Whether selecting a new system or replacing a legacy solution, choosing the best informatics solution is never easy. This two-part article examines the steps to take to ensure success.
Last month, Technology Networks presented the first half of this two-part article that examines the steps involved in selecting the best LIMS for your lab. Steps you need to take to ensure success were addressed, including requirements definition and choosing a configuration. This second installment examines interviewing LIMS vendors, implementation and installation, as well as getting started on your cost justification.
Interviewing LIMS Vendors
Once a configuration is determined, the various LIMS offerings should be reviewed and a short list of LIMS vendors created for one-on-one interviews. Despite similarities, no two LIMS are exactly the same. Many LIMS got their start as a specific solution implemented by an organization for their laboratory; a solution that was then commercialized. Hence it's a good idea to ask the vendor what the first application of the LIMS was. Not only will the workflow be different, but a LIMS developed for a pharmaceutical application will have sample log-in and tracking screens and entry parameters different from a LIMS developed for a petrochemical application. The required output may also be vastly different if one type of lab requires reports for a regulatory agency while the other does not. However with many of the newer web-based and SaaS solutions such differences have been virtually eliminated as the systems are generic enough for any application.
Implementation and Installation
The purchase price of the LIMS is not the only cost. Additional purchases may need to be made that include not just hardware, but also networking, cabling, and computer upgrades.
In addition, about one third of the overall LIMS implementation costs result from changes to the configuration of the LIMS software during implementation as well as program changes that the lab requires to meet their specific needs. It is during configuration that many of the requirements turn up that were overlooked, undiscovered, or discounted during the initial Functional Requirements Specification. Configuration usually entails populating reference tables and libraries for sample or product types, tests to be performed, analytical methods, detection limits, instrument interface routines, etc. This is a time-consuming task and not one that can or should be rushed.
Keep in mind that once the LIMS is installed, there are numerous on-going training and support issues to be considered. These will need to be discussed with the vendor as well.
One of the best recipes for success is to get involved. This means attending the Pittsburgh Conference in February and visiting the 30 or so LIMS and Informatics vendors who exhibit at that conference. This enables you to get a fast snapshot look at a number of different systems, the look and feel of each, and a ballpark cost figure for the particular solution. It means attending various Informatics conferences and listening to presentations that discuss key issues and provide case studies for success. It means keeping an eye out for and attending LIMS seminars and short courses offered around these events, such as the ACS Conference in November.
Keeping track of all the issues to consider when selecting or upgrading a LIMS has been the cause of more than a few headaches. A useful publication that can assist in the process is the ASTM's LIMS Buyer's Guide which can be purchased by calling ASTM at (215) 299-5400 and requesting publication #E-1578. The guide outlines the process for selecting a LIMS, provides lab work flow models, a cost benefit analysis, a check list of functions and features to consider, and more.
Be a little wary of LIMS Buyer's Guides that are published by a LIMS vendor. These typically tend to be biased in favor of that vendor's solution and often have outdated or incorrect information about competing products. Details about the various LIMS systems are not shared with competitors, so you can hardly expect to find accurate information about specific LIMS from anyone other than the LIMS vendor.
Asking and Telling
A word of advice: Listen carefully not only to what each vendor tells you but to what they avoid discussing. The objective is to sell their product unless your lab is obviously a poor fit. The vendor will not tell you about weaknesses -- perceived or real -- inherent in their product. In fact, the weakness may not apply to every customer, only with certain applications. Pay attention to what kind of information is imparted during a demonstration. If the emphasis is on a glitsy front end, it may mean that the back end is difficult to configure and inflexible. The demonstration will focus on product strengths, of course, but knowing the product's weaknesses is just as important and requires listening as carefully to what is not said as to what is. Often a perceived strength is imparted in order to get the potential customer to ask other vendors (who won't look as good) about a feature or function that is actually relatively unimportant in the overall scheme. So don't put criteria into your Functional Requirements Specifications that a vendor suggests since a bias would then exist toward a particular LIMS product that may or may not be relevant to the lab's real processes or needs.
As with any purchase, the more informed you are as a buyer, the better your purchase decision. Asking the right questions of the right people will ensure that the right information is acquired for an intelligent, informed purchase decision. Telling the vendors what the organization's requirements are will also ensure that inappropriate solutions are weeded out early in the process. A thorough approach to both these tasks during the LIMS selection process is the best recipe for success.
What About Cost Justification?
A good cost justification will make your case stronger. But don’t promise it before you have had a chance to determine exactly what it is your lab needs; otherwise your cost justification won’t contain relevant figures that you won’t be able to support if things go awry.
Remember the statistic quoted above about the 60% failure rate? That’s because the grunt work wasn’t done to ensure that the correct solution was purchased; buying a less expensive solution may be more expensive in the long run if it isn’t implemented or widely used.
Your cost justification therefore should support why you need the LIMS or Informatics solution that your requirements specification says will be the best fit for your lab. Emphasizing the business advantages, such as streamlined workflows and greater researcher productivity, behind the purchase always makes a cost justification stronger.