posted 1 Nov 1999 in Volume 3 Issue 3
A notable improvement in R&D
Culture shifts are often difficult to carry out, especially in such a difficult area as laboratory experimentation and research. Kodak's approach to the need for better data storage led not just to a different process, but also to a significant culture change. Here, Jonathon Trigg explains the uses and lasting influences of an electronic notebook for recording data and research.
Research has always been fundamentally part of the 'knowledge business'. Irrespective of the nature of an organisation's business, or indeed the nature of its research, the key element of the R&D department's mission is to increase the knowledge about the organisation's current and future products and processes. For manufacturing industry, this is typically accomplished through the evaluation of product and process developments and innovations by means of experimentation. In order to comply with the organisation's information policies, and in certain cases to comply with regulatory and/or legal requirements, all experimentation must be properly recorded. The process for recording this information is exactly the same as that taught to children in their earliest science lessons; record the objective of the experiment, the details (what was done), the results and observations, and finally what conclusions were drawn. For most organisations, this is still a paper-based process. The 'laboratory notebook' is accepted as the basic tool for recording experimentation, and as such is subject to a number of familiar constraints associated with all paper-based processes. For example:
- Storage: paper notebooks take up a lot of room;
- Accessibility: notebooks are often locked away in filing cabinets or desks; archives may be difficult to access;
- Difficult to search: it requires a significant effort to provide a comprehensive index and cross-index of all experiments and projects in all notebooks;
- Legibility: the quality of the handwriting can be variable;
- Disaster recovery: It's difficult to 'back-up', and may be subject to damage.
It seems a reasonable assumption, therefore, that a paper-bound process will have severe limitations in helping an organisation satisfy its knowledge management requirements. The difficulty in sharing information recorded in paper notebooks is magnified for an organisation that operates multi-site, multi-discipline R&D. In such cases, site-to-site communication can be less efficient than a single site operation and can lead to additional problems such as repeating the same or similar work carried out elsewhere, and/or poorer understanding of the expertise available in different R&D units.
The prospect of using an electronic laboratory notebook to address these issues has been under consideration for a number of years, but typically has floundered on the difficulty of defining a generic process for experimentation, and also on overcoming some of the potential obstacles for regulatory and legal acceptance and long term storage (it is typical to expect information in laboratory notebooks to be accessible for 50 years or more). An additional factor is the willingness of R&D communities to adapt to structured and formal systems. Since the human qualities normally associated with a career in research tend to lean more towards innovation, free-thinking, non-conformity, etc., the implementation and user acceptance of formal systems in an R&D environment often provides a significant challenge.
Kodak European R&D, in conjunction with New Information Paradigms (Crowthorne, Berks; a Lotus Premium Partner), has developed an Electronic Laboratory Notebook based on Kodak's company-wide implementation of Lotus Notes. The Kodak Electronic Lab Notebook is now being extensively used at their UK site in Harrow, Middlesex, and is being introduced in their other R&D sites in Rochester, NY, USA and Chalon-sur-Saone, France.
The basis of the Kodak Electronic Lab Notebook is to provide a simple facility for recording experimental objectives, details, results and conclusions, and to make this information readily shareable across the R&D organisation in a way that facilitates collaboration amongst R&D scientists. The system shares a lot of features with the traditional paper notebook approach. Every scientist is issued with an Electronic Lab Notebook ( a Lotus Notes database). Each instance of the Electronic Lab Notebook can be used by an individual scientist, it may be shared with a technician, or it may be shared within a project team. Each experiment recorded in the Electronic Lab Notebook contains four basic pieces of information (objective, details, results, conclusions) and up to ten configurable information fields. Each field is 'rich text', i.e. it can contain formatted text, numbers, objects such as graphs, images, etc. All of the Electronic Lab Notebooks are linked in two ways; firstly they are all linked to a single 'Projects' database which holds some basic information about the R&D projects, and secondly they are all linked to a 'Summary' database. The Summary database is automatically updated with summary information taken from all Electronic Lab Notebooks and therefore acts as a major knowledge repository for the entire R&D organisation. The Electronic Lab Notebook therefore provides not only a repository for experimental information, but also provides linkages between experiments, projects and programmes, and ultimately, people. The complete system can therefore be considered as a single, 'virtual' electronic notebook for all of Kodak R&D.
The Electronic Lab Notebook is implemented as a 'core' application, which means that it contains generic functionality which can be applied to all types of experimentation. But, of course, there are many other applications and systems used in the R&D laboratories for data acquisition, data processing and data storage which are strongly related to, or integrated within the experimental work. In order to prevent the scope of the Electronic Lab Notebook project constantly expanding to embrace more and more of these laboratory data systems, a strategy has been evolved for building interfaces to other R&D systems, which protects the core system by placing the interfaces in other Lotus Notes databases. These can be simply linked to the core system.
As pointed out earlier, Electronic Lab Notebooks have long been considered as a potential solution for R&D to deliver productivity benefits, but issues such as (a) defining a generic approach to experimentation, (b) regulatory and legal acceptance and (c) solving the problem of long term storage, have restrained progress. How does Kodak's Electronic Lab Notebook address these issues? Firstly, the experimentation process which is supported by the Kodak Electronic Lab Notebook is the very basic, traditional approach which is common to all experimentation. All information is held in 'rich text' fields, so data models and data dictionaries associated with relational databases are not required. Secondly, Kodak R&D is not subject to stringent regulatory compliance and audit. This therefore creates a few more degrees of freedom in terms of its data and information management than would be experienced, for instance, by a pharmaceutical company. Nevertheless, Kodak has an absolutely fundamental commitment to protecting its own information for proprietary and legal purposes, and as such, the Electronic Lab Notebook allows for notarisation to support patent application, and a high degree of security for data protection. Security of information in the Electronic Lab Notebook is paramount from two perspectives; firstly, in terms of the proprietary information contained within the system and the provision of adequate safeguards against unauthorised access, and secondly in terms of protection of that information against physical damage or corruption by any other means. Access is controlled at four levels: network, application, database and document. Access control requires a fine balance between the more traditional approach of 'need to know' and the principles of collaboration required in order to drive a knowledge management culture. This presents an interesting challenge to any R&D organisation!
The Electronic Lab Notebook represents a streamlined approach to the mainstream purpose of R&D, in Kodak's case, technology delivery. But technology delivery is only a part of the overall R&D business, since it also requires a number of support functions both from a business and from a technology perspective. The design of the Electronic Lab Notebook offers opportunities to integrate a significant number of R&D data acquisition and data processing systems (see earlier). It also offers the possibility of linking to business systems for resource management, financial management, project management, etc., to develop a fully integrated R&D systems environment which will offer a comprehensive approach to managing all aspects of R&D through a consistent user interface. This vision is progressively evolving, and shows a lot of parallels with the way that ERP (enterprise resource planning) is having a significant impact on manufacturing environments.
1. User acceptance
Since R&D scientists do not always enthusiastically adopt formal systems, the level of acceptance has been extremely good. The pilot project specified that there would be no pressure to use the Electronic Lab Notebook - it would be used by choice. The take-up exceeded expectations. One possible reason for this is that there is only a minimal structure in the system, allowing each individual scientist to work with it in their own way, but without detriment to the overall objective of linking and sharing information.
2. Accessibility of information
In identifying the Electronic Lab Notebook as the fundamental repository for experimentation, the need to transpose information from one system to another has largely disappeared, unless there is a fundamental reason for doing so. As a consequence, some complex interfaces between different data and information systems have become redundant. Common information can be recorded once, stored once, and shared by many.
The elimination of paper as a medium for passing test requests and reports between organisational units has in some cases represented a significant saving in time; collation, photocopying, filing and posting are no longer part of the communication process.
Accessibility of information is facilitating 'people-networking'. Examples already exist where searching the summary database has identified scientists on different sites working on related materials, and establishing contact with each other to share and optimise their knowledge.
For Kodak the Electronic Lab Notebook represents a tool for managing the core of its R&D business. Without adding an extra burden on its R&D scientists (data/information/knowledge is recorded electronically rather than in handwriting, and is captured at source), a number of tangible benefits have accrued. In particular, it provides a significant enhancement of the management of explicit knowledge. This in turn is having an impact upon the R&D culture and is starting to drive new behaviours which are associated with exploiting this environment. It is also encouraging a different type of interaction, thus breaking down some of the more traditional barriers associated with organisational structures. There is evidence that (a) scientists in different areas of the laboratories are working more closely than before; (b) there is greater sympathy towards, and greater understanding of the need for sharing, rather than hiding information; and (c) people are coming into contact across organisational boundaries through finding information in the Electronic Lab Notebook on related projects, experiments and materials. The initial success of the Electronic Lab Notebook has been extremely encouraging, and gives Kodak R&D a well-defined systems approach to managing its technology, and for ensuring that this process is integrated with other aspects of managing the R&D business.
John Trigg is Technical Leader within Kodak European R&D, Harrow. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org