At the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, digital modernization drives both cutting-edge research and rapid response to emerging health situations.
Working in support of the institute’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matthew Eisenberg has been pushing hard on the technology front. As chief of the Business Process and Information Management Branch in the institute’s Office of Cyber Infrastructure and Computational Biology, he is helping steer the institute toward more collaborative processes.
“Whether it’s a trying out a new vaccine or looking at how the disease behaves, IT modernization helps to drive how we respond,” he said.
For some time now, Eisenberg and his team have been shifting the institute from manual, paper-based processes to automated electronic routing and processing.
“That goes beyond simply making things more efficient,” he said. “It involves business process re-engineering: eliminating redundant steps, automating reviews.”
In one instance, the team went from physical to digital contract files.
“Beyond just eliminating a huge file room that we had to have in the Institute, it really transformed the way our contracting officers and contract specialists worked,” he said. Among other things, “it meant that when the pandemic hit, they could work from home.”
Digital documentation also helps drive deeper insights.
“With paper files, there was no way to query or scan or look across all of those for any kind of analysis,” he said. “With the electronic repository, we can query the system: Are there key documents that are missing? Was there a month that went by where we didn’t receive a deliverable? Contract-compliance audits have been transformed.”
On the research side, modernization has helped the institute to drive collaborative efforts between the many universities and private research organizations with which the institute interacts.
“With the way government accounts work, getting a shared system where all of these different partners and collaborators can work has proved very challenging in the past,” Eisenberg said. “Now, we have great collaboration tools and systems that we’re able to provision very quickly, where we provide that common place where all of these people can come together and look at documents, look at a calendar, look at a shared task list and really collaborate on the research work.”
In one example, a shared electronic toolkit developed during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago helped international researchers more effectively manage their COVID response.
It can be hard to implement new tools across a wide reach of stakeholders. The key to successful implementation is strong leadership.
“We’ve had very strong support from central executive leadership in the institute,” Eisenberg said. “They understand what we are trying to achieve and are able to influence some of these process owners and business owners to affect that change.”
As modernization progresses, Eisenberg is keeping his eye on some key emerging technologies, especially artificial intelligence and machine learning to help manage and classify documents more efficiently.
“We’re also interested in new user experiences,” he said. “We are looking at the things people are doing in their personal lives with voice interfaces, or interacting with chatbots with AI behind them that help users interact more comfortably and efficiently with some of these systems.”
There is much the government contracting community can do to support the institute in its efforts. First: Know your product.
“We’ve had some integrators come in promoting technologies that they don’t know really well, and that’s been a problem,” Eisenberg said. “Sometimes, there are these hastily thrown together alliances between a product vendor and an integrator, where the integrators don’t really know what the technology is capable of — or not capable of.”
He said he would like to see closer collaboration across industry, especially between vendors and integrators, to ensure more successful deployments.
Eisenberg also has advice for contractors around the kinds of credentials they present.
“We have a lot of people come in and they show us something they did elsewhere,” he said. “We do a lot of grants and maybe they have done grant systems or something adjacent to grants at other agencies. That’s great, but it would land better and it would be more effective if the contractor community could take more time to understand how we’re different, how we work here.”
Too often, “it’s left up to us to sort of bridge that gap,” Eisenberg added. “It would be helpful if people could do some of that groundwork for us. Sometimes, we reject things out of hand because we can’t connect the dots. We prefer it when people take the time best the time to understand what NIH does and what the institute does. Put some of that into what you’re showing us.”
On a personal level, Eisenberg said the COVID crisis has reaffirmed what he already knew to be true: that the work of the institute truly does matter.
“We’re having a direct impact on this pandemic and on people’s health,” he said. “Everybody on my team feels very strongly about that. The institute is filled with incredibly dedicated, incredibly talented professionals who all care very deeply about the work that we’re doing.”