By Bob Beliveau.

If you are in the Life Sciences industry, your data is your product. And your ability to find, share, and make decisions based on data is the key to your productivity. But we continue to see telltale signs that scientific data is being mismanaged. Here are a few things we look for when engaging with a new customer

Are you transcribing data?
Nothing’s wrong with paper. I’m a big fan of printed reports, training materials, and instructions. But if you capture data on paper, it’s stranded. At some point, you will want to search, trend, tabulate, and report the results. And then, you’ll spend time and energy transcribing it into an electronic form (usually Excel).

Also, paper has no way to validate data, so it’s likely that paper-bound data will be incomplete or wrong. And often, you are transcribing these data weeks or months after they were originally recorded. Meaning that the person who originally scribed the data is no longer able to remember what they wrote. So not only will you waste time, but the resulting data will be less accurate.

Do you have to wait “your turn” to update files?
If your team needs to collaborate or capture transactions, a file-based approach might seem like a sensible way to operate. It has a low cost of entry – All you have to do is design the file format, put it on the file share and away you go. But you’ll quickly find that it’s too easy to overwrite a colleague’s data or to double-allocate important ids.

So it’s customary to have an informal “file-locking” scheme where you check around with your teammates to ensure no one is using the master file. Or perhaps you will set a schedule so people have write privileges during different times of the day/week. Sounds productive, doesn’t it?

Is Excel your favorite database?
Excel is probably the most used program, besides Word, in most business settings. It’s quite capable at analyzing data and creating useful charts that illustrate trends. But this is where you should draw the line. Confine Excel to an analysis and communication role. But do not let it turn into your team’s de-facto database.

Excel files (as above) can be overwritten by colleagues who work on the same file simultaneously. But even more insidiously, Excel spreadsheets are too easy to copy and clone. Once you allow your team to create copies of spreadsheets, (some with different column structures) it becomes nearly impossible to reconcile them. And the confusion caused by people operating off slightly different spreadsheets can be maddening.

Do you have a complex folder structure to store/archive files?
I have observed some wonderfully byzantine folder structures in my travels. The caretakers of these structures have taken great care in setting them up so files can be stashed away in predictable places. But this approach suffers from a couple of drawbacks

Accessibility; only people who understand the folder structure can find files. Consistency; everyone needs to put files in the appropriate place. Retrieval; in order to find desired files, you have to leave your operating context, open a file explorer, and navigate down into the folder maze. By the time you find the file, you’ve forgotten why you wanted it. Or does that only happen to me? No matter.

Are you still trying to find data from departed colleagues?
Organizations that allow people to create their own data storage and indexing systems are destined to lose data; sometimes important data. Enough said.

So what’s the answer? The simple answer is to use a database, rather than files to capture data. But a database alone is not sufficient. You must combine a database solution, with a series of workflows that reinforce and reward high quality data. You must build a culture that relies on data timeliness and accuracy for decision making. And you must instill in your team the need for transparency and openness where many “eyeballs” look at the data.

Mismanaging data is an efficiency drag on any company. And it’s a silent productivity killer. People typically under-report the amount of time they spend looking for data, and/or validating or correcting faulty data. Their time would be better spent working on customer-facing tasks. By managing your company’s data correctly, you can free your team to work on more fulfilling tasks, and gain a competitive edge.