ANALYSIS & OPINION

Alphabet soup

21 March 2013



An ‘alphabet soup’ of terms – LIMS, LIS, SDMS, ELN, LES and CDS, just to name a few – pervades the laboratory informatics industry. Every year, the list seems to get ever longer. It is not just the customer who has a difficult time keeping track of all of this; and currently, no one person, company or other entity keeps track of all these acronyms or offers a standardised list of definitions to help us keep them straight. It is now more than keeping track of new acronyms and what they mean; you also have to know individual systems.

For many years, much of our industry’s software has been expanded to include more functionality, commonly bleeding features for various types of systems. Systems are sold as one type in one market, but as another type in another market. So, customers are not always sure which acronym to use when looking for a system to purchase.

Additionally, we continue to redefine these terms, as well as sell ‘combination’ systems that claim to meet two areas of need. Even from so-called experts, I continue to hear conflicting statements regarding what should or should not be included in various types of systems. These experts are also sometimes influenced by the specific market or industry they work in and do not always understand what other industries need regarding that very same type of software, furthering the confusion.

Bottom line: customers are complaining because we have not standardised our terminology. And, they’re right. This has been true for the many years I have been in this business. Occasionally, someone makes the effort to standardise terms, but then software vendors ignore it: often because the definitions are impractical in some way; sometimes merely because the process of standardisation took so long that the practical use of the terms has vastly changed during that standardisation process.

Notice that I have not attempted to define any of these acronyms, nor will I do so in this article. Instead, I urge customers to stop purchasing systems by acronym, but do so by investigating and selecting features instead. The most important thing to focus your efforts on is gathering your requirements and selecting the system that meets them – and not toward learning a series of continually changing and increasingly meaningless acronyms.

Once you’ve gathered your requirements, it may initially seem frustrating to call software vendors to see if their offerings match those requirements. However, you will soon find that systems you might have assumed would meet your needs can be crossed off your list, while others might surprise you by being a good fit. And those best meeting your needs might not have necessarily carried the acronym you expected. This process can be time-consuming, but you are more likely to find the strongest and most applicable choices for your final selection comparison list as a result.

Gathering requirements gives you and your company a good idea of what you truly want to accomplish with your software purchase. Additionally, it allows software vendors to understand and focus on your needs as well. We all realise it is an iterative process. There will be requirements that you miss in the first pass, plus others that you eventually realise have much lower priorities than first thought. However, without documenting requirements, you will not realise that the software you are considering does not fully meet your needs until it is too late.

To those of you who ask me the difference among a LIMS, a LIMS/ELN, an ELN, and any other term or combination of terms, I respond with what I tell my own customers: it varies by vendor; you should not get caught up in the acronym; ask about major groups of features you need, and create your list of products based solely on that.

To those customers who might respond: ‘But I don’t want to gather requirements,’ – well, all I can say is that you will keep chasing our moving target of acronyms.

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Gloria Metrick is the owner of GeoMetrick Enterprises, specialising in the implementation of Thermo Fisher Scientific’s SampleManager and the LabWare LIMS/ELN products. GeoMetrick Enterprises is the home of ‘Out on a LIMS: The Newsletter and Blog For People Who Risk Life and LIMS on a Daily Basis.’

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