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May 2008

ELNs; Catalyst for the Paperless Office?

Technology progresses at a relentless pace.  From standalone operation, we have steadily progressed towards networked environments based on presentation to the latest developments in web technology where the emphasis has changed from presentation to collaboration. 

If we step outside the laboratory for a moment and look at some of the developments in other domains, one of the most striking advances is occurring in the framework of collaboration and the role of Web 2.0.  The use of social networking sites, primarily by the younger generation, has illustrated how technology can enhance collaboration.  OK, the content may be questionable at times, and the media generally are happy to pick on the negative aspects of these sites, but in essence, what has been achieved here is equivalent to the desired outcome of corporate knowledge management initiatives, connecting people with shared interests for the purpose of collaborating.  Nor surprisingly, the use of social networking tools in business is generating a lot of interest and many an interesting debate can be had around questions such as ‘Can a blog be used as an electronic laboratory notebook?’, or ‘Could a Wiki be used as a laboratory content management system?’.

Web 2.0 is the generic term used to identify the fundamental change in the role of the internet as it becomes a collaboration space rather than just a presentation space.  Web 3.0 promises even more in the sense that adding metadata, i.e. more meaning, to the data and information on the web will enhance the machine’s understanding of the content and therefore take some of the burden of finding and filtering information away from users, a goal, which if successful, promises further personal productivity gains. 

In order to exploit such systems in a business environment, there is one major hurdle to overcome and that is, to a large extent determined by the use of the word ‘social’ as a descriptor.  The take up of social networking tools outside of business is of course voluntary; to make these tools work effectively in a business situation, then if not compulsory, it is important that a critical mass of the workforce participates.  So it comes down to issues of culture and technology adoption.

So what relevance do these developments have for the laboratory?  One of the more basic elements of the ‘scientific method’ encompasses collaboration through debate and the sharing of information.  LIMS and ELNs do this in a relatively formal and structured way; collaborative tools such as blogs and wikis do this in an informal and less structured way.  LIMS and ELNs replace paper; blogs and wikis replace conversations.  Now, nobody should want to replace conversations, but the nature of modern business, where the opportunities for conversations are restricted by time, availability or opportunity, is such that these tools can fulfil a useful purpose.

To say that we are at a critical point in the move towards a paperless laboratory may be overly dramatising the situation, but implementing an electronic laboratory notebook to replace traditional paper notebooks is actually removing the last road block on the way to a fully electronic laboratory.  It is time to move on from a set of interconnected applications to an integrated laboratory information ecology that brings together technology, scientific skills and expertise.  The opportunity is real, but there are still a number of challenges.  Technology in itself is not a barrier; it is our vision that may be a limitation.  Breaking the paradigm of an application-centric approach is a key requirement; social networking seems to be breaking that paradigm.  The integration of text, voice and images (still and moving) has revolutionised communication and collaboration for a new generation and has shifted the focus on content; can we do the same for science?

This has been extracted from an article published in European Pharmaceutical Review Vol 13, Issue 2, p62-65. The full article can be accessed here. (Free registration required)

 


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