Digital success doesn’t start with the tech

Pharma’s first enterprise Chief Data Officer sits down with Roivant’s Chief Digital Officer to point out where we’ve all been going wrong


We all know that the biggest hurdle for any transformation project is culture. No wonder then that many of us working within digital transformation have hoped to open minds and inspire a new way of working through big, buzzy projects. 


There’s now even a blueprint for this type of innovation: find a tech partner, design a pilot with a trending technology, and ‘signal’ to peers, rivals and shareholders that you’re embracing the future with a flashy press release. 


But when we sat down with Dan Rothman the Chief Digital Officer, Dainippon Sumitomo Pharma and Milind Kamkolkar, Chief Digital Officer, Cellarity, at the eyeforpharma Barcelona Virtual summit, they emphatically underlined that this common approach is exactly the problem. 


Don’t get distracted 

When we are seduced by this way of working, we wind up doing more harm than good. 


If we are being honest with ourselves, many of these projects begin with the wrong motivation at their core. Rather than impressing potential partners, this actually signals that you’re not ready for change. Kamkolkar points out: “I think many of us in the entrepreneurial community would prefer to see outcomes rather than who you are partnering with, because honestly, who cares?”


Yes, pilots can be useful to raise awareness of a particular technology, but usually we don’t connect them to an overall strategy for change. For your partners, pursuing pilots for PR reasons can be a death sentence. They drag on for months, consuming precious resources from startups on a runway. 


Other projects attempt to convince the skeptics through targeting big wins. For Kamkolkar and Rothman, this approach also often misses the target. The reality is, for most pharma the core problems are behavioral not technological. Kamkolkar bluntly states, “Get over the technology issues, this is not where the issues are. If you have one data lake, two data lakes, three data lakes, who cares if at the end of the day you are just building swamps, it doesn’t matter what lake you have.”


Results start with behaviour change

It is far more important to help colleagues to feel confident with testing new ways of working and become comfortable with the risks involved. But, Rothman admits, it is also extremely hard to do in pharma’s high-pressure, high-stakes environment.


“How do you get people to stop pattern matching and saying ‘this is the way I’ve done this before’. How do you get people to feel good about taking risks, about taking smart risks, and [getting people to think about] creating value?” 


Breaking down big projects into smaller experiments that teams can lead and own is a crucial step towards opening people up to new ways of working. It’s a core tenet of agile working, currently in vogue across industry. 


But the problem again here, is that while many are touting this approach, few are living it. Pilots that last months and don’t lead to adoptable insights, are the antithesis of agile, says Kamkolkar. “If you really are working in agile you are always creating value all along the way.” 


It’s far smarter to start small and focus on achieving value in increments. Above all, empower your teams to execute. Rothman shares some crucial advice for operationalizing this: “Find that person in your organization, partner with them on some small wins, let them have the wins and you’ll find that people get addicted to that form of winning. They will then be pulling for more and more.”


And don’t forget: when you start to see those small successes, step back and let others take the limelight. 


This is the real secret to changing culture, says Rothman. “Truly partner with whatever business you are [making innovation happen in], don’t make the mistake of taking credit for the wins. Make sure that they get credit for the wins.” 


It’s ironic, but true: thinking a little smaller can lead to a bigger change.


It’s time to bin the PR sugar habit and start getting our teams addicted to success.  


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