Are You Ready for the New NIH Payment Management System?

imagesNot the NIH, Not Again. (Sigh.)

You’ll have to forgive me, I know there is more to research administration than the NIH. (DOD, anyone? NSF?) It’s not that I choose to ignore the rest of the agencies out there funding the Federal share of academic research….really. It’s just that the NIH is in many ways, the canary in the coal mine for new policy at the Federal level. So I figure it’s going to be helpful to more than those of us working in the biomedical research area to talk about some of these issues.

The August Freak Out

In August and September 2013, NIH announced that their grants management systems would transition awardees to a new payment management process in order to allow the agency and their institutes and centers to better track award spending. They provided some preliminary details – enough to make every central office at every university with NIH funding to freak out – how is this going to work? Subsequent communications clarified the process, which have allowed schools to prepare and plan.

changeImplementation in Two Phases

The transition from PMS pooled (G) accounts to PMS (P) sub-accounts will occur over two fiscal years, and it started in October of 2013. There is an excellent FAQ on the transition, which will occur in two phases.

  • Phase 1 – Effective October 2013: Transition of Awards with New Document Number
  • Phase 2 – Effective October 2014: Transition of Continuing Domestic Awards

The notice of grant award will contain additional information to indicate the type of account (G to P) that is being used to award the funds in the transition year. The transition year will require a new award type (Type 4) and administratively shortened segments – for competitive awards in FY14 and FY 15.

Financial reporting requirements will be affected during these changes (there will be additional closing periods) and the reporting requirements for awards will be affected by whether or not the award was made under SNAP (now RPPR). During the transition, it looks like non-competing continuations under SNAP may need to submit two FFRs in FY14.

Importantly – carryover authority is not automatically available during this time frame. Grantees will report unobligated balances and receive approval for these funds to be re-obligated to the new sub-account. NIH states that even if the award was issued with “automatic carryover authority” the grantee has to receive approval through a new NOGA before funds are drawn down.

What You Need to Do Right Now

Review your award portfolio and take steps to ensure awards are appropriately charged for direct costs up front, reducing the need for cost transfers. This saves time, heightens compliance and allows your institution to meet the challenge of shortened reporting time frames.

  1. How many awards are under SNAP? How many are not under SNAP? (This will affect the calculation of your unliquidated obligations and unobligated balances – which, in this new world of payment management should be minimal.)
  2. What are their project dates, and how are they looking financially? (Are all expenses hitting the project in a timely manner?) If not, why not?
  3. What systems are in place to ensure direct charging of appropriate expenses (salary and non-salary) to awards, and reconciling expenses on a monthly basis? If these systems don’t yet exist, what needs to be done to set them up?
  4. Is there a process to regularly meet with investigators to review award activity and plan for changes in allocation of expenses proactively (to prevent cost transfers)?
  5. What reporting and queries can you utilize to easily manage your portfolio and provide updates to your investigators?
  6. Start to develop great relationships with your subcontract sites now – if you haven’t already. You’ll need to have them generate their final invoices faster than they have in the past.

What Your Investigators Need to Know

money-under-mattress-300x217We all know PI’s who think of Federal grants like funds stuffed between a mattress for a rainy day. Yet for every investigator who thinks like that, there are two that understand and have a very keen appreciation for managing awards. However, the new payment management system, combined with the shortened time frame for closing out awards is creating a new environment for managing sponsored funds.  We have to impress upon our most studious investigators that if they do not use their Federal funding, they will lose it.

This is the time when we can help our investigators by providing administrative leadership:

  • Clearly outlining what our investigators need to know about the policy and how we need to work with them to administer their projects.
  • Providing them with financial information regularly so they can make decisions about their research plan and strategy (and we can ensure administrative actions regarding purchasing, effort and salary administration and reimbursements are managed in a timely manner).
  • Updating our investigators regarding policy changes and trends in the availability of carry forward funds, additional reporting requirements, and other trends to assist them in managing their current awards and planning for new applications.

The Department of Defense already has a strong payment management system in place, but it stands to reason that the Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal agencies will look to adopt more stringent monitoring of federal grants. Have you seen the Do Not Pay website? The Obama administration, in creating a government that utilizes data and analytics to generate accountability, is creating a network of systems to ensure that funds are distributed, tracked and paid to the proper recipients.

One Part Challenge, Two Parts Opportunity

To be sure, the next 18 months aren’t going to be easy – but working together we’ll transition to the new payment management system. More importantly – it’s an opportunity to introduce new ways of managing sponsored projects that can remain in place to meet the challenges of tighter Federal funding in the future.

Subcontractors, Consultants and Vendors: So Many Choices, Still So Confusing.

hire.outsource image

There are more proposals to submit to agencies than ever before – and the criteria for competitiveness includes an institution’s ability to collaborate – not only within its walls but with investigators working on related research at other institutions.

The selection of the proper agreement type for a collaborator during the proposal phase should happen as early as possible, with the investigator working with the research administrator and the collaborator to evaluate the proposal mechanism and the statement of work. A set of questions help evaluate the best agreement for the collaboration.

What criteria determine the type of agreement for a sponsored project?

1. What is the service, function or activity they will perform (with some specificity).

A subcontractor or consultant will typically have a more detailed scope of work than a vendor, which has a very specific task to perform. A subcontractor and consultant perform work which relates to the aims of the award, which have milestones and reports attached, and often require analysis. However, the outcomes of the work are not predetermined. A vendor’s work is determined by its regular course of business as it is contracted to perform a service on behalf of the award, and it either performs the service, or it does not.

2. Under what time frame will they perform it?

Accordingly, the time frames for the agreements will match the types of work performed. A vendor is usually engaged until it finishes the work performed.

3. Will they be using the facilities of an institution, or their own facilities?

Subcontractors and vendors use the facilities of their institutions; consultants use their own facilities, and not the facilities of their institutions (unless they are a small business).

4. Who will the check be made out to (who will receive the 1099)?

A subcontractor and vendor will have payments made to an institution. A consultant is almost always an individual, but can be a business. In the event that a consultant is a business, this arrangement should be reviewed periodically to ensure that the agreement should not be revised to become a subcontract in subsequent years. (Yearly consulting agreements should be considered.)

5. Does the contractor expect to have publication rights?

Only if the contractor is a subcontractor. A consultant does not typically receive publication rights.

6. Will the work of the contractor affect the direction of the science in some way?

Only if the contractor is a subcontractor. A consultant does not typically have the ability to influence the direction of the science, as the role of a consultant is to produce a work product under the direction of the PI but does not have a named scientific role. If the individual is to direct the science, they should work under the auspices of their academic institution and contribute based on their institutional based salary/effort.

7. Is the contractor working in a capacity with a level of independence?

A subcontractor or consultant, based on their named role on the project has the ability to function independently with oversight by the PI. A vendor cannot function independently. They have a scope of work that they need to complete under the direction of the PI by a specified time frame, and there is no room for deviation or independence.

8. Do the terms of the award flow down to the contractor?

The terms of the award flow down to the subcontractor and the consultant, but not the vendor. This may be a vital distinction when selecting a correct agreement type for a collaborator.

AFTER THE FACT AGREEMENTS – NOT A GOOD IDEA

I’m very appreciative, but often surprised when an investigator suggests setting up a subcontract after the fact to “save work” and time, because it seems too cumbersome to set it up during the proposal phase. In fact, setting up the subcontract, consultant or vendor agreement during the proposal phase is crucial – because at that time, F&A is being established based on the proposal budget. When the proposal is awarded, and F&A is set – any after the fact subcontracts or other agreements have to include F&A out of direct costs. This is a VERY painful budgetary impact that could have otherwise been avoided.

PREPARING THE REQUEST FOR THE COLLABORATOR

When the collaborator is a subcontractor, we have a standard package of materials that we send from our institution that we hope will make life easier for the research administrator we are working with, who will almost always be receiving the request (we ALL know this) later than we would like.

  • Northwestern’s subcontractor form (Financial Conflict of Interest Statement with standard SF424 info)
  • Draft Budget and Budget Justification
  • Draft Statement of Work

For a consultant, we provide a draft consultant letter, which states the hourly rate of pay, travel per diem, length of time work will be performed, nature of the work to be performed and support for the project. We also provide detailed instructions for completing our FCOI process for the proposal.

Common Question: Can a consultant on a proposal be an investigator at my institution?

If the work on a sponsored project is not related to an investigator’s regular work, and is not an ongoing assignment, it may be possible to justify a consulting agreement at your institution for an investigator who is also employed by your institution. However these agreements require prior institutional approval before they are proposed and should be done with proper planning. A PI cannot propose an investigator in the same department as a consultant.

Justification Nation Part 5: Equipment – It’s Where The Rubber Meets the Road

1341852727_412203523_1-Laboratory-Equipment-Fume-HoodFume-Cupboard-Brand-new-Elardus-Park

Equipment is considered by most sponsors, and most institutions, to be an item of property that has a cost of $5,000 or more and an expected service life of more than one year. Items that cost less than $5,000 are budgeted as supplies and services.

If it were this easy – we could stop here! I’m currently working on a state of Illinois contract – where the equipment threshold is considered $500, and the purchase of equipment is not permitted. (Say it with me – yeesh – depreciation expense!)

Most sponsors however, understand that the research enterprise requires the support of equipment costs, especially certain types of equipment. How do we make this happen on applications, and what considerations need to be kept in mind?

General Considerations When Budgeting Equipment As Part of An Application

1. Documentation is required. When budgeting equipment, documentation for the cost of the item will be needed as part of the budget justification – this is an area where the PI cannot ballpark the cost, or add an item at the last minute.

2. The $5,000 base cost includes a lot! The acquisition cost of an item of equipment includes modifications, attachments, and accessories needed to make it usable for the proposed research. So if the item costs less than $5k, but the additional costs bring it up to that amount, the combined costs must be budgeted as equipment with NO associated facilities and administration costs.

3. Fabrication materials needed to build equipment fall under this guideline. If the materials you are budgeting for to create a piece of equipment for the proposed research exceed $5,000, it is equipment and cannot draw F&A. If the combined cost is under $5K, the materials should be budgeted as supplies (and listed in that section of the budget justification).

WHY EQUIPMENT IS PRIMARILY A POST-AWARD CONCERN

  • When an award starts, the investigator is typically concerned with hiring, getting the project up and running and usually the equipment is not needed until after that. Getting the investigator to order the equipment and get it in the door, and up and running when they have other things to do is difficult. (Ensuring that equipment is not purchased in the last year of an award is essential!)
  • Bringing in equipment means tracking depreciation and service costs (service costs are allowable on out years.)
  • Managing equipment depreciation and service costs in the context of a recharge or service center is even more important, because of compliance issues, and rate setting.

TIP: Make sure that your equipment and resources page is up-to-date and supports your budget and budget justification for the equipment in the proposal. It’s easy to use a boilerplate justification that may not be the most current, but the PI could also use the resources page to support the need for the equipment she is requesting.

Justification Nation Part 4: Justifying Subcontractors and Consultants – Starting Off on the Right Foot

mapEstablishing subcontracts during the application phase can appear quite complicated and time consuming. At a time when we’re rushing around to complete the application with the investigator, we have to work with another university and ANOTHER investigator that we have never met, and ask them for information, often without ever seeing them face to face, and they have to produce this information really quickly. The subcontract information has to be institutionally endorsed at the home university before it is submitted in the application, which takes time, and that’s essential for the application to be approved at the prime institution before our investigator submits to the agency. The coordination necessary to achieve this is impressive. (Now imagine an application for an application with a number sites – subcontracts – and the planning involved!)

While subcontracts can take time to coordinate, they are not as complicated as they seem. Subs are the backbone of research and can be easily managed once you’ve done them a few times and are familiar with the process. It helps to think of a subcontract like a mini-grant application. Consultant and vendor agreements are more streamlined.

So how is it done, and what are the keys to success when justifying a subcontractor on your budget? What about a consultant? How do you determine the difference between a subcontractor, consultant and a vendor in the first place? In the era of collaborative research, subcontracts and consultants are a part of research collaborations on a regular basis – what are the best practices for documenting these relationships on budget justifications? Let’s look at justifying subcontractors and consultants on grant applications.

A-133 Audit Criteria

The criteria for the A-133 audit, and the IRS both help guide our determination for classifying the type of work that subcontractors, consultants and vendors perform (consultants and vendors are generally considered a similar category).

Subcontractors

  • Provides substantive programmatic work or analysis
  • Responsible for scientific aims and decision making on the program which has measurable performance objectives
  • Subject to Federal compliance standards
  • Retains rights, relationship to study participants, etc.
  • Provides cost sharing on project
  • Can receive flow down of original terms of prime contract

Consultants/Vendors

  • Provide goods and services as a part of their normal business operations to many purchasers
  • Operate their business in a competitive environment
  • Provide their specified service to the research program to support the outcome; do not direct or contribute guidance to the research aims.
  • Ancillary to the operation of the Federal program (another service could replace them).
  • Is not subject to the compliance of the Federal program.

TIP: When a “consultant” with academic expertise has a role on the grant that is consistent with their academic appointment and they are using their institutional resources to achieve the work on the grant, they should be proposed as a SUBCONTRACTOR.

BEST PRACTICES FOR ESTABLISHING SUBCONTRACTORS ON PROPOSALS

  1. Plan your proposal process in advance, ask for every item you need up front, and give a deadline.
  2. Communicate with your subcontractors by phone (have your PI pave the way with research administrators at the site/s).
  3. Don’t assume that the sites assemble subcontracts the same way that your institution does – on the contrary! Provide detailed directions to the sites, and follow up. Be accessible and answer questions in a timely manner.
  4. Provide draft letters, materials (budget justifications, budgets, etc) to speed the process along.
  5. Build a great relationship and be very helpful. This will not be the last time you will work with this site – your PI will be working with this site for his or her career.

BEST PRACTICES FOR ESTABLISHING CONSULTANTS

  1. Start off with a conversation with your PI – what will the consultant do on the project?
  2. Talk to the consultant and introduce yourself, offer to draft a letter for the consultant to review after getting some key pieces of information: hourly rate, length of time the consultant will work on project, scope of work, and whether or not the consultant will be traveling.
  3. It’s preferable to provide a draft letter for the consultant because in most cases, unless a consultant has done a lot of work on sponsored projects, information tends to get left out.
  4. Your institution’s office of sponsored research may have template language for you to use in the consultant letter – check first before sending.

BUILDING YOUR BUDGET JUSTIFICATION

The subcontract budget justifications are inserted after the prime budget justification information in the application. (F&A is taken on the first $25,000 in direct costs.)

Consultants are budgeted in the other costs section of your budget, and their work is justified in the other cost section of the prime budget justification. Their letters are inserted as supporting documents to the application.

Justification Nation – Part 2: Supporting Research Personnel: Budgeting Salary and Fringe on Research Grants

scientists working at the laboratoryBudgeting Salaries and Fringe for Faculty and Staff

Sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it? On most research proposals, personnel costs range from 60-70%. Budgeting and justifying personnel is extremely important and in principle, comes down to a few key issues:

Are the right faculty and staff on the proposal? Does the project have the right leadership?

Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work?

Are the personnel on the proposal performing the right work for a reasonable estimate of time?

Fortunately, the choice of faculty and staff isn’t up to the research administrator. The PI will select his or her collaborators to achieve the scientific aims and enhance his or her chances of getting funded. But let’s face it. It’s a good thing we’re working on the budget – because there isn’t a PI on the planet that really understands how people are paid (or what they really make). Double and triple checking this information is key to submitting an accurate budget that covers the University’s actual personnel costs. If the proposal is awarded, the salary had better be calculated correctly, proposed with the proper person-months of effort, contain summer salary if the faculty member has a nine-month appointment, and justify the VA commitment if it exists.  Not so simple after all.

Budgeting Salary and Effort on Sponsored Projects

It’s important to start with the FOA – and any requirements from the sponsor. Is there a required amount of effort from the PI, or any others on the proposal? For grantsmanship, you’ll find that for most federal proposals, the PI will have to give at least 15-25%. (1.80 to 3.0 person months)

Who else is essential for the project? What levels of effort will they be working? Note that most PI’s think in levels of effort – you can convert to person months when you are done tweaking the budget. Outline each role for each person on the application. What will they be doing for the level of effort the PI has given them? Discuss with the PI that  20% time is one day a week, 10% time is 1/2 day a week, for that level of effort, how will the PI justify that much time on a sponsored project? Push for detail.

Draft the budget justification based on this information – and then look at the numbers and see where you end up – and edit from there. That’s how the process works. There are a couple of important things to be aware of as you write the document, which I’ll outline below.

General Budget Justification Format for Personnel with Salary and Fringe

Henry Smith, Ph.D., P.I. (1.8 calendar months), will serve as PI and Project Director on this project.  Professor of Pathology at Superb University and an HHMI investigator, he has researched nanostructures extensively, and has over 25 years of highly regarded work in the field.  He will have overall responsibility for all aspects of the project, supervise lab personnel working on experiments and will be responsible for organizing and chairing meetings of the advisory committee. In addition, he will be serving as the lead investigator of the microbiology core.

Looking for ways to justify a person or item on your justification? Google it! Someone else has faced the same problem, I guarantee it.

Justifying Faculty and Staff Fringe Rates

Your institution’s F&A agreement also contains the approved fringe rates for all employees. Be sure to use the correct fringe rates for each type of faculty and staff member, depending on their appointment. Most universities require a standard template to be used in the justification.

Remember to Inflate Salaries, Blend Fringe and Use the Cap only When Needed

In these economic times, institutions are ensuring that every salary dollar is proposed on the application – that means using the formula that factors in a salary increase each year, blends the fringe rate across each project year and only uses the salary cap on projects where it is required. Ensure that you include your inflation factors in your budget justification.

TipsA research administrator who is beginning the budgeting process should be prepared for several common questions that may arise, depending on the level of experience that the PI and project staff have with project planning and budgeting. Awareness of these potential concerns can prevent misunderstandings and assist in decision making.

1. Limit the distribution of salary information. Plan to limit distribution of salary information to as few people as possible during the budgeting process, especially during the budgeting of salary on the project. Faculty and staff may not know one another’s salary information if they have not budgeted many grants together. If salary information has to be distributed, hiding the base salary column may be recommended, you can check.

2. Beware of language in your justification that commits cost sharing. If your PI or any personnel for that matter are “contributing services” you need to write about their work in a way that does not specify exactly what they will do or how much time they will give. That’s voluntary committed cost sharing, and it happens all the time. Beware!

3. Understand the basis of a faculty or staff member’s appointment before moving forward with budgeting them on the proposal. Alert the PI if there is a problem with how the PI is proposing them on the application. The faculty or staff member must have an appointment that is consistent with how they are proposed on the application; they should have salary at the institution (versus an affiliate), or be eligible to receive a stipend versus salary and fringe. If there is some discrepancy, it can be corrected at the time of the application, instead of trying to fix a problem downstream at the time of the award (when the budget won’t allow for an increase).

4. Keep in mind that in most cases, stipends are for students or trainees receiving an education benefit from participating in the grant. Investigators are occasionally inclined to propose paying stipends for employees – instead of trainees. Consult your HR guidelines, and the FOA for more information.

5. Similarly, even seasoned investigators propose hiring colleagues on a proposal as a consultant. There are specific rules as to the type of personnel who can fulfill a consultant role. In a majority of cases, the role is fulfilled by an individual from outside the institution who is using their own resources and providing a specific expertise that is essential to the project. This individual does not contribute to the direction of the scientific work of the study.

These are general guidelines for budgeting salary and fringe on sponsored projects – it’s impossible to be specific for each type of application. For specific questions about types of applications there are excellent websites for federal agencies – and you can reach out to experienced research administrators for help.

NEXT: MORE ABOUT BUDGETING FACULTY AND STAFF, AND BUDGETING TRAINEES

Justification Nation – Part 1: Why Do We Write Budget Justifications in the First Place?

images (1)I love writing budget justifications – LOVE them. It’s easy to think that the budget justification should be written last, when the proposal is almost done. But if you do that, you’re minimizing the strategic importance of the budget justification’s ability to reinforce the aims of a scientific proposal. A well written justification supports the science – and shows that the investigator has a reasonable and realistic plan to achieve their aims. A scientist with his or her “budgetary” wet finger in the air is unlikely to get funded, no matter how fabulous the idea.

A savvy research administrator will help his or her PI by outlining the budget justification (along with the budget) as the research plan is taking shape and the subcontracts are coming together – to ensure that everything the PI wants to do is feasible according to Federal cost principles, the funding announcement requirements, the agency’s general requirements and any institutional policies that govern the PI’s activities.

The Budget Justification is a Road Map for How the Project Will be Conducted

If the budget were separated from the proposal, a reviewer should have all the information he or she needs to evaluate the financial resources needed to support a project from the budget justification. It is the only document in the application that maps how the scientific aims of the project relate to the resources needed to successfully execute the work. When I draft a budget justification for a PI, I picture myself much as a lawyer would make a closing argument in a courtroom in front of a judge and jury – here’s where I’m clearly and succinctly presenting the case for my client, in plain language, based on the rule of law. (And I plan on winning the case!)

The Basis for Budget Justifications

  1. To provide documentation regarding the basis for budget calculations and documentation of project costs.
  2. To establish compliance with federal grants management policy and cost principles.
    • Allowability, allocability, reasonableness, and consistency.
  3. To demonstrate that the proposed research meets the specific announcement requirements.
  4. To demonstrate compliance with specific agency regulations or policies.
    • Ex: Documentation of summer salary for NSF vs. NIH summer months; charging salary at the NIH cap
  5. To document institutional processes, policies or standards.
    • Providing template language for the basis of faculty appointments, cost sharing language, etc.

This material is the foundation for budget justifications – everything else is added once these elements are fully established.

Planning Your Budget and Budget Justification

The next step is to ask the following questions:

  • What type of budget justification do you need? (Detailed or Modular?)
  • Will you be constructing draft budgets and draft justifications for subcontractors or consultants?
  • How many personnel will be participating on the project, and what type of personnel will there be?
  1. Faculty
  2. Staff
  3. Post-docs
  4. Research Staff
  5. Students

What type of expenses will this project have?

  1. Equipment
  2. Services
  3. Supplies
  4. Consultants
  5. Other Costs

When you and your PI have discussed the research plan and mapped that against the planned budget, you can begin to outline the budget justification. You’ll have to make some assumptions at first, but your PI will be able to refine your work as you review drafts together.

COMING UP NEXT: JUSTIFICATION NATION – HOW TO JUSTIFY PERSONNEL

Why E-mail is a Necessary Evil – And What You Can Do About It

E-MAIL IS EVIL… BUT IT IS NECESSARY

Why is e-mail evil? And why is this not just another scribe about how to write e-mails carefully? Because e-mail has replaced many forms of  communication in our everyday professional life, and e-mail has the power to derail the management of an entire sponsored research project if we’re not careful. We’ve given e-mail its power without thinking. We’ve now got to decide to wield this power wisely, and to understand its effects, especially when it has legal and compliance implications. This is true both within our organizations, with subcontractors and with collaborators.

WHY IS E-MAIL SO POWERFUL?

  • An e-mail message reflects as much the intention of the sender – as it does the point of view of the receiver.

This is the biggest minefield of them all. When an e-mail is opened, it can be misconstrued because the receiver is having a bad day or has misunderstood what has been written because of a poor choice of words by the sender. The method of e-mail delivery strips away all personal intent – which is why we have discovered every keyboard use for the emoticon to relate emotional intent with our messages. And still they run astray. (Not to mention what may happen when the sender fires off a hot one without thinking!)

  • People from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds and life experiences use e-mail differently, yet we have few clues for understanding these differences on e-mail.

We have to approach e-mail with an absolutely open mind – because the brightest minds in science and medicine may be the most brief composers, poorest spellers, or English may not be their first language. It would be easy to draw another impression about the type of person we would be assisting from their e-mails. But we cannot.

  • Organizations use e-mail differently and assign different meanings to types of e-mail messages.

Universities and large organizations use e-mail to correspond with collaborators, while smaller community organizations prefer to use e-mail to confirm interactions that have taken place either in person or on the phone. E-mail as a primary form of correspondence can be viewed as a sign of lack of trust, which can affect the relationship if the organization is participating in a sponsored project.

  • People of different age groups have different comfort levels and expectations when communicating on e-mail, and may fail to recognize when using other means of communication is needed to bridge gaps in understanding.

While its important not to generalize, it is common to see entire conversations on e-mail these days. These conversations can take place among the Gen Y crowd, but busy Baby Boomers engage as well. We’re all multitasking. What tends to happen is that misunderstandings and conflicts start to occur online – and no one picks up the phone or calls for a meeting. And the limitations of an online conversation abound, and we have the problem that the misunderstandings with their compliance implications are being documented. Ultimately, this creates more work, all for the “meeting” or “conference call” we were trying to avoid!

  • E-mail is immediate, auditable and can be subpoenaed.

It all comes down to this in the end. Once you push send, you cannot recall an e-mail with information that should not have been distributed. (I have seen people try to do this.) E-mails document decisions and activities within an organization and with our collaborators and subcontractors – every e-mail needs to be thought of like an external broadcast, regardless of who you are actually sending it to.It reflects you and your institution.

SO WHAT NOW? I HAVE TO USE E-MAIL. WE ALL DO.

This is the necessary part. We all have to use e-mail. It’s a necessary tool in our business communications arsenal. However, we need to be more fully aware of how to use e-mail wisely. We can’t avoid all the problems with e-mail, but we can use it better (analogous to mastering defensive driving on the road):

  1. When contacting someone you don’t know or corresponding with someone new – keep messages short and ensure that you include face to face communication or phone calls. Rely more on e-mail once you understand their “e-mail communication style.”
  2. When you’re working on a  project and you encounter a difficulty with e-mail communication, pick up the phone and call the person instead of e-mailing them back.
  3. Learn e-mail conventions – and notice when people you correspond with don’t use them. It tells you about them and helps you understand more about the people you work with on e-mail. Give everyone you work with on e-mail the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Never ever respond to someone on e-mail in anger. If you’re the least bit frustrated, walk away and come back to the issue later.
  5. If you don’t know how to respond to an e-mail, or if the answer is too complicated and you don’t know how to explain it, that’s a good sign that the information may be sensitive and it probably should be discussed before being written down.
  6. It’s very easy to miss words on a screen when you are reading an e-mail. If you want to make sure you are understanding the information someone has said to you, read it to yourself. Likewise, if you want to make sure that your e-mail is grammatically correct, or written in the best way, read your outgoing e-mail to a colleague before you send it and get feedback.

When you think about it, a quick phone call might be the easiest way to take care of something after all.