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IDBS Blog | 17th February 2022

How Clean is Your Kitchen? Using Analogies to Explain the Value of Digital Solutions

kitchen analogy digital solutions

For those of us who develop software that supports the biopharmaceutical/life science industry, the challenges and opportunities in digital transformation are painfully obvious and it can be easy to forget that not everyone sees it that way. Many senior IT and business leaders still struggle to get their C-Suites to recognize the importance of investing in digital technologies and working with the latest software. Why? Firstly, because of the opportunity cost of forgoing other investments, and secondly because there can be an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality when it comes to legacy systems. 

Yet these initiatives are vitally important and can make the difference between new therapies being ready in record time or being hit by lengthy and costly delays. So how can we, as software vendors, help our customers define and communicate the business case more effectively to their leadership teams? 

One approach is to use analogies to help explain complex, highly technical topics in a relatable way. A useful resource for this is “IT can be simple”, published by BioPhorum in December 2021, that explains how analogies can promote collaborative problem-solving, in this case specifically for the IT challenges of supplying cell and gene therapies. 

Here’s a simple kitchen analogy that was originally used to help explain technical debt in software development but can also be applied to biopharma data management. Imagine you’ve decided to buy a restaurant and want it to become the new hot spot in town. You hire a top chef and a public relations expert to promote the grand opening. But there’s a problem: the kitchen in your restaurant looks like this.

With no time to make any changes your team must do the best they can in the circumstances. Before even starting to cook the team must first find the things they need, and then spend time cleaning them before use, which kicks off a chain-reaction of frustrating delays. With the pressure of getting food out on time there’s a real risk that not everything will have been thoroughly cleaned or prepared before it’s served. And what if a health inspector decides to pay a visit amid all the chaos? 

Now imagine your kitchen looks like this. Clean, organized, designed to make food preparation efficient and meet the highest standards.  

Carrying the analogy through to biopharma, technical experts responsible for delivering high-value products often must follow a “breadcrumb trail” of printouts from Word documents with embedded Excel charts that compare data derived from multiple other spreadsheets where instrument data has been copied from exported files to find the information they’re looking for. This is time-consuming at best, and at worst results in discrepancies that can’t be reconciled. So why are there still so many “dirty kitchens” out there? 

The simplest explanation, as described in the original blog, is that “it is normal for a kitchen to look disgusting. That’s how kitchens are”. While that’s probably true in some areas of biopharma, the overall story is more nuanced. No one wants to be in a situation where data doesn’t hold up to regulatory scrutiny, or ambitious plans to implement AI/ML initiatives such as digital twins are held back by instrument and data integration challenges, but it’s a multi-faceted problem. There are areas where digital solutions such as automation and advanced analytics have been deployed with impressive results. But like a shining, clean, high-tech station in the middle of an otherwise dirty and cluttered kitchen (for this analogy it helps if you’ve watched the Pixar film, Ratatouille), these islands of excellence aren’t enough to solve the overall problem. What’s needed is a holistic data strategy rather than point solutions. 

Raising awareness at the C-Suite/leadership level is a key place to start. Historically, the diverse needs of research, development, and manufacturing have been met by piecing together a complex ecosystem of standalone or partially integrated software packages. Now, business and IT groups alike are shifting the focus from technology (what’s the best ELN on the market) to business impact (how can I best achieve the desired outcomes). This is helping to reframe the problem and explain the growing gap between companies who are content to leave their data in a dirty kitchen and industry leaders who are investing in shiny kitchen infrastructure. 


To learn more about how IDBS is approaching this challenge, hear from Henry Charlton and Matt Clifford as they discuss “Digital Strategies to Power Next-Generation BioPharma” at SmartLab Digital.

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