From creating micro-robots to designing a lung on a chip, Harvard researchers perform some of the most complicated and cutting-edge work in the world. But until recently, the process of procuring the tools for such research — say, an obscure antibody needed to replicate another lab’s study — was far from an exact science.
“From what I’ve heard, people mostly relied on Googling and a lot of word of mouth,” said Joel Rivera-Cardona, manager of procurement services at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
Luckily for Rivera-Cardona, the Wyss Institute was among the first organizations at Harvard to test the Harvard Crimson Online Marketplace (HCOM), a new procurement system designed as a one-stop shop for purchasing and invoicing anything from office chairs to contractor services to rare biological materials like those pesky antibodies.
“There are some good vendors out there [for scientific materials], but one vendor’s not going to carry everything you need,” he said. “With HCOM, it’s like going to a buffet. You get all the items that are out there, knowing that they’ve been negotiated and they’re readily available to you, and that the vendors have good relationships with Harvard.”
Since its University-wide rollout in May 2010, HCOM has gained more fans than just Rivera-Cardona. By allowing more than 200 vendors access to the Harvard community, and by offering 4,000 Harvard administrators a tool for managing their purchases, the new online system is streamlining procurement.
Overall, HCOM saved Harvard $5.4 million last year, and is projected to save another $6.75 million this fiscal year.
“By supporting the vital administrative and operational efforts of the University community, HCOM underscores our commitment to Harvard’s research and teaching mission,” said Lisa Hogarty, vice president for Campus Services.
University administrators are quickly embracing HCOM. In the 2011 fiscal year, HCOM users made 61,000 purchase orders worth $165 million, plus an additional $120 million in payments to vendors, who provide services such as construction, food, or security staffing. As of July, 57 percent of all transactions at the University were processed through HCOM.
“This tool has significant benefit to researchers,” said Joanne Urso, director of University procurement. “It allows them to have access to hundreds of suppliers electronically without having to toggle between different websites.”
The idea has been in development at Financial Administration and Campus Services since 2005, when the University’s former controller and its financial systems group started looking into ways to modernize the procurement process. After a staggered rollout, HCOM now reaches 80 percent of Harvard and will be University-wide by the end of this year.
“It’s just a good business practice to have all of our purchase orders and payment requisitions go through a single point of entry,” Urso said.
Although the HCOM marketplace is currently dominated by scientific suppliers, the site also boasts partnerships with more-familiar vendors such as OfficeMax, B&H Photo, Office Environments (an office furniture supplier), Dell, and Grainger Industrial Supply. Campus Services plans to include a stationery vendor this fall that will provide access to Harvard-specific catalogs for business cards and other products, and a new book vendor.
“Integrating the University’s procurement process has been among Campus Services’ top priorities since I arrived in 2010,” Hogarty said. “Launching HCOM at the University level has been a major milestone in that effort, but we’re still committed to expanding it and improving it with the community’s input.”
Other routine business tasks that once would have caused headaches have been streamlined under the new system. HCOM has built-in controls that allow managers to make sure their spending is compliant with the terms of their grants. With everything documented in one place, Rivera-Cardona only needed 30 minutes to prepare for a recent audit with the University’s risk management department.
“The financial person working with me was amazed at how quickly we got the information we needed,” he said.
It’s also helping procurement managers across the University go green. Lisa Wilks Ball, supervisor of financial operations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) chemistry and chemical biology department, said her office’s paper use has decreased dramatically now that the department’s invoices are stored electronically.
“I’m really happy with the system and the capabilities that are there for us,” she said.
In some quarters, change was a long time coming. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), one of the earliest adopters of HCOM, in August 2008, had used the same procurement process for 47 years.
“Trying to convince the School we should do things differently was probably the biggest hurdle,” said Susan Jones, director of procurement and payables at SEAS.
In the end, Jones said, feedback was so positive that SEAS switched to the new system full time last year. One of the benefits has been getting to know the other players at Harvard who are responsible for procurement, she said.
“It’s opened up the community, and it’s let vendors know that we’re all talking now,” Jones said. “It’s helped bring better pricing and better services to the whole University.”