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Data management: Is following the breadcrumb trail enough?

Can companies expect more from their data management investments than traceability and compliance? Graham Sanger reports

Data traceability is of significant importance when contamination issues arise with a product. Of course effective data management can help avoid and mitigate such problems but, moreover, it can provide far greater benefits to food and drink organisations beyond managing recall issues.

Consumers are constantly looking for innovation within their food and drink products. Whether it is new flavours, nutritional considerations or improvements to an existing product, expectations are high in a fast moving and competitive market. The industry relies on the translation of consumers’ needs into new or improved products via innovative R&D. 

Investing in a data management platform that extends beyond analytical testing opens up many opportunities for businesses. In moving away from paper-based processes and the accompanying file-centric data silos, organisations can foster innovation, secure Intellectual Property (IP) and facilitate collaboration throughout the product R&D lifecycle.

The changing R&D landscape

Considering both the ‘R’ and the ‘D’ aspects of any data management platform is important. Historically, and in the absence an alternative, a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) was the only choice for companies wanting to go electronic. The ability to register samples and associate test data through predefined workflows delivered incremental improvements in data management and traceability. Due to their inherent structured approach these systems are typically better suited to more routine processes, such as those seen in later stages of development… the ‘D’. They have had low adoption in those areas of the business performing non-routine or exploratory activities… the ‘R’.

The informatics landscape has changed dramatically over the past few years and it is now common to find organisations with a variety of systems such as Enterprise Resourcing Planning (ERP), Scientific Data Management Systems (SDMS), Product Lifecycle Management systems (PLMs) and Electronic Laboratory Notebooks (ELNs).

Due to their ability to manage both unstructured data (such as images and written observations), ELNs have delivered the flexibility required to support innovation. More sophisticated systems have evolved beyond simple paper replacement to complement the existing informatics ecosystem and deliver a data management platform that supports both structured and unstructured data across the product development lifecycle. Nowadays, any data management platform worth its salt can be the single point of truth for all R&D data. 

Improving traceability, automating routine procedures and reducing the dependency on paper is a great start and can realise time savings. Combining this with the flexibility to support innovative research and effective collaboration can be truly transformational.

When did we forget about the people?

People are the life-blood of the innovation process – it is as much about the people as it is about the data. The secure exchange of ideas within an organisation and between partners in the product development process is pivotal to success, and a data management platform should support the social element of R&D.

Businesses that desire to be truly innovative need a solution that is designed to support collaborative efforts. Consider how often you’ve thought, ‘I’m sure we’ve done this before, but I don’t know when or who did it’, or perhaps you’ve wanted to access information about an ingredient or formulation tested by another group – if only you had self-service access to the information you needed, exactly when you needed it.

People shouldn’t have to rely on complex query tools or specialist knowledge to locate critical information to support their ideas. An effective data management solution enables scientists and researchers to find and combine information and help make connections. Modern systems allow users to tag, comment and alert their colleagues to interesting findings – this is how innovation happens, through knowledge sharing, making connections and working as a community. With the ever increasing global nature of R&D it is not always easy to get everyone together, physically or virtually, so making the most of your organisations’ collective knowledge base is instrumental to success and can speed time to market.

Organisations increasingly rely on collaboration with external partners and customers to augment their internal R&D activities. Wouldn’t it be better to deploy a solution that can be leveraged by your partners so they can quickly exchange information and ideas? This safeguards corporate IP, rather than risking leakage by relying on email or file shares.

Staying ahead

The ability to accelerate new product development is critical in the race to stay ahead in a highly competitive global marketplace, yet the ability to access critical data limits the speed at which companies can get their products to market. Providing a breadcrumb trail may be a central consideration but it’s also important to consider the art of the possible. A data management platform could also transform your innovation process, and that’s certainly food for thought.

Graham Sanger is principal consultant at IDBS

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