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Building Laboratory and IT Teams

Developing collaborative relationships with IT ensures a productive environment for your lab

by John Joyce, PhD
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Building Laboratory and IT TeamsCredit: iStock

There are many views regarding a laboratory’s interactions with the organization’s information technology (IT) group. However, the general consensus is that the best approach is to nurture a team atmosphere, with both the laboratory and IT staff working together to accomplish a common goal. As the laboratory manager, one of your jobs is to work to build this team spirit and minimize any conflicting issues generated by others. Sometimes this goes smoothly, other times you must be more creative. In the following discussion, we’ll examine some of the potential problems you might encounter and a few ways of dealing with them—hopefully before they become major issues.

As the lab manager, if you are not a specialist in the field that the laboratory operates in, it behooves you to immerse yourself in the operational function of the laboratory. That is, you need to have a solid understanding of the work the laboratory performs, the resources it requires, and the type of support that it needs from the rest of the organization before you can effectively protect and nurture it.

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Almost as important is developing a close working relationship with the organization’s IT support group. While this includes you personally developing a good working relationship with the IT director, ideally it helps if the entire lab staff develops a good working relationship with IT as well. The optimal situation is to work to develop a partnership, with both sides becoming familiar with at least the general functionality and needs of the other. Frequently, IT groups work behind the scenes, dealing with the infrastructure supporting the entire enterprise, and are only contacted directly when there is a problem. This typical “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality is a problematic approach to take, as it limits the opportunity to reach out to them and develop a relationship. No matter the type of laboratory that you are managing, it is increasingly true that if the network or other informatics systems are down, the entire workflow of the laboratory stops. If you haven’t done the work ahead of time to develop a close team mentality between the staff of the laboratory and the IT department, so that IT personnel are invested in the lab, this can result in less resilient operations and longer down times. While the groups are inter-dependent in terms of the overall operation of the organization, you need to ensure that both groups are playing to their strengths. For example, laboratory personnel should normally not be the primary people dealing with basic IT-related maintenance issues, as this is the IT group’s specialty and what they are paid to do. At the same time, with the highly automated equipment used in many of today’s laboratories, it is also prudent to be able to recognize situations where correcting the issue optimally requires a collaborative approach between the two groups.

You can inculcate this by working to develop a sustained interaction between the two groups. This allows both groups to develop a much clearer understanding and appreciation of both the unique needs and capabilities within the two groups, allowing them to view each other as collaborative resources. What may well come as a surprise to some, is that there is frequently an overlap of interest between the two groups. Particularly in more automated labs, there tends to be more of a shared “geekiness,” or common appreciation of the technology and science involved. Another approach is for each group to invite the other to attend some of their technical seminars to learn more about the work that the other group actually performs. There is an abundance of webcasts available in IT and a wide range of scientific fields, and most are not overwhelmingly technical. This interaction can be nurtured by including a laboratory informatics specialist (LIS) on your team. Ideally, this person is familiar with both computer operations and the science that the laboratory specializes in. While IT would be involved with the initial setup and maintenance, this person would also be the admin for any specialized servers in the laboratory, such as your laboratory information management system (LIMS), chromatography data system (CDS), or proteomics system in the lab. A working knowledge of electronics for interfacing instrumentation would be useful as well. However, in terms of our topic, one of their most important functions is performing the task of translator between the two groups, as most IT and laboratory groups effectively speak different languages. This can easily result in requirements being missed simply because one group didn’t know that they needed to ask a specific question. In any field, it is difficult to know what you don’t know!

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IT might need to know how readily available data needs to be, as well as the amount of data generated in an analysis, both of which might determine how the data is stored and retrieved. This in turn can affect the response time for retrieving data from the system. What one person considers highly responsive might be unacceptably slow for another. This is particularly true if one group is used to dealing with real-time processing while the other is used to having batch processing of data running overnight.

All project teams that interact with major customer groups for which the majority of analysis requests come in electronically and analytical results are returned the same way should contain members of both groups. This dual presence helps keep things anchored and prevents any of the participants from overpromising on what they can deliver. An added benefit of a close relationship between groups is the synergy created. As IT becomes more familiar with what the lab is trying to do, the better they can suggest novel solutions to improve the process.

Similarly, whenever the laboratory purchases new informatics software, such as a replacement LIMS or an electronic laboratory notebook, you should include at least one member of the IT group on the selection team. Here, you may find yourself constrained by corporate policy, but I highly recommend that for projects like these, you should try to ensure that the laboratory “owns” them, not the IT group. As before, the lab normally has a better idea of the functionality that it needs than the IT group does. But IT does need to be on the team as they will be handling its integration into the rest of the network. You will also find them invaluable in terms of recommending the servers to purchase to run these systems, and to ensure that they are sufficient for future growth. They will also be able to ask insightful questions of the vendor’s sales team regarding system configurations and responses under situations that the lab members may not have the expertise to ask. This also gives the IT group insight into the data transfer requirements that the network and storage systems will have to handle.

Conversely, it is prudent to include lab personnel on any IT teams working on projects that affect the lab. This allows the lab to provide input into the hardware installed, to ensure that it does not conflict with the laboratory’s requirements. While the IT group will be responsible for configuring and maintaining any network switches affecting the laboratory, it is prudent to require IT to provide copies of all equipment passwords as a protective escrow.

In many IT support organizations, the staff are generally rotated and assigned to a specific task as needed. In a best-case scenario, it is worth it to coordinate with the IT director to get particular staff assigned permanently to support the laboratory, so they become familiar with its unique needs. If you are particularly lucky, you might be able to have IT staff with a science background assigned to your support team. This would give them a significant head-start in supporting laboratory operations.