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Standards, changes, and services

Delegates to SmartLab Exchange were told that the informatics industry needs to focus on standardisation, change-management, and on services not products, according to the event’s co-chairman, Peter Boogaard

This year the SmartLab Exchange celebrated its tenth anniversary. But it was also a new start. Belgian chocolates and German beer were replaced by American hamburgers, as the event moved across the Atlantic to a new venue in the USA.

Held this year from 16 to 18 February, SmartLab Exchange has a non-traditional approach. It balances a mixture of good-quality presentations; well prepared panel discussions from industry experts; effective peer-to-peer networking moments; and focused one-on-one tailored business meetings with international companies providing informatics solutions. The challenge for both the organisers, IQPC, and for me as a co-chairman was to find out if the concept would also work outside of Europe.

The first hurdle was something none of us could control. But, despite the extreme snow and very cold weather, more than 80 delegates and 16 solution providers were able to get to the venue on the Delaware riverbanks at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.

The Exchange concept will show its power only if you are well prepared. To facilitate this process, the SmartLab Exchange team surveyed the delegates to understand their biggest challenges. What keeps them awake at night? Which challenges are on top, and should be prioritised over the next 6-12 months? What are the pains? Can we correlate the results with the ones found in Europe?

The delegate survey showed that the strongest desire is for integration between LIMS, ELN, LES and SDMS. One other interesting observation is that PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) is being mentioned more frequently. As this year’s programme unfolded over the days, three particular trends triggered my own attention as a chairman of the meeting.

Firstly, the need to drive change in our industry has been never greater. The pressures for change are not only related to technologies. During my chairman’s introduction I summarised four areas. The first change relates to people’s behaviour and mind-set. During the panel discussion ‘LIMS & ELN: overlap and restructuring of the vendor market’, Carmen Nitsche, executive director of the Pistoia Alliance and co-chair of the meeting, highlighted how this market is undergoing tremendous change. Yan San, Associate Director, Bioanalysis operations at Abbvie, stated that a formal budget should be planned to support change-management. He set out the three laws of change management: be provocative and confront the brutal facts; don’t be shy; and, align change, complexity, and finally cultivate growth. These are, he explained, the key ingredients for a sustainable new mind-set. It created a basis for a good lively discussion.

The next topic that was highlighted in several presentations, think tanks, and roundtable session, is one that is close to my own heart. It is about the willingness to adopt standards. Why is it that we accept new ways of working when we transfer monies in our electronic banking application? Why are we not afraid using the cloud when we check-in for our next flight? Why are we submitting millions of messages on social media and chat services without any major fear? We are geniuses to find excuses not to use the same technologies and processes when we perform our daily work in our corporate scientific life.

While several presentations highlighted great new technologies, including the use of tablets, wearables, cloud, and big data, I challenged the audience by asking: ‘Why do we need still programmers and expensive and complex software to enable a simple data transfer such as a pH, or a weight measurement from a balance, to a tablet or computer? Why is it that hardware and software vendors are telling the world that mobile computing is the way to go, but to get a simple data transfer seems a bridge too far?’

I would like the hardware and software vendors to look seriously to other industries to address this problem. If a phone using Bluetooth can be connected to almost all devices in our personal life, why can’t we use this widely accepted, secure technology in our scientific life?

On a positive note, I sensed a significant acceptance in understanding the need to adopt data standardisation. Adopting data and integration standards was addressed during a session on the second day by Dana Vanderwall, associate director cheminformatics at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Patrick Chin IT specialist in research lab platforms (Merck) and Wolfgang Colsman CTO of Osthus GmbH, all representing the Allotrope Foundation initiative. The audience was in agreement that to prepare for change, data standardisation is a key element to pave the road to our future. The industry should endorse Allotrope Foundation and other similar initiatives to wake-up the industry.

The need to capture data and its metadata at source will create a culture of Quality by Design (QbD) and reduce boring mandatory manual steps to describe experimental data. Lloyd Colegrove, data services director at Dow, shared his journey of how to create knowledge and wisdom from data and information. In two outstanding short videos the overall message became loud and clear: ‘Data should work for us instead of just sitting in file directories’. He warned against the phenomenon of ‘dark data’ -- a type of unstructured, untagged and untapped data that is found in data repositories and has not been analysed or processed. He continued: ’Data and analytics results in intelligence; collaboration and intelligence will result in knowledge’. That should be the ultimate goal to create competitive advantage. Ryan Sasaki (ACD/Labs) shared several concrete examples how technologies available today, can create light in this ‘darkness’.

Finally, the notion that we should avoid thinking products and technology is starting to resonate. The delegate survey showed that LIMS, ELN, SDMS or LES are seen as one integrated suite, very similar to how we perceive the Microsoft Office application. In this view, the scientist is no longer in the laboratory, but integrated into the overall quality process. Adoption of an integrated Product Quality Lifecycle Process facilitates innovation, continual improvement, and strengthens the link between development and manufacturing activities. Integrated lab processes enable organisations to create a start-to-finish knowledge-management repository and to adopt cross functional collaboration between management, scientists, and engineers responsible for products in development and manufacturing, processes, equipment and facilities.

Laboratory information is critical, since it will provide significant detail and evidence for the overall process. That’s the value we need to share with overall management. The devil, of course, is in the details. I personally look forward to next year’s meeting – although I would like to propose a location with less snow and cold weather!

Peter Boogaard is CEO of Industrial Lab Automation and organiser of the Paperless Lab Academy, which will be held in Barcelona on 14 and 15 April.

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