of possible projects to be presented, even at short notice, to the relevant potential partners.

Managers of RIs need to develop a structured way to define projects, evaluate them internally and involve experts who can advise with the right time-frame of any useful opportunity. In any case the selectivity required by the strategic choices should not be overlooked…..unless the possible contract is capable to resolve a critical situation.


6.8. RAMIRI Training Slides

last update March 29, 2013, at 03:21 PM
by Fabio Mazzolini