Case Study: University of Hertfordshire


When the University of Hertfordshire (UH) assessed the market for a costing solution in late 2022, the existing Excel-based research costing template (RCT) had been serving its purpose for eight years. Yet, changing institutional and funder requirements had complicated the maintenance of the RCT and affected its performance, exacerbating common conceptual limitations of Excel-based costing processes such as:

  • no systems integration (need to pull in salary details manually etc.)
  • single template (limited -if any- ability to reflect different funder pricing policies without manual manipulation, introducing a high risk of error)
  • lack of review and approval process support (email-based back and forth)
  • single output format (=the Excel sheet itself; need to transpose figures into the required funder format)
  • lack of solid access control (who can change a costing?)
  • lack of audit trail (who made a change?)
  • lack of change control (conflicting versions of costings as well as of the template itself)
  • hard to maintain, requiring regular updates with changes to inflation, salaries, and on-costs (and no supplier to blame if things go wrong 👉 😳)

Faced with the alternatives of attempting to overhaul the RCT (Volunteers step forward!) and accepting its shortcomings, or exploring external solutions designed to meet the specific needs of research costing, the University opted for the latter.

Business case and procurement

Given the focus on the costing and pricing aspect of the pre-award journey, and the intention to also provide the system as a self-service solution for academics, BlackDackel emerged as the preferred solution, standing out for its user-friendly interface, the flexibility of its costing model, reporting capabilities, and integration options with the UH’s corporate systems like Pure and TechnologyOne.

The procurement process was relatively straightforward. Other research costing systems were considered (e.g. Worktribe) but the University wished to retain Pure as its Research Information System, and BlackDackel was the only standalone research costing system which could be fully integrated with Pure (and with TechnologyOne). A robust business case was presented by the Director of the Research Office, following which the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) agreed to support the first year implementation and licence costs from the University’s QR budget, with the expectation that central budget would pay the annual licence fees in subsequent years. The procurement of an online research costing system was also a good fit with the University’s digital strategy and showed significant cost and efficiency savings in producing costings. The swift procurement route via the G-Cloud framework then enabled the University to move forward with BlackDackel by May 2023.


Every BlackDackel project starts with a one-day kick-off workshop on site. This is the first time the project scope is discussed and laid out. However, scope changes frequently occur later during the project and the UH implementation was no exception to that; this is expected and supported by BlackDackel’s agile project methodology.

At Hertfordshire, the kick-off workshop took place on 10th May 2023, with an initial agreed-upon scope including:

  • an integration with the UH’s HR system to synchronise payscales, organisational unit structure, and staff details on an ongoing basis
  • an integration with the UH’s single sign-on solution for authentication
  • the costing (fEC) configuration in BlackDackel; including the setup of TRAC rates, pension schemes, inflation rules, and more
  • a one-off data upload of all of UH’s funders, from the Research Information System (Pure)
  • the setup of a number of pricing/income templates to reflect the various pricing policies of public funders, charities, industry funders, etc.
  • the setup of relevant personas (roles) and their privileges in the system; including a number of administrative and academic roles
  • a two-way integration with Pure, to embed BlackDackel into Pure’s pre-award workflow


Thanks to the hands-on attitude of the project team, most of the original scope items were implemented and pending review on the project test environment by early July, only about 8 weeks into the project. On the other side, following previews of the system with key stakeholders, a number of scope extensions had come up, including:

  • partner costing, requiring a one-off data upload of UH’s collaboration partners and the setup of respective business rules in the system
  • additional requirements for commercial costing as requested by the Business Enterprise and Innovation team, requiring the addition of VAT rules in the system and a custom report for quoting costs to commercial funders
  • a custom report for internal approvals
  • some smaller calculation adaptions to align the definition of some calculated figures (like recovery percentages etc.) with local requirements
  • alignment of UI labels with local terminology
  • amending the Pure interface with an additional data element (OFS code)

With some of the original scope items still outstanding (testing of pricing templates; adding more pricing templates; review of reports etc.), the University team progressed with

  • testing and refining the setup on the development environment
  • creating documentation and training material
  • and a communications campaign;

while the BlackDackel team addressed the expanded requirements without compromising the original timeline (or the budget 😇).

In order to facilitate close collaboration, clear communication, and timely updates, the team took also advantage of agile tools like a shared Kanban board and weekly sprint reviews, put in place at the start of the implementation. As a result and despite scope adjustments, developments and testing were complete by September, setting the stage for the final migration to the production environment just four months after the project’s initiation, demonstrating the project team’s commitment and flexibility.

Go Live and Review

Following the setup of the production development, a planned go-live date was set for four weeks later, to allow for communications, additional testing, and last minute tweaks. The actual go-live on 16th October was then marked by a notable absence of the drama typically associated with system launches.

The least stressful IT project I have ever experienced, with exceptional support from Johannes.

Annalisa Jones, Head of Research Grants and Deputy Director of the Research Office

Reflecting on the project and five months of productive use, the implementation of BlackDackel at the University of Hertfordshire has been a success, both in terms of the execution of the project (project management, supplier responsiveness and flexibility, team spirit), as well in terms of the benefits it brought to the University: BlackDackel

  • is the single costing system at UH, aligning all research costings from different areas of the University with bespoke costing templates and reports depending on varying needs
  • aligns with UH’s original requirements – and more
  • provides a greater level of accuracy, yet with the required amount of flexibility for bespoke costings
  • is easy to manage centrally, facilitating a more efficient and unified approach to research costing across various departments

At the time of writing this case study, BlackDackel is in use by the Research Grants Team, the Business Enterprise and Innovation Team, and the Business Development Team at UH, and is currently being rolled out to academics. And while the story of its academic rollout is not fully written yet, BlackDackel’s promise and history of exceptional service quality, commitment, and partnership leave the University assured that its needs and requirements are safely covered, now and in future.[1]

[1] In fact we have been so impressed with the implementation of BlackDackel that we are at the early stages of exploring a potential phase 2 development, aiming to integrate BlackDackel with TechnologyOne. Stay tuned for further updates on this front!
  • Sarah Beeley is the Senior Research Governance and Information Coordinator at the University of Hertfordshire. Sarah works in the award set-up stage within the Research Office using the Research Information System, having previously worked with several other university systems in her previous role in the Exams Office. She was instrumental in project managing the implementation of BlackDackel, and is now involved with training, creating user guides and subsequent system developments.
  • Annalisa Jones is the Head of Research Grants and Deputy Director of the Research Office at the University of Hertfordshire. Annalisa is an experienced research manager with extensive experience supporting research in higher education. In her current role, Annalisa leads a team responsible for providing operational and strategic research support across the university, ensuring a high-quality service that meets the needs of researchers and research support professionals, ensures compliance with the requirements of funding bodies, and facilitates the strategic aims of the university. During her 15 years in research management she has been involved in several strategic research management projects, including the implementation of the Pure Research Information System at the University of Hertfordshire in 2015, and the development and implementation of Worktribe at the University of Lincoln in 2011.
  • Johannes Ferber is the founder and managing director of BlackDackel.