Why The Most Advanced Labs in the Country Still Use Software from the 90’s

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By Rana Gujral

When I ask my clients in the coatings industry what their biggest problem is, they all have the same answer. Coatings have an enormously complicated sales cycle, involving customized formulations of highly specialized raw materials that have to be produced in sample batches and put through a trial at a customer site before a sale is even made. It’s an extraordinarily complex process with hundreds of moving parts. Their problem is they only have one very primitive tool to manage it: Microsoft Excel.

See, most modern employees get apps designed to speed up their workflow and make collaboration a snap, like Basecamp, Salesforce, and Slack. But scientists in corporate and government labs? The ones developing and using some of the most advanced technology in existence today? Their productivity software is stuck in 1998.

It’s not just that Microsoft Office is old-fashioned. It’s that spreadsheets themselves actually not well-suited to how labs operate. Everyone I talk to has a horror story about finding an error in an Excel file that 10 different people edit, and having no way to tell who is responsible, much less how to recover the data. And in lab work, losing your data means losing everything.

Collaboration isn’t the only issue. Spreadsheets are extremely susceptible to human error—nearly 88% of spreadsheets have major ones. No controls prevent users entering flawed or even fraudulent formulas or data, since a spreadsheet is fully editable by all. And it’s unlikely such errors will ever get caught, either. Troubleshooting a spreadsheet is prohibitively time-consuming, especially when many different versions of it are scattered across folders, thumb drives, and desktops. At least one popular economic theory has already been undermined by the discovery of spreadsheet errors in the original calculations.

All of this adds up to a massive waste of time and energy. A 2012 survey by the Federal Demonstration Partnership found that principal investigators on federally sponsored research projects spent 42 percent of their time on administrative tasks. That’s right: our brightest minds waste nearly half their day doing paperwork.

Why have labs have been so slow to adopt more efficient online tools? You’d think that with all of the brainpower at their disposal, labs would design their own improvements on the spreadsheet—or at the very least contract with experts that could.

But here we reach the crux of the problem: funding cuts. Facing increasing pressure from investors who question the value of R&D, many companies have slashed their laboratory budgets in recent years. Among newer companies, it’s trendy not to spend much on R&D at all. Tech innovator Apple, for instance, spends less than 3% of its annual revenue on research, and has done so for years. Many government labs have also faced funding cutbacks in recent years. Without investment in updated processes and administration, our labs haven’t been able to keep up with the outside world in terms of productivity.

What little useful software is out there, labs don’t have the time or money to train their staff in. Experts have been heralding the rise of online lab notebooks since at least 2005, but paper notebooks are still a common sight on lab benches today. Often, the reason cited is habit. In 2012, one researcher told Science she still took notes in a paper notebook “because that was how I was trained” in the 1990s. It’s an attitude that’s all too common in an environment where training on new tools is all but nonexistent.

There are a few stand-out companies who have made an effort to revitalize their design and product development teams. In the years I spent working at Logitech, I was impressed with the way the company transitioned from a “one-trick pony” to an industry leader in product development and innovation. They did so by redirecting R&D funds to new categories of products and opening their own “innovation center” in Lausanne, Switzerland. After just two years, that investment created more than $400 million in new revenues.

This goes to show that investment in improving labs’ infrastructure is worth it. It can kill two birds with one stone: it frees up more budget for training in existing tools, and also makes it more lucrative to invent ones tailored to labs’ needs. These changes alone will not eliminate all administrative hassle. But with even 10% or 20% more time devoted to pure research, who knows what our labs could do?

Rana Gujral is a co-founder of TiZE, a software company that makes workflow solutions for the coatings industry, and former director of engineering at Logitech.


With contribution by Cailey Bromer of Hippo Reads.