In the past, labs were identified by strange instruments, oddly shaped glassware, fume hoods, peculiar smells, and black-topped workbenches with lots of drawers.
To those in the lab it was comfortable; to those from other departments it was curious. But today’s laboratory instruments, which rely heavily on complex software to drive them, have forced previously isolated labs into a more dependent relationship with information technology. With that relationship comes continual change and disruption as new laboratory systems require regular tweaks and upgrades. A far cry from the days when changes in the lab were controlled and agreed upon by the researchers who worked there.
There are several issues that complicate the use of information technology in lab work:
- The nature of lab work
- Unplanned software/hardware changes that can disrupt lab operations
- The need for computer-based systems and equipment to support lab operations
- The size of the organization relative to the size of the lab staff
- The nature of the organization’s mission: is it research- based, or do the labs play a supporting role (QC in manufacturing, testing labs supporting a product development operation)?
Lab staff are used to working with complex instrumentation and are comfortable with devices that they have been educated to work with, where they understand both the theory and the practical use. They have the science down but have only user-level education on computer systems that are associated with the device. In many cases they need a better understanding of how things work in order to get the most benefit from them.1,2 Once they get a system set up and working, they would like it to keep functioning that way.
Unfortunately, computer applications are built on layers of software from more than one vendor, and any component of that structure can change at the vendor’s discretion or in response to a need or security threat. The farther down that structure you go, the more frequent the changes, particularly as the industry shifts from annual updates to subscription services with updates on an asneeded basis. If the top-level applications don’t keep up with changes and testing, things become unstable.
The growing sophistication of lab equipment, the increasing level of skills needed to work with it, and the complexity of lab software systems are forcing changes in how labs work. Labs can’t afford to have highly skilled science specialists supporting lab systems. Information technology specialists need to fill that role. Simply saying that doesn’t identify a complete solution to the problem.
Just as a science specialist’s ability to solve instrument computer or informatics problems decreases as you move down through the layers of software, the typical IT specialist’s abilities wane as you move through the hardware and software to the science application layers. There is an area where a specialist with combined science and IT backgrounds is needed to understand and solve problems. Is the problem the application, the computer, the cabling? If the equipment doesn’t work, no matter where the problem lies, the work doesn’t get done. We need people who can address both the science and the IT components to keep things working. That need will become more acute as the integration of lab functions takes place through software systems. We began a discussion of lab-IT relationships in a previous article3 and the subject has been noted in other forums.4
The popular myth is that lab people and IT people don’t understand each other. If your view of IT is people who talk about hardware and operating systems and couch everything in three-letter acronyms, you have a point. Their point of view and responsibilities are to keep the computers and corporate information/ infrastructure working. There are examples where lab and IT have forged good working relationships. How? By taking a realistic look at how work gets done and what is needed to be successful and by working out a partnership that leads to mutual success.
Lab managers and staff have to realize that software systems—from informatics through sample handling/preparation—are tools that can be successfully applied to laboratory work. That means learning more about the capabilities and limitations of the systems so that you can make informed choices about how you want your lab to function and what elements can be brought to bear to make that solution work. Making those decisions falls squarely in lab management’s lap because we are talking about how the lab is going to operate. It requires an understanding of current lab operations, methods, instrumentation, and staff and of how the lab and its workflow are going to change over the next few years—these are lab business decisions. Traditional corporate IT isn’t going to help with that.
The people you need to partner with are those who are willing to meet in your lab and act comfortable with lab equipment. These are people who have strong IT backgrounds, can meet and speak with you on your terms, understand what you need to do, and then will work with you to get the job done. They may rely on traditional corporate IT to back them up on some issues. Some companies are hiring people with lab experience to fill those positions and act as analysts/intermediaries between the labs and corporate IT. We have seen job descriptions that require “some lab experience” or “three to five years’ lab experience” for IT positions; make sure the lab experience is appropriate for the kind of work you are doing (you may ask whether you can be part of the interviewing group). If that isn’t happening within your company, hire an outside firm with the expertise you need. Above all, make sure people are properly educated.
Part of that expertise is project management. You may not find everything you need in one person; a small team may be needed, or get them educated to fill in gaps. The number of people you need to support the lab is not a function of the number of people in the lab but of the complexity and sophistication of the operations.
Traditional IT works with a limited number of applications spread over a large number of people. If you think in terms of office applications, you may need a support person for every so many users—they are all doing the same thing, and it is something the support people use as well. As you move into high-end database systems, the numbers change, requiring more support people. Lab systems become complex very fast. Database systems, instrument data collection, and connecting an instrument system to a LIMS or ELN really ramp up the support requirements, even if you have support contracts with the vendor. (They’ll support their stuff but not how you use it or what it is connected to, although some of that is changing with vendors providing support contracts for equipment from any source.) If your lab falls within a regulated environment, you’ve added another dimension of complexity.
Most educational programs (articles, webinars, seminars) for lab managers stress personnel management. It is certainly appropriate, but in the modern lab where IT plays a significant role it isn’t sufficient. Your people skills will have benefits as you work with a team to do an effective job of planning, designing, and implementing systems.
Planning and designing are critical skills. For most lab instruments, planning revolves around add-ons, repairs, and replacements as the nature of the scientific work changes. Information systems are different. In a highly competitive environment, products may be updated at least on an annual basis if not more frequently. These systems don’t work in isolation but can connect to each other as well as to your instrumentation. Planning has to be done to meet both near-term and long-term requirements, including anticipating what your lab’s needs might be a couple of years out—you don’t want to spend months implementing something only to discover that a change is coming and it might negate some of what you’ve done.
Lab manager or lab technology planner
- An understanding of lab technologies (note: this includes sample prep and robotics) —instruments, data systems, and informatics—strong background
- Project management—the actual project work may be done by a Lab-IT specialist or an analyst; however, you should know enough to understand the subject and the implications behind techniques and methodologies so that you can make sure what is being done makes sense—moderate to light background
- Good negotiating, management, people, and problem-solving skills—while technical issues will have to be addressed, most of the time-consuming issues are those involving people—strong background
Lab-IT, business analyst
- An understanding of lab technologies, both instruments and data systems—lighter background, sufficient to have a basic understanding of what is being discussed and the implications
- An understanding of lab information technologies— strong, particularly on functionality, application, and interaction; this is a significant part of your value to the team
- Project management—this is your job—strong
- Good negotiating, management, people, and problemsolving skills—while technical issues will have to be addressed, most of the time-consuming issues are those involving people—strong background; you may be the focus of problem solving
- An understanding of lab technologies, both instruments and data systems—light background, sufficient to have a basic understanding of what is being discussed and the implications
- An understanding of lab information technologies— strong, particularly on databases, systems communications, and application programming interfaces; this is a significant part of your value to the team
- Project management—moderate to light
- Ability to work with people and have problem-solving skills—while most of your work will be technical, you have to be able to work with other team members—good background
In order for this team to work effectively together, they have to talk to each other regularly. If you are purchasing equipment, let them know what you are planning before making a purchase decision—they may have concerns that can impact the success of the installation, operations, and support. If there are information infrastructure changes going on, again, talk to each other and discuss their impact before they happen. Get together periodically and discuss upcoming plans, changes, what is working or not. If you are having vendors in for presentations, get team members involved to keep them informed about products and technologies; don’t limit presentations to vendors—have presentations from other sources to provide different perspectives and viewpoints.
Information and automation technologies will transform the lab in more than one dimension. They bring significant benefits, at the cost of growing and developing people beyond their comfort zones. There are plenty of examples of things going badly, but there are also examples of things working well. Being prepared to do it right has a big payoff.
1. Hinshaw, John V. “Finding a Needle in a Haystack,” LCGC Asia Pacific, Vol 8 Num 1, March 2005, pp. 24-29.
2. Stevenson R., Gras R., Lee M. “The Future of GC Instrumentation from the 35th International Symposium on Capillary Chromatography,” American Laboratory, Vol 43 Num 9, September 2011, pp. 4-8.
3. Liscouski, J. “Labs Are from Mars, IT Departments Are from Venus,” Lab Manager, Jan-Feb 2013, Vol. 8 Num 1, pp. 30-33.