Magazine Article | March 7, 2011

IT Strategies For The Lab

Source: Life Science Leader

By Ulf Fuchslueger

Laboratory IT is a broad subject — covering research, development, and quality control. It also uses a wide range of different applications with varying scalability — from specialist single-platform solutions and instrument control software to companywide systems. The only thing they have in common is that they run on different platforms, are based on different technologies, and are delivered and supported by different companies! Of course, the respective user or department has good reasons why they need a particular application, but the IT department finds itself in the role of providing reactive support, caught between the efficiency targets set by management and the requirements of the operational units. To complicate matters further, there is often a big know-how difference between the IT and operational units regarding laboratory-data applications and their use. But, that does not have to be the case.

Understanding The Conditions
To introduce successful IT strategies, it is vital to understand the underlying conditions. Perhaps the most important one to bear in mind is that any innovation leading to a paradigm shift is normally difficult to predict on the business side, but particularly on the IT side. Consequently, it is vital to anticipate the consequences of the developments. That means appreciating that the introduction, development, and operation of an IT system is a long-term, costly, and — above all — constant undertaking and not just a one-off affair. It is also important to bear in mind that the innovation cycles in the IT industry are constantly getting shorter. This trend means it is more important that companies choose the right partner for their projects rather than the product with the most features. It is not a question about the actual functionality or user-interface of a product; what counts is the support, industry know-how, understanding of the processes, and innovation strength of a partner or supplier. It is about processes, not systems.

But, don’t forget that the supplier or partner is dependent on the client for deepening their knowledge of the client’s business and developing solutions. No supplier knows the processes as well as the client. It follows that so-called platform solutions — solutions that suppliers claim can handle all the customer’s processes and requirements — cannot be maintained. Therefore, heterogeneous software nvironments are unavoidable. Customers over the long term will have changing suppliers, and the supplier will have changing clients.

IT budgets, especially in large organizations, are allocated not according to process requirements but organizational requirements. This results in developing IT systems that go the wrong way, creating islands, media gaps, and unnecessary interfaces.

Finding Solutions
An overall IT strategy must be aligned with the business processes, support these processes, and detach the focus from applications. This broadens the perspective and ensures that not only the latest unctional requirements of individual user-groups are covered. The process focus also ensures the allocation of financial resources is more target-oriented and that optimization processes in operational units are better supported.

Basically, in the laboratory field, a heterogeneous software environment is considered unavoidable. The solution for this problem is solid and open integration architecture. Furthermore, it is imperative to realize that integration processes in the lab exist on different levels — namely, at the instrument level (e.g. between analytical devices or their controlling software) and on the application level. A well- designed integration architecture allows the implementation of processdriven solutions. The users of such solutions are not restricted by applications, but can simply perform the process they need without having to worry about what applications they are actually interacting with. Furthermore, integration architecture can also allow the optimization of local specialized processes and especially the deployment of problem-specific applications — whether for laboratory equipment or for an application for selected processes within the company. Taking an integrated approach brings lower maintenance costs and, more importantly, more efficient processes, which is the goal of the IT strategy.

In such a complex environment, suppliers must be partners and demonstrate a firm understanding of the strategies. For products, integration capability must be a fundamental component. Applications working only with proprietary connection points are not a solution — they must be compatible with open, standardized, and fully documented interfaces.

It was mentioned in the introduction how important it is for partners to understand the processes and to have an extensive exchange of information with their customer base. Such an exchange means that IT development costs are spread out over a wider customer base and that knowledge about specific areas comes from a broader spectrum of the company. This produces an IT strategy that is based on easily integratable quality software products and less on customization services or specific application development.

From Electronic Artifact To Integrated Workflow
The gradual implementation of this kind of IT strategy will automatically contribute to achieving common business goals such as increasing efficiency and shortening process and development times, and not just incrementally, but dramatically. Only if the leap is taken, leading the company from “electronic artifact” (the mapping of paper-based processes in electronic systems) to integrated workflows, will the “work” be taken out of workflow and measurable success will be achieved.

About The Author
Ulf Fuchslueger is CEO of Vialis AG, a Swiss-based company that provides services and consulting in the area of laboratory data management and lab process optimization for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and an executive MBA.