Why the view from 30,000 feet is important

Joe Liscouski

If you look at the program for many scientific conferences, you might first be struck by the diversity of topics, and then by the narrow focus of the sessions. That limited span within a subject is the result of both marketing (vendors wanting to present product capabilities) and the scientist’s need to get things done; looking at things that impact day-to-day work.
Few conference sessions cover the 30,000 foot view, the wide perspective where planning takes place. Given the rapid development of products and technologies for lab work, we need to spend a lot more time above the details of implementation and doing lab work, and plan for technology use and the impact of changing corporate priorities.  
The problem with emphasis on component technologies is that you lose perspective on how the components fit together, if they do, and to plan for their use, taking into account product life cycles.
With the reliance on technology in the labs, the higher-level view is critical to insuring that the right technologies are being used and used well. Poor choices in informatics products for example, can have significant consequences: your data and intellectual property is held within databases whose structure is often proprietary, extracting it and importing it into a new system may be difficult, and there is also the issue of retraining lab staff.
We’ve moved from technology as an incremental improvement to an individual’s ability to work, to changing the nature of lab work. Efficient labs no longer deal with isolated, independent workstations, but rather use coordinated, integrated systems (where possible).
There is a need to work on multiple levels: high-level planning which includes the lab’s ability to work effectively with other groups, systems-level planning, supervision and implementation, and the on-the-deck routine of daily work. This need can be filled by the development of a “Strategic Planning” function for lab systems. Depending on the size of the organization it may be one person or a team with support from a “LAB IT” function, lab management, and lab staff.  This mix would provide some balance between management priorities, technology management, and those that have to deal with work issues on a daily basis and have a perspective on training and support needs.
Recommendations for “Strategic Planning” functions are often met with “that’s what we need, more management stuff” attitude. Here it adds some value. One of the most complained about features of lab systems is the difficulty in getting them to work together: the system’s integration problem.  How much visibility does that problem have in influencing product purchases?  How much impact does it have in project planning?  How much time, effort, and money would you save if integration didn’t involve reprogramming systems to make them work together?  Unless these problems are elevated to the management levels, the ability of groups to drive toward their resolution through standards development organizations, and vendors is going to be minimal. 
The development of a “LAB IT” function is an important component of a team: Information Technology Professionals specifically trained to support lab systems, with an understanding of lab applications, workflow and the ability to balance corporate IT policies and requirements with the realities of laboratory work.
The Strategic Planning group would also be responsible for understanding and adapting an organization to changing patterns of laboratory work.  Until a decade or so ago, most industrial lab work consisted of people carrying out tasks to complete experiments or routine analysis. The tools may have changed to assist in that work, but people were the link between steps and producing the final results. The direction of lab work is toward automated, integrated, systems with lab staff responsible for supervising those systems, improving their performance and the quality of the results. How will that transition be made and who is responsible for both recognizing and meeting that need?
People are going to need to be re-educated in lab work, not just the science but also the changing means of getting that work accomplished.
When you are struggling to meet the days demands, the long-view – the 30,000 foot view – may seem like a luxury you can’t afford “I’ll get to it when…”.  Until we start taking a break from the daily routine and taking that high level view we may miss what is needed and possible. Look at other business-critical functions with your organization, do they have long-term planning functions to make sure the best technologies are used? The labs are as critical as any other function, and need the same resources directed toward their success.