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The Online Lab Manager

From screening job candidates to benchmarking laboratory performance and energy use, today's lab managers have a cornucopia of online tools to choose from.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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In an era in which corporate management is requiring lab managers to do more with less, a new generation of Internet-based services provides a means for them to accomplish this. There are many online applications available besides online open innovation services that enable lab managers to access ideas of others outside their companies.1 Often referred to as “Web 2.0,” these applications include tools that let people collaborate and share information online in ways that enable managers to increase lab productivity, reduce costs, and do things such as train, share information, and hire in new and different ways. Corporate intranets offer a means of collaborating and sharing proprietary information. For example, proprietary wikis can be developed and maintained on a corporate intranet to store and share laboratory reports, meeting minutes, company safety manuals, and other documents.

Finding and screening employment candidates

Lab managers now have an increasing number of online options to post job openings and solicit résumés from job candidates. “Traditional” methods include large job boards such as and There are also specialized laboratory job boards such as that operated by the American Chemical Society (ACS) on its website at and For cash-strapped lab managers interested in hiring staff locally if they can, there is craigslist. Many companies post job openings on their own websites and job hunters can apply online.

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Lab managers can use new Web 2.0 technologies to interview and compare job candidates. For example, virtual career fairs held online eliminate the cost and time required for business travel while allowing participation on the individual schedules of hiring managers and job hunters.2 Just as with a traditional career fair, employers can post a list of available positions, search a database of submitted résumés, and schedule interviews with employment candidates. Last June, the ACS held a virtual career fair online.

Virtual interviews can be conducted in real time, with managers and job hunters using webcams to talk to and see each other. Alternatively, the hiring manager submits a list of questions to which job candidates record answers, with the hiring manager viewing the video at a later time.

Using services such as InterviewStream (, lab managers can post a predetermined set of questions for job candidates for a particular job opening. Using webcams, candidates can record and post their responses. InterviewStream and similar services are intended to serve as screening interviews and not to replace on-site interviews that are the final step in the hiring process.

However, Web 2.0 wizardry can have limitations and even pitfalls compared to old-fashioned methods of screening employment candidates. For example, human resources consultant John Sullivan has noted that hiring managers can rapidly scan traditional résumés, whether on paper or displayed on a computer screen; time-pressed managers cannot do the same with video résumés.3 One cannot highlight key points on a video résumé for others to see nor make notes directly on the video. One can’t place video résumés side by side to compare them. Video résumés, by providing a video recording of the candidate, enable employers to identify an applicant’s race, sex, age, disability status, and other characteristics that are typically omitted from traditional résumés for EEOC reasons.

Lab managers are beginning to use social media, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter, to search for job candidates. They can also use these social media and search engines to search for information on specific job candidates.

Online purchasing

Many vendors of laboratory instruments and supplies offer purchasing services on their websites. For example, lab managers can browse various product descriptions and specifications, and purchase products online using the Thermo Fisher Scientific website.

Rather than going to the websites of several different providers of a particular type of lab instrument or lab supplies, one can go to an “emporium” website such as to save time and view instruments available from many vendors. (In the interest of full disclosure, LabX is the owner and publisher of Lab Manager Magazine.) also offers refurbished instruments. If prospective buyers cannot find the refurbished instrument they want, they can post a “wanted” advertisement.

There are many websites from which one can order computers, printers, monitors, calculators, and a wide variety of office supplies. Comparison shopping is less time-consuming than paging through catalogs and less damaging to the environment as well.


Wayne Collins has discussed benchmarking laboratory performance at length in the pages of Lab Manager Magazine. 4 Online benchmarking tools are usually customized for use by specific industries and for specific functions. Information technology costs is a popular category for benchmarking. For example, Aupec is customized for firms in the oil and gas industry to benchmark their information costs against competitors ( online.htm). Aupec services of interest to lab managers include benchmarking product development time and employee retention.

Because they are closely regulated, clinical laboratory managers are strongly interested in benchmarking their labs’ performance against both that of similar laboratories and regulatory standards. A review summarizes an extensive study of clinical laboratory benchmarking.5 Chi Solutions ( is among the online providers of benchmarking services tailored for clinical laboratories.

Working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a benchmarking tool to enable laboratory managers to benchmark their energy use by comparing it to that of similar facilities, with the goal of identifying cost-saving opportunities and reducing energy consumption ( The current database is comprised of more than 170 laboratories against which lab managers can benchmark their own laboratories.

Using their own databases of laboratories, commercial services such as Management Insight ( offer benchmarking services to lab managers. These services enable managers to assess their laboratories’ performance in a variety of categories.

Online alternatives to business travel

Business travel is both expensive and time-consuming. An increasing number of companies are using economical alternatives such as online meetings, web seminars (webinars), and videoconferences using PCs and webcams combined with high-speed broadband Internet connections and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) systems.6 Such online meetings are also more environmentally friendly than traditional conferences.

Companies such as Cisco, which bought WebEx in 2007, and Adobe, which acquired Macromedia in 2005, make it possible for firms to connect multiple sites around the globe for internal meetings and meetings with customers and suppliers. Costs have dropped dramatically from those of videoconferences of a decade ago. For example, Thermo Fisher Scientific traditionally has flown scientists, engineers, and support staff all over the world to help customers install instruments and solve problems. More than 1,600 Thermo Fisher Scientific employees now use Adobe’s virtual meeting Connect Pro service to perform R&D, conduct training, provide customer technical support, and make sales and marketing calls. Thermo Fisher Scientific uses other web conferencing applications as well but may make Adobe Connect Pro a corporate standard, according to web specialist Dudley Torres.6

Using services such as GoToMeeting (, users can speak to each other over conventional telephone lines or using VoIP while sharing computer screens. Versions for small meetings of up to fifteen people and large corporate or professional conferences of up to 1,000 attendees are available. It is also useful for conducting small or large meetings and online training. For example, last November this writer, Lab Manager Magazine editor Pam Ahlberg, LabX Media Group general manager Ken Piech, and LabX’s Peter Ferris—located in three different offices separated by hundreds of miles—met for online training in blogging. Lab personnel located many miles apart can also edit documents and presentations on shared computer screens.

For companies that want to experiment with online meeting services, some vendors offer free trials. There is also DimDim, which offers a free version based on open source software that can accommodate as many as twenty users in a virtual meeting room. One can display PowerPoint slides as well as conduct discussions.

The drawback of these online meetings is the near-total absence of unplanned discussions and interactions between attendees in informal settings. An important part of conventional meetings and conferences, these informal discussions can spark great ideas, eventually leading to new products and services. Perhaps as scientists, engineers, and lab managers become more comfortable with using online social media such as Facebook and Twitter this disadvantage will be overcome.


Four articles on laboratory information management systems (LIMS) have been published in Lab Manager Magazine in the past year.7-10 LIMS are increasingly web based and continue to become more sophisticated and useful. Using online software based on remote servers decreases demands on the memory capacity of desktop personal computers.7 Since the desktop computer interacts with the remote server using a web browser, any desktop or laptop PC operating system such as a version of Windows, Apple’s Snow Leopard, or Linux may be used. With the LIMS software located on a remote server, there is less disruption of laboratory operations when the software is updated. Lab personnel save the time required to install new software on their computers themselves. All users always have the most up-to-date software.

One concern that some users may have with web-based LIMS is data security. However, Robert Pavlis, president of Labtronics, Inc., ( notes that users typically have to log in to systems using their names, their companies’ names, and passwords. This restricts their access to only the data for their companies. Pavlis notes that his firm’s laboratory integration product, Nexxis iLAB, may also be used to store information on users’ intranet systems. One can e-mail Nexxis iLAB reports to others who need to see the results. One can also import the results into a Word or PDF document that includes additional results generated by other laboratories.

Nexxis iLAB can also be set to accept only data generated using chemicals and formulations whose use dates haven’t expired and results were determined using properly calibrated instruments. “The lab manager knows the work is being done right because the system won’t let you do it wrong,” notes Pavlis.

LIMS are also becoming more specialized, increasing their usefulness. For example, lab managers can tailor the modules of LabVantage Solutions’ SAPPHIRE™ software to the unique requirements of their laboratories ( researchdevelopment/index. html). Conformia Software, recently acquired by Oracle Corporation, offers customized software designed to manage drug development from initial candidate selection through clinical trials to commercial manufacture ( Orchard Software Corporation’s Orchard® Harvest™ LIS offers a number of modules designed for clinical laboratories (

A recent trend in LIMS is greater integration, making information from all laboratory applications available to any other application in real time. Laboratory managers can have online access to all the information they need to run the lab, while many of the necessary daily workflow management decisions can be automated.

Online training

Many organizations, including universities, offer online courses in a wide variety of subjects. For example, the ACS offers forty-two Harvard University online businessskills short courses. These include budgeting, coaching, developing employees, managing meetings, and many other business-related subjects ( learncenter.asp?sessionid=3-7673499A-3D4B-42F9-A663- 64294F8510C8&id=178419&page=47). In addition, some ACS technical short courses are available in webcast versions. These examples suggest that online services will continue to become increasingly useful tools for lab managers.


  1. J.K. Borchardt, “Open Innovation Becoming Key to R&D Success,” Lab Manager Magazine, www.labmanager. com/articles.asp?ID=28 (January 31, 2009).
  2. Lisa Balbes, “The Value of Virtual Career Fairs,” of-virtual-career-fairs/, (May 26, 2009).
  3. J. Sullivan. “Résumés: Paper Please,” Workforce Management, p. 50, (October 22, 2007), archive/article/25/20/42.php?src=wfw090818b).
  4. W. Collins, “Using Benchmarking Metrics to Improve Laboratory Productivity,” Lab Manager Magazine, www. (May 31, 2006).
  5. P. Valenstein and F. Schneider, “Benchmarking Laboratory Quality,” LABMEDICINE, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 108- 112 (February 2008).
  6. M.W. Rafter, “Meeting Without Meeting,” Workforce Management, 25/75/64/index.php (September 2009).
  7. W. Verost, “Web-based LIMS Right for Any Sized Lab,” Lab Manager Magazine, articles.asp?ID=57 (June 30, 2007).
  8. G. Metrick, “Product Resources – LIMS,” Lab Manager Magazine, (November 6, 2009).
  9. G. Metrick, “The LIMS Market,” Lab Manager Magazine, (October 7, 2009).
  10. D. Champagne, “Purpose-Built LIMS,” Lab Manager Magazine,, December 8, 2009).