Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN)

The Electronic Lab Notebook (or “ELN”) was a computer-based replacement for scientists’ paper lab notebooks.

NIP developed and deployed its ELN solution for several years, as part of its ongoing work in the sphere of Knowledge Management, along with related integration and consulting services. The system was implemented in a number of R&D-centric companies (including Kodak, DuPont and ICI), being typically used by most of a company’s scientists (hundreds or thousands of users, often in different sites and/or countries). This work featured frequently in the press.

…our ELN experiences greatly contributed to our understanding of sharing content, document management… and fine-grained access control to information

However, whilst the broad vision of ELNs was (and is) compelling and intuitive, the vision involved in transforming and revolutionising R&D in this way was simply too bold for all but the most forward-looking of companies, with other priorities more pressing.

The expected largescale adoption of enterprise-scale solutions did not ensue, but our ELN experiences greatly contributed to our understanding of sharing content, document management, integrating with crucial third-party systems, and fine-grained access control to information.

The ELN’s core attributes were:

  • A user-friendly and flexible User Interface
  • Summarising and storing knowledge in a shared space to boost collaboration across departments and geographies
  • Co-ordination and integration with existing tools
  • Reducing the time spent by scientists on administration and reporting
  • Supporting the patenting process
  • Placing all knowledge and data in context
  • Implementing corporate and individual security requirements
  • Storing data securely in the long term.

NIP’s ELN was not:

  • A repository for large amounts of raw data (e.g. a LIMS system) – instead, it linked to those systems
  • All encompassing – successful ELNs linked and worked with existing systems
  • Rigid – successful ELNs supported, not impeded innovation.

However, the most important lessons we learned from developing the Electronic Lab Notebook were about people and culture, not technology.

Deployment of ELNs required a high degree of cultural sensitivity and tradeoffs between many different considerations:

  • Working with human nature – relying on incentives, not rules: people have to want to use a system and find it to be a natural place to work
  • Making sure that for every person who was critical to the project’s success, we clearly understood why it was in their interests for the project to succeed
  • Not giving in to the temptation to use the introduction of the ELN as an opportunity to introduce other cultural changes
  • Trying to consider all the different aspects all the time – they were all interdependent