Today everyone is talking about digitalization. Businesses are starting to realize that digitalization defines the survival of the organization. Interestingly, laboratories are often the last that undergo such transformation. The reason is often not money. It’s because laboratories are data factories with processes that are continuously improving and therefore the most complex organizations to digitalize.
But, also laboratories will undergo digitalization sooner rather than later. Your lab might already be thinking about it, but you might not know where to start.
In this article, we prepared a 10-step guide to the laboratory digitalization process to help you get the ball rolling.
1. Assess the current state of the laboratory
Everything starts with research. The assessment of the current state helps you better define your digitalization strategy. Common to all transformations, this is also the first step in the digitalization process. The main idea is to list and describe the data flows, processes, tools, and existing digital systems used in your laboratory.
Since laboratories are data factories, pay attention to how you process the data in your lab. It’s a good idea to represent this as data flow diagrams. This diagram shows what the source of the data is, where the data is stored, how it’s processed, reported, to whom and to which systems it’s shared with. You can even overlay the diagram over your laboratory layout map. You’ll build the digitalization strategy around this data flow diagram.
Take special care to detect bottlenecks and unnecessary redundancies in the data flows. Bottlenecks are usually processes requiring manual intervention and redundancies are simply cases where data flows in the same direction many times via different paths. Examples of bottlenecks are manual copying of data from paper records or manual data analysis. An example of unnecessary redundancy is three level of manual checks of data entries, which can be reduced once the process is digitalized. Such processes take a significant amount of your time and should be prioritized in the digitalization strategy.
To describe the processes you’ll want to look through the existing documentation, such as standard operating procedures and protocols. But sometimes you will simply have to sit down in a group of people and document an undocumented process.
When describing tools you’ll come across common types of tools for documentation, such as office suites, word processors, file storage systems, and note-taking tools. Your laboratory might already be using solutions for data and process management, such as electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) or laboratory information management systems (LIMS). Some laboratories even use tools for business management, like enterprise resource planning software (ERPs). If you’re still using paper-based data records, write this down as well.
Describe the infrastructure as well, including the premises, robots, devices, and equipment. Define the role of each part in the processes. Don’t forget about the IT infrastructure which can be as simple as a bunch of PCs, local servers or off-premise cloud-based. You should learn whether your IT infrastructure follows or should follow certain standards and guidelines. Also, make sure to find out who is in charge of overseeing the whole process of data storage and back-up.
Now take a step back and get a systemic overview of your laboratory. Think about how you measure data, which Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are important to you and how you collect the underlying data.
You’ll likely come across some personal data as well. Assess the regulatory compliance. Several guidelines can guide you, such as ISO standards, HIPPA compliance and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). You should also document whether your organization follows any standards or regulations, such as ISO 17025, GxP, FDA CFR 21 part 11.
2. Define what you need to digitalize and in what timeframe
When starting the digitalization journey you’ll realize the enormous scale of the digital transformation. It helps if you set clear goals that you want to achieve on this journey:
- What needs to be digitalized?
- How long should it take for the process to be completed?
- In how many steps it can or should be carried out?
The digitalization of business usually cites 4 key areas of digitalization:
- Products and services
This gives you a broad idea about what needs to be digitalized. This is also a good guide when you’re setting the goals of digitalization. Don’t be too vague though – goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and should have a timeline. We call them SMART goals. An example of a SMART goal is: “We’ll automate data transfer from lab devices to the data storage system by the end of the year.”
If you set the goals too optimistically, you’ll have difficulties reaching your set deliverables, milestones, and the final assessment. This means you might need to change the already-defined strategy and adapt the process to meet the set goals. Such changes can negatively impact your dedicated time and budget, as well as the incentive to carry out the process.
At some point you’ll see that there are too many goals to achieve. In such case you should prioritize the goals, that are more important. One prioritization strategy is to estimate the value or benefits the individual digitalization step/goal brings. You might be able to prioritize a bit later in the digitalization process, when you will have more information about solutions or tools you will use (step 4).
3. Assemble an action team and define an action strategy
This is where the real work begins. There is one single route to a successful digitalization – you need to evolve the culture that will support the digitalization strategy. That’s something you cannot do alone. You start building the culture by engaging your employees into the process.
The core of the whole digitalization process is to gather a team of people. This team will carry out the process and promote the digital culture. The project team should work efficiently and avoid conflicts, disagreements and misunderstandings. If you have any outstanding individuals that can act as champions, promoters of digitalization, this is the team they should be in as they will be the drivers of the team and will push it through the challenges. You can help them by putting effective communication tools in place as well as an internal support team. The support team should be updated about the current state of the digitalization process. Their job is also to help users (i.e. laboratory personnel and management) with the introduction of new tools, systems, and protocols. It’s also important not to force the implementation, but to make sure it’s in line with the current principle of work.
Laboratory digitalization is an important process for the whole organization and therefore should be supported from the top management. Clear, honest, transparent and continuous messages of support from the leadership of the laboratory, department or organization will help set the importance of the digitalization process and motivate the main actors. Leaders communicating benefits and importance of the endeavour will help to raise awareness and give leverage to the digitalization project team.
Once you assemble your team, it can define a detailed strategy based on the gathered information from the first two steps. They should discuss the goals specified in the second step and define the details. The goals will translate to project milestones and deliverables with deadlines.
Take a holistic approach when designing the strategy. A good idea is to take the data flow diagram and plan how the data can flow through the digital channels seamlessly. This way, you’ll identify the changes you need to implement in the processes and which tools you should upgrade to digital alternatives.
Digitalization can be extensive and complex, which can make it challenging for the organization to carry out by itself. Thus, it’s wise to seek external help as they will have unbiased view to challenges. Many consulting firms and professional services organizations have emerged to meet this need. Laboratory digitalization consultants will guide you through the whole digitalization process. They will also help you find the right solutions and building new ones if needed. Consulting firms have more experience with integrating instruments and digital tools. They have the relevant expertise and connections with the manufacturers of laboratory equipment. Besides that, you’ll reach your goals in less time and, usually, for less money.
4. Learn about existing solutions
The next step is to make a detailed list of solutions based on the assessment of your laboratory’s current state. You’ll identify the existing solutions that could be implemented.
Be aware of how the solutions you’re testing are able to work, communicate, and function together. You should aim to use a technology-agnostic middleware which can connect the existing solutions into a network of devices. Also, think about sensors and data-capture solutions – they can save you time and prevent errors. Then, fill the possible solutions into the data flow diagram.
It’s time to check your data flow diagram for solutions you need, but do not exist yet. Some software solutions can be custom-developed or adapted to your particular use case. Don’t be afraid of this – sometimes the price of custom-made software solutions is comparable to those that you buy off-the-shelf.
Your data flow diagram should now be full of suggestions and ideas for solutions. In the next step, you’ll plan the implementation of these solutions.
5. Evolve the digital culture in your organization
The laboratory digitalization process is a strenuous, comprehensive, and costly task. A change at such scale is impossible without a shift in culture. The culture change is the very basic ingredient of the digitalization, the driving force behind its adoption and will be your legacy for the upcoming years/decades.
How do you evolve the digital culture in an organization? This is likely the most difficult part of the digitalization. The current trends in the industry suggest focusing on transparency, inclusion, and openness is the best way to go.
This demands a suitable, clear, effective, and bidirectional communicative approach. You should already have a top-down communication flow from corporate-level management to laboratory management to employees. Make sure you also hear the employees out by implementing bottom-up communication channels. Be open, communicate early, clearly, and honestly, and listen to the feedback. Your employees are your teammates and you want to get them on the same boat.
This approach will prevent resistance in the initial stages of the process. Your employees need to understand that digitalization will help them to focus on innovation and creativity. After all, everyone working in a laboratory wants to avoid time-consuming repetitive tasks.
Read more about user adoption approaches in our article 6 challenges to address when building a smart, digitalized laboratory.
6. Implement the strategy on a pilot scale
You wouldn’t want to make big changes in the organization without giving it a test run on a pilot scale. This means implementing the action strategy on a smaller number of laboratories. In this way you can assess its positive and negative impact.
If your organization is smaller with one or a few laboratories, you can skip the pilot phase. Such organizations are more flexible and can adjust if it shows that the strategy has to be changed.
Remember, you’re evolving the culture that will support your digitalization strategy. The pilot phase is a great opportunity to measure cultural change as well. Survey the employees to get the idea of the cultural change. You should get feedback about how their work is being affected by the changes. Ask also for ideas, suggestions, complaints and compliments.
7. Pilot phase revision
When the digitalization on the pilot scale is finished, it’s time to assess the effects of it. First, you should focus on the reports of the action strategy implementation and check which goals were met and what was the measurable effects related to the goals. Also check whether the costs related to achieve the goals were aligned with predictions. This will tell you what worked well, to what extent and what needs more attention. But more important are user surveys and feedback. This gives you an idea of how the implemented strategy affects the workday of the employees.
Now is a good time to reflect on all this data. A good idea is to start by evaluating the cultural change and the effect of digitalization on the employees. Are they supportive? Hear their feedback. Try to make changes to the strategy without compromising the goals of the digitalization. Communicate the amendments to the original strategy so the employees see that they are involved. Remember, it’s about the cultural change, not the technology.
It’s now time to look at the implementation reports and work on the issues that occurred during the implementation. Are some timelines too short? Was the staffing done right? Are there issues that could be predicted? Assess if the set goals, milestones and deliverables can be reached when the strategy is being expanded on a bigger scale. If the pilot project proves otherwise, you should amend the strategy.
In small organizations, the pilot phase will cover the whole organization. You should conduct the reflection in any case and make the required changes to the strategy.
8. Gradually expand the strategy
The pilot phase will provide you with important insights into what works and what should be improved. Although you might feel confident enough to implement the strategy on a large scale, it’s a good idea to pace yourself. One option is to do a gradual expansion of the strategy. This means repeating the pilot phase (step 6) and reflection (step 7) on different departments. Each iteration will get you a better understanding of the process. Each iteration will also be larger as you’ll feel more and more confident to expand the scale.
You might wonder how to prioritize which departments to use in the pilot and early expansion phases. A good idea is to prioritize on the level of the cultural change – the more digital-oriented departments should be the first ones. This is important because your first adopters will become the ambassadors of the new culture. They will have an important role in the expansion phase. You can empower them to help you train new users, provide support and be the role models.
9. Implement key performance indicator (KPI) reporting to management
Digitalization will provide you with a whole new insight into the performance of your laboratory. You planned the data logging, connected sensors, and data analysis into your digitalization strategy, and now it’s time to start using it.
If you’re the laboratory manager, you want to track KPIs for planning and reporting. But more importantly, by measuring the performance, you’ll transform the laboratory from being just a cost centre to become a department that provides value. This is particularly important for the management – they’ll like this.
10. Assess the realization based on milestones and deliverables
Finally, you’ll assess the digitalization process. This is like the reflection phase but more thorough and broad. You’ll have a short- and long-term assessment of the digitalization strategy realization. The short-term strategy should focus on the implementation of the digitalization process. The long-term strategy will track the results of the digitalization over a longer time.
In the short-term assessment, you’ll look through a few things. First, evaluate the realization by looking at the milestones, deliverables, and goals. Having measurable goals will help you tremendously in assessment. You should have an overview of how well the project was realized in terms of time and budget. Here, you’ll also survey the users for their feedback to see what changed for them. Finally, you should survey the cultural change. Here you should aim to see whether the work is done differently than before and whether this is good. It is very important to understand that every change requires an additional energy at the beginning before the effects become measurable. We can simply call this activation energy. This translates in more resources spent in early implementation phase. Your resource and budgeting plans should be accounting for that, otherwise the short-term review of budgets and effects will be distorted.
The long-term assessment is about improvements of the laboratory performance. Digitalization will not necessarily improve productivity, but it will improve other areas, such as error rates, turn-around times, service quality and time to market. These indicators are important because they are your advantage over your competitors.
Assessment is a continuous process, yet you’ll need to write some reports about the whole digitalization process. Then it’s time for celebration. You can be proud of this achievement as it’s an important achievement in your career. Make sure you speak to the PR department on how to publicize this great achievement.
It’s difficult to comprehend the scale of laboratory digitalization. It mostly affects people – leaders, employees, customers, and stakeholders – in an unprecedented way. Having a clear and detailed strategy is, therefore, crucial for the long-term success of the organization. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are companies out there that can guide you through the digitalization process. Many executives testify that they couldn’t succeed without the help of digitalization consultants. Such testimonials are supported by the fact that many big companies failed because they didn’t digitalize. If you’re still considering whether you should digitalize – the answer is Yes. If you’re wondering when to do it – the answer is Now.
2. Tayi A, 2016. Instrument integration. Common Pitfalls and Novel Approaches. (Registration needed)
3. Mukherjee S, 2014. The Paperless Lab. The Target and Means for Operational Efficiency.
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