Seizing the moment in digital

This is the moment to accelerate digital transformation if only pharma can create the culture and capabilities for such change


One of the most remarkable changes driven by the pandemic has been the rapid transition from face-to-face interaction to digital communication across every aspect of our lives. Even the most tech-phobic among us have been forced to embrace what digital technology has to offer.


This huge shift across all demographics and geographies could provide an unforeseen benefit to pharma, an industry that has been ripe for different types of engagement, but which has until now been held back from embracing them.


The pandemic is accelerating the rollout of digital of platforms and services, says Abel Archundia, SVP, Global Head of IT & Digital Transformation, at Bayer. Some of this is being led by patients. “The biggest opportunity we now have is that of empowered patients who will now have much more awareness about what choices they have,” he says.


“They are much more aware that their data matters, that their adherence to a therapy can be tracked and that their participation is important for them to be healthy and to stay healthy. There is an opportunity that we now have to really leverage that.”


Given the restrictions that prevent pharmaceutical companies from directly accessing patients and the ongoing shift of the HCP role from prescriber to advisor, it is even more important, he says, to seize the opportunity to arm HCPs with the digital tools they need to improve patient outcomes.


The main barriers standing in the way of progress, he believes, are people and their mindsets. The answer, says Archundia, is change management.


“We have very competent executives that have learnt to work within the frameworks of regulation to keep patients safe and deliver health. But that has created a mindset of precision and attention to detail and regulation which, to some extent, works against what we need to do.”


A good change manager will present a vision of a better future and a path towards it that resonates with the whole organisation, says Florent Edouard, SVP Global Head of Commercial Excellence & Customer Engagement, at Grunenthal.


“This is about winning the hearts and minds of people to get them to buy into it. But the idea is not just to go to the top and think that is going to be enough, you have to really go deep and you have to go broad. 


“The example I would give is that many companies went out and hired a lot of data scientists but then figured out that their marketing folk were not in shape to have a good discussion with them to actually define the problem they were trying to solve. How do we go broad and make sure marketing is in a position to be able to do this?”


Allergic to Agility

But winning hearts and minds is not enough, says Philippe Kirby, Digital Capabilities & Analytics Lead at MSD. The people side of things must work in tandem with both technology and process development.


“I have to bring up the A-word,” he says. “Agile is really starting to take hold. Admittedly we probably started a bit late on that, insomuch as we did the technology first and then we started training people. Now we are saying let’s change the process but all three must work in lockstep. The agile way of working is to be able to rapidly test and learn and do that in small cycles. Getting the whole organisation to be thinking that way is really going to make a difference.”


But there is a problem here. Pharma is ‘allergic’ to the key agile concept of creating a minimum viable product, says Edouard. “We need to teach our financial colleagues, but also our marketing colleagues and our IT colleagues, that when we build a minimum viable product, it is to learn,” he explains. “Don’t ask me for a 10-year business case with an MVP upfront because I can’t give you one. I don’t know what the product will look like. This is totally non-natural for pharma.”


Bayer’s Archundia says he created a hybrid programme that was staffed by volunteers or hand-picked individuals who came into a ‘lighthouse’ project, which developed valuable resource as well as capabilities. 


The participants were empowered to engage with third parties to bring in expertise externally where it was needed and they were also exempted from following regular processes, he explains. “This was against considerable resistance from the ‘command and control’ organisation which wants to ensure that all the t’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted. But to accelerate the first vulnerable stages of this programme we really needed to create a bubble where people could safely try things out.”


The wellspring of successful digital transformation is good data-led decision making. Gut decision making is over, says Archundia, and the value of data must be impressed on everyone in the organisation to enable digital progress.


“In the past we have built a lot of CRMs, reporting tools and so on,” he says. “But we never built advanced analytics for real because we don’t have, except in R&D, a very strong data-driven culture and we can’t do the digital offering we want to give our patients and our physicians if we don’t have people educated on data.


Joining the dots in the cloud

The fragmentation of data, siloed in disparate databases and systems between R&D, medical, marketing, sales and digital, is a further challenge to transformational change but, thanks to new, flexible ways of working with data, such as cloud computing, it is one that pharma can now overcome.


Expensive, multi-year IT projects that kill the chances of innovating should now be a thing of the past. “Instead of first building infrastructure,” says Archundia, “I am just renting it. In less than three months we are able to plug all the data sources together, we can run analysis on complex data sets, we clean data sets as well. 


There is much to learn, he says, from industries such as retail and entertainment where data, data ownership and data management are core to the business. “The pace of progress will be driven by the speed we get on top of this data and the opportunities it has in terms of how can we translate its value and how to monetise it for the rest of the business.”


But a problem pharma must also anticipate, Archundia argues, in the era of machine learning and the ‘black box’ approach to data is whether we can trust the insights arising from such cutting edge technology.


“There has been a lot of debate in the industry focusing on what good is a solution that is a black box solution that we cannot use to really explain how the data or insights were created, or the provenance of these data. 


“And these are crucial questions that the technologists have to answer otherwise we are going to continue moving at a slower pace. If we cannot explain how we came to an insight, it’s going to be hard to explain who makes money from this insight.”

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