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How to Effectively Communicate with Non-Scientists

Learning the “languages” of other departments outside the lab is an important component of business success

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, obtained her PhD in inorganic chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1988. She began working for Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., in the fall of that...

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The lab manager has many responsibilities involving the optimization and effectiveness of the laboratory, and its contribution to the success of the business. This holds true for labs that are the focal point of a business, as well as for labs that support a business with a different primary offering. While it is tempting to spend all one’s energy on internal lab issues, lab managers must recognize the critical importance of developing effective communication techniques and working relationships with functions outside of the lab itself. This article will summarize the reasons these communications are important, provide some methodologies for building those skills and relationships, and point out a few pitfalls to avoid along the way.

Understanding all the roles of the business

It is human nature to place more importance on skills and activities you know well versus those that you don’t know quite as intimately. An extension of this mindset is the tendency of managers of various business functions, including the lab, to feel that their function is central to the success of the overall business. The reality, of course, is that all business functions need to work smoothly and cooperatively for any business to be most successful. The success of the lab itself depends upon the flow of support and information from the other functions, as well as the ability of those functions to capitalize on the output of the lab. For this to happen to greatest effect, lab managers must develop skills to effectively communicate with the managers of those other functions, many of whom are not scientists or are scientists who do not have intimate knowledge of how the lab functions. 

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The first step to learning how to communicate well with those outside of the lab is to spend the time to learn as much as you can about the other functions in the business. How does sales work? Manufacturing operations? Finance? Business management? What are their goals and objectives? What headaches do those managers often have to contend with? What keeps them up at night? Learn the “language” that other functions use to describe their work. Either ask to spend time with those managers to truly understand their function, or look for mentors or friends who can educate you. If this seems like a waste of time to you, ask yourself this question: How frustrated do you get when a manager from another function minimizes the challenges of the lab or acts as if the lab output is less important to the business? If you expect other managers to understand how the lab works, then you should put in the effort to understand how their functions work.

Once you’ve gained an understanding of the workings and challenges of other functions, map the functions and output of the lab with the goals of the other functions. How does the output of the lab help sales meet their goals? What does manufacturing require from the lab for them to be most successful? How does business management view the contributions of the lab toward meeting overall business objectives? Once you’ve gained the ability to “see” the lab through the eyes of the leaders of the other business functions, you are better positioned to not only prioritize lab activities that will most effectively drive the business, but also ensure that those other business leaders see the contributions of the lab as vital to meeting their own objectives.

A cohesive approach

Let’s take the example of seeking to gain approval for a large capital expenditure related to a new instrument. It may be the need to replace an aging tool or the purchase of an instrument that would provide a new capability. While it is usually the role of business management to sign off on these investments, often the input from other functions will be required. A typical approach to justify the purchase might be to discuss the technical capabilities of the instrument and how those capabilities fill a critical need within the lab. The technical aspects are often of most interest to the lab, but leaders of the other functions need to hear how the investment will help them meet their own goals, too. The sales manager wants to hear what market segments she might lose if that capability goes away, or what new customers she might gain with the new capability. The manufacturing manager wants to hear how this capability will lead to quicker answers to production problems, more robust products to begin with, or how loss of this capability would otherwise negatively impact production processes. The business and finance managers want to understand how this investment will return more in profitable sales than the cost of the investment itself or how loss of that capability would impact profit margin or overall revenue. 

To make these arguments effectively, the lab manager must have a deep enough understanding of the other functions to be able to make specific and quantitative statements that tie this investment to the objectives of the other functions and the business as a whole—and to make those arguments in the language of those other functions, not the language of the lab.

Another example is the cyclic setting of objectives and the related budgeting process aimed at achieving those objectives. The lab manager aims to set objectives that contribute to the overall success of the business and then requests resources required to meet those objectives. However, if the lab manager expresses the objectives only in the terms of the lab (technical objectives, what skills and capabilities are required, and what do they cost), the path to approval is a steep one. The challenge for the lab manager is not to simply connect a lab objective to a business objective, but to specifically describe how the lab objective will lead to the achievement of the business objective. To achieve this, the lab manager needs to explain how the successful completion of the lab objective enables the successful completion of the objectives of other functions and the business as a whole. Key to this process is specificity and quantitation, which requires the deep understanding of how the other functions achieve their objectives.

Achieving support and appreciation for the lab

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. It is easy for the lab manager to cut corners and not do sufficient homework. Don’t assume that the other managers understand how the lab works, and constantly challenge your own understanding of other functions. Ask questions. Spell out acronyms. Work hard to see the business through the eyes of your management peers and never stop expanding on that understanding. Be prepared to teach others as often as necessary so that they gain understanding of the lab. The investment in mutual education will pay rich dividends in continued support and appreciation of the lab. 

Finally, remember to stay humble. As noted above, it is easy to fall into the trap of seeing the lab as the critical function around which the business revolves. Certainly, it is important, but there would be no business if the other functions did not work just as hard. All the functions of the business are interdependent. The reality is that most managers, of all functions, don’t embrace this concept. Remember to keep the overall objectives of the business as your primary touchstone and always discuss the needs and accomplishments of the lab in the context of those business drivers. If you, as the lab manager, can do that, you will always be positioned to best support the lab.