The problem with the term “ELN”
One of the problems that has confronted the “Electronic Lab Notebook” industry for a long time is the ambiguity of the term. Many a consultant and vendor has attempted to hijack the term with their own favored definition, complete with impressive diagrams in outdated and expensive reports.
ELN 1.0 started from the perspective of the suppliers – be they the vendors, or the consultants, or indeed the internal project teams. It was very much a “This is what we think you need” kind of approach, which led to a lot of worthy complexity which looked good but in practice got in the way of delivering the promise.
(For full disclosure, I was very much part of that group, and indeed the very first commercial ELN was written by me and others for Eastman Kodak – it was very functional but very complex. Then I led a Management Buy Out which created Amphora, and we had our own mini credit crunch which forced us to build something people could buy and use, not what we thought would be a good ELN!)
Today’s ELN 2.0 needs to focus on delivering value, and that means laser-like focus on the end user’s problem – which starts out something along the lines of “Since we bought all these computers, this paper notebook doesn’t fit with the way we work”.
ELN 2.0’s “End user first” approach doesn’t mean you end up with something that “isn’t a proper ELN”. What it means is you start focusing on the end user’s problems, prioritising them, and starting with the biggest wins first. Which is exactly what you need to do when there isn’t so much money around and everyone has become very risk averse. If we can do 20% of the work and get 80% of the benefit, doesn’t it make sense to do the 20% first and then look at where we want to spend our money next?
Interestingly this is directly against the interests of those who feel that a large, “fully functional” ELN is the only proper ELN. If we can deliver most of the benefit without the complexity, there’s no motivation to look further. So they have to bundle it all together and make the complex stuff appear necessary to achieve any kind of return. (for those who have attended my workshops, this is the “Toaster Problem”.
Some disciplines clearly benefit from a science-centric working environment which supports their niche requirements for example Medicinal Chemistry, and the considerable number of ELNs targeted at this sector is proof of the value that these solutions bring. The ability to draw structures and reactions, calculate properties, and structure/reaction-based search demonstrably increases the productivity of those scientists. Ironically, these solutions often don’t replace the Paper Notebook which is still required due to the concern that niche science-centric tool cannot provide adequate long term legal protection. However their value is only slightly diminished by the requirement to cut & stick into a Paper Notebook once the experiment has been completed.
For some scientific disciplines a gradual investment in IT tools, starting with a fairly typical desktop computer and then expanding into niche applications has provided them with all the tools they need to do their work. Once you deal with the legal issues, a lot of Discovery research looks a lot like any other kind of knowledge work and there’s a massive number of tools, sometimes already available to people for no additional cost, which can support that work. Indeed, one of the reasons the Paper Notebook is no longer suitable is that they are actually using those IT tools, and as a result a paper-based record keeping process is an unproductive overhead. Microsoft Office might not be blessed by the consultants as an ELN but it surely is the repository of more scientific thought and data than any “fully functional” ELN; that some products claim their similarity to, or integration with Office just reinforces the point! In these cases, project teams need to have a good answer to the CFO’s question “Why are you spending $1,000 a head to make Office harder to use?”
It is interesting to compare the health of the Medicinal Chemistry ELN market with the Biology ELN market, and indeed the discipline-neutral ELNs. Some have postulated that “Biology is next” and the approaches that work for a relatively homogeneous Medicinal Chemistry market will guarantee success in Biology. The implicit assumption is that Biologists have just been waiting for the ELN Gods to come and rescue them which rather implies that there are no biologists able to innovate in the same way as the chemists who developed the first Chemistry ELNs! A more realistic assessment might be that Biology is different – much more heterogeneous – which means the rise of a single Biology ELN is very unlikely. The adoption of the Biology-centric ELNs seems to be proceeding at a departmental level rather than the mass rollout to 100’s of scientists.
One size doesn’t fit all
Historically the ELN industry has been pushing a “One size fits all” approach, perhaps more due to the agendas of IT departments and suppliers. These projects are necessarily large, complex, and of course come with an associated price tag. With increasing size, complexity, and diversity of users also comes increased risk, and the success rate of such heroic endeavors has never been good. Projects of this type, which were always hard to justify anyway, are increasingly out of step with the new commercial realities. We just can’t afford to waste so much money stroking our “big project” egos – in today’s world, spending unnecessary money ultimately means there’s less money to spend on our own salaries.
If we want an ELN industry that’s healthy and can hold it’s head up high, we have to focus on delivering value, in a way that is acceptable in today’s environment. The subject of the next article in this series.