'Culture of innovation' leads Memorial Sloan Kettering to early adoption of Drupal 8

Drupal early adoption at Memorial Sloan Kettering

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At Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), the world's oldest and largest private cancer center, our researchers and clinicians have pushed boundaries to generate new knowledge in patient care and cancer research for more than 130 years. This culture of innovation allows our scientists to continually develop new methods for treatment and work tirelessly to discover more effective strategies to prevent, control, and ultimately cure cancer.

As director of MSK's digital team, I am constantly inspired by my medical colleagues' relentless efforts. My team and I are driven to do the same in our space, where we interface with 5.3 million patients, caregivers, research scientists, and healthcare professionals annually at MSKCC.org. That's why we decided to become the first organization in the United States to build an enterprise-grade platform with Drupal 8 while it was still in beta testing.

We chose to build with Drupal 8 for many reasons—which we explained at DrupalCon LA and I elaborated on the Phase2 blog—but when we set out, there was no guarantee that the platform would deliver on our goals. Drupal 8 was far from an official launch. But as with all bold pursuits at MSK, a little bit of uncertainty is a given. This mix of careful consideration, persistence, and unanswered questions is what drives progress, whether in the lab or on the web.

MSK's collaborative focus

Of course, innovation never happens in a vacuum. MSK's cancer research is spurred on by multidisciplinary studies, wherein professionals from different backgrounds and with different specialties come together to drive the generation of new knowledge. Cross-service collaboration aids not only research but also the diagnosis and treatment of our patients.

The same is true of MSK's digital team. Knowing we needed the best experts in the field, we carefully selected our partners. By choosing Phase2, we benefited from their experience in building on a beta version of Drupal in the past. DigitasLBi, meanwhile, helped develop the strategy, execution, and creative for the sites, with the goal of enhancing the overall user experience. Together we were better able to handle the challenges Drupal 8 presented, inventing our own solutions (like YAML web forms) as we went along.

But before we could effectively collaborate with our partners, we had to develop a core internal team to drive the project and define its objectives. It was important that each organization (MSK, Phase2, Big Blue House, and DigitasLBi) had a seat at the table from the beginning so everyone could see the roadmap from the start. Equally crucial was keeping open lines of communication. MSK really prioritized internal and cross-organizational communication, and that paid off during the later stages of the project. We understood it to be a necessity as we dove into the unexplored waters of Drupal 8.

Importance of community

As we began work in Drupal 8, we started to see many similarities between the culture at MSK and open source communities—particularly the Drupal community, which is vibrant, active, and highly collaborative. The goal may be to answer a specific research or business question, but the results can often be applied in many other ways. As a result, people can leverage others' work for the betterment of all.

The collaborative element of open source allows for bigger problems to be solved through shared feedback. MSK benefited tremendously from the community's combined efforts to launch Drupal 8, and in return we were able to directly contribute 57 patches back to Drupal core, as well as nearly 100 issues reviewed and committed. We are proud to be one of the first of many, many organizations to help continue the progress of innovation, one small step at a time.

About the author

Evan Liebman, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Evan Liebman - Evan Liebman is the Director of Digital Communications at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). For more than eight years, he has managed the technical implementation and user-experience strategy for MSKCC.org and SloanKettering.edu, including the relaunch of the two sites in May 2015 in Drupal 8. Through this effort, Evan has helped MSK establish itself as a leader in open-source technology innovation and is dedicated to the forward progress of the open-source Drupal community.