Technological advances improve lab efficiency and output, but the selection and successful implementation of the right technology is essential. Luckily, lab managers do not have to navigate the increasingly digital lab environment alone. While sometimes overlooked in an organization, information technology (IT) departments can provide expert input on the design and setup of technology-related projects. Therefore, lab managers need to recognize the important role that IT plays in the lab, cultivate ongoing relationships with IT staff, and create a lab culture that embraces technological change.
The role of IT in the lab
IT departments play a critical role in the overall operation and success of organizations. Their multifaceted role frequently extends into the laboratory, from designing systems that increase the efficiency of operations (e.g., inventory management, information management systems), providing office and communication tools for day-to-day business needs, and maintaining the computer and network systems that support lab-related software and equipment.
Yet as Don Newton, a clinical laboratory consultant as well as a former VP of clinical operations and administrative lab director, points out, IT is often the “forgotten component” in many organizations. This, he says, is a mistake. He emphasizes, “We are a high-tech, ever-evolving business. IT needs to be at the forefront of the clinical process.” Barbara Blond, a senior technical analyst at the College of American Pathologists, agrees. “The laboratory, an area driven by data needs, requires the expertise of information system analysts.”
Thus, it is important for lab professionals to recognize the value of IT departments and turn to them for help. Michael Robeson of Interstitial Genomics, LLC (Longmont, CO), an R&D consultant who specializes in microbiome data analysis, advises that lab personnel should not be the primary ones responsible for dealing with IT-related issues because this slows down lab productivity. He explains, “IT folks are paid to fix and troubleshoot much of the software and hardware we use, so make use of them.”
In some cases, it may be necessary to outsource IT services to supplement in-house capabilities. Matthew Berven, an IT service desk manager with SAIC (Oak Ridge, TN), explains, “Generally speaking, the company that outsources does not have the knowledge or capability to run a service desk or a strong, functional IT department. It may be more cost effective to contract with a company that specializes in running an efficient IT department with already well-established processes and subject matter experts in place than it is to attempt to recruit them and start from scratch.”
When applicable, the decision to outsource should be left to the internal IT department that can best evaluate whether a project or service is beyond its scope. As Newton explains, “I let the IT folks speak to their level of involvement in technology projects, and I trust their expertise to let me know if anything needs to be outsourced and why.”
But outsourcing does not eliminate the need for internal IT departments to be involved with the process. As Newton further expounds, “I think that with outside vendors, the role for your IT department becomes more important. They have, or should have, ownership in your organization. Therefore, it is critical for them to be in the loop and to protect your facility.”
Additionally, internal network and computing systems may interfere with the functionality of a vendor-purchased software or hardware component, and the vendor may not be able to help resolve such an issue. It is advisable to keep internal IT departments apprised of new technology in the lab and seek their consultation during installation and as problems arise.
Working collaboratively with IT staff from the start
According to Newton, IT is often busy behind the scenes or “out of sight, out of mind,” so lab managers must be proactive by bringing in IT staff as early as possible during the planning process for technology-related projects. This can be accomplished by inviting IT to initial project meetings and encouraging active discussion among all stakeholders. Furthermore, it is imperative for lab managers to be aware of how and when to contact IT about technology-related issues.
Key to the success of IT-related projects is for lab managers to clearly outline their business needs and requirements to IT staff. As Berven explains, “Establish clear key performance indicators and areas that are most important to the [laboratory], and communicate that to the IT department. One of the biggest pitfalls is to assume the IT department has a deep understanding of the culture and values within a [laboratory].”
As an IT project manager and SAP functional analyst for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tracey Lawson puts in the extra effort to design systems that work for the end user. She does this by bringing together cross-functional teams who provide input on test versions of applications to ensure that IT is correctly interpreting product requirements. While this takes more time and effort initially, she says it results in an application that fits the needs of the user community and builds buy-in for its implementation.
An IT go-to person who serves as a liaison between the scientists and IT staff can also facilitate communication on projects. According to Lawson, this person would ideally have a solid understanding of both the business processes (i.e., what a productive and efficient lab needs) and the IT side of things. She explains, “Those representatives can then bridge the gap between research and IT staff to design and build better workflows, processes, and ultimately applications that allow the researcher to really focus on research, instead of focusing on how to ‘get things done’ in a company.”
Robeson also points out that establishing an IT-lab liaison can lead to less downtime in the lab when simple requests need to be filled or when troubleshooting issues arise. For example, in his former position, he was able to serve as an unofficial network administrator for his lab by maintaining a relationship with and demonstrating his competence to IT staff.
Cultivating relationships with IT staff
Communications with IT staff should not start and stop with the planning and implementation of projects; these relationships need to be cultivated over time. As Robeson explains, “Simply starting and maintaining a friendship with the IT folks was invaluable. Meaning, do not talk to the IT department only when you need something. Stop in and say ‘hello’ occasionally. Many times, I’d invite them to the lab so we could ‘geek out’ about some new piece of computer-controlled lab equipment. In return, they’d invite me to hang out with them in a server room and show me some new network or server equipment. From there, I’d have a better understanding of how things worked ‘behind the scenes.’”
Robeson also emphasizes, “Remember, many IT personnel are just as much into science and technology as you are. Allowing IT personnel to feel like a legitimate part of the lab gives them an even greater sense of purpose—that they are helping us do research. They gain more skills in being able to troubleshoot not only the computers but also the equipment connected to them and to communicate with the lab personnel that depend upon the equipment.”
Paris Grey, a research coordinator at the University of Florida and co-founder of the website Undergrad in the Lab, has had much success in collaborating with her university IT department on implementing lab projects. She advises researchers to follow this simple but wise guiding principle in developing work relationships: “Say please and thank you, and mean it.”
Furthermore, Blond says it’s important to continue a strong relationship with IT after a project ends. “The task force should continue periodic meetings to discuss problems, patches, and new version implementations. A lunch meeting or a joint activity showcasing a project at the facility helps meld the affiliation between [IT] and the laboratory.”
Embracing technological change in the lab
While lab managers don’t need to become IT experts, there are simple steps they can take to better prepare for future technological changes in the lab. First and foremost, lab professionals need to embrace change and be open to using new technology.
As Grey advises, “Be fearless in adopting new digital technologies. Finding the motivation to incorporate new digital technologies into a workflow can be difficult. After all, there is no guarantee that a new one will be the right one, and it can seem like a waste of time if, in the end, it’s not helpful. But who designs a scientific poster or creates a cloning molecule by hand? Who has file cabinets of printed journal articles or individually edits bibliographies to accommodate a journal’s preferred format? The idea of doing any of these by hand is absurd. Yet at some point, the digital technologies that allow us to do these tasks efficiently were new. So choose the mindset to explore new technologies, even though there is some risk and effort involved.”
Robeson also encourages new lab managers to meet with the IT department as one of their initial tasks. This meeting can include a tour of both the laboratory and IT facilities to understand what each does and how to work together best. He further states, “By doing this, the IT department may be able to identify those areas that are weak and provide better service to research laboratories.”
Additionally, there are training opportunities readily available on both business and technical IT applications via internal IT departments or from lab-related IT vendors. For example, Lab Manager provides free, quality webinars on a range of technological applications through its various webinar series. Participating in such training keeps lab managers updated on the latest technology available and how to effectively use applications, and can improve overall communications when working on IT-related projects.