Visible, The Green Shoots of Digital Transformation in Pharma

Currently, one gets a mixed feeling about the progress of digital transformation in the pharma industry. This is despite various reports confirming that a number of major initiatives in this field have been taken, especially by Big Pharma, globally. Moreover, these are primarily driven by the company CEOs, as it should be, and adequately backed by heavy investments.

Another recent trend can’t also be wished away, as corporate C-suites find a new breed of leadership – Chief Digital Officers (CDO) as occupants. It has already happened in several top pharma companies. Alongside, one can spot in this milieu, a plethora of private ‘digital trainers’ – wearing interesting titles and offering courses of many types, especially for pharma line managers.

On the flip side, many experts feel that ‘digital transformation of business’ is currently more a buzz in the drug industry than reality. These are, apparently, piecemeal attempts of converting analogue formats to digital, in a number of functional areas to improve operational efficiency of the same process.

Thus, it’s time to go for a reality-check at the ground zero, to ascertain the overall progress of the industry in this area, at least, in the last five years. While doing so, in this article, I shall try to hear the views of the top company CDOs on the nature of the challenge, alongside examine some credible research findings. Let me begin this discussion by looking at where exactly does the pharma industry stand today in this space, as compared to other industries.

A fact-check:

That many players in the drug industry, continue to have no clear digital vision and strategy, was established in the ‘Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2018.’ This survey is claimed to be the largest on IT leadership in the world, with almost 4,000 participants across 84 countries, representing over USD 300 bn of IT budget spend.

The report provides a snapshot of the pharma industry in several areas, particularly where the industry’s responses differed significantly from those across other industries. As I go along with my submission, I shall fact-check and quote from this data. Let’s find below the industry response to the following two key questions:

A.‘Does your organization have a clear digital business vision and strategy?

Industry

Yes (enterprise-wide)

%

Yes (Within business units)                      %

No

%

Pharma

23

28

49

All industries

32

27

41

The second question is even more specific:

B.‘Does your organization have a Chief Digital Officer or someone serving in that capacity?’

Industry

Dedicated CDO

%

Someone else in that role                            %

No

 %

Pharma

4

37

59

All others

11

39

50

That said, let me also acknowledge, enough evidences suggest that a sort of ‘digital warming-up’ has commenced in the industry for some time now.

‘Digital warming-up’ has commenced:

That the process has just begun, was captured in several reports. Let me illustrate the point, citing an example of the article, titled ‘Marketing outside the box’, published in the Pharma Times Magazine of May 2017.

Considering blistering pace of progress and rapid adaptation of digital technology in businesses, it is interesting that a couple of years ago, the above article highlighted exactly what many would articulate even today. The author noted: ‘Think pharmaceutical marketing these days and the buzz words digital, consumer engagement, multichannel, and closed-loop all come to mind.’ Focusing on the possibility to make it happen, sooner, the paper added, ‘There is now a dizzying array of tools, technologies and tactics that can be combined in various permutations to create marketing campaigns unheard of a mere five to 10 years ago.’  Thus, the ‘digital warming-up’ notwithstanding, the key question, I reckon, is, about two years down the line, how many drug companies have started maintaining an enterprise-wide digital business strategy?

A soft target – for rationalization:

To rationalize the leisurely progress of this key initiative, one may possibly choose the soft target and say,drug companies being a part of a highly regulated and tradition-bound industry, are late to fathom the indispensability of digital transformation of business. But this justification is open to many probing questions. One such counter-query could be – in that case, why many constituents of as stringently regulated industry, if not more, – financial services business, including banking, are galloping ahead with digitization?

Even if, the above rationalization is accepted at its face value, the other question won’t also be too easy to answer: Why digitization is not gaining momentum in the pharma industry, as much as it should, particularly as compared to other highly regulated industries? Such probes understandably may not attract too many affirmative answers. However, the crux of this issue was reported in the headline of Fierce Pharma on June 25, 2019 – ‘Pharma’s got its chief digital officers. Now let’s see the results.’

In pursuit of holistic outcomes with digitization:

The August 2015 paper of McKinsey, titled ‘The road to digital success in pharma’, also acknowledged, just as other related one, the drug industry can play a pivotal role in the digital transformation of healthcare – changing lives of many. While pointing out, capturing this opportunity requires identifying the right initiatives, the article cautioned the industry, it needs to run harder ‘to keep pace with changes brought about by digital technology.’

There are indications that some top pharma decision makers have also realized that this change has to happen, sooner – assigning top organizational priority, and demanding sharp focus of all. As I wrote in my article of October 29, 2018, several companies have created a brand-new C-Suite position, to ‘lead the company’s digital efforts across research, discovery and business processes.’

The initiative intensified in the last two years:

According to May 13, 2019 edition of Biopharma Dive, seven of the nearly thirty pharma and biotech companies valued at more than USD 10 billion has named a Chief Digital or Information Officer (CDD/CIO) on their executive committee. Such placements facilitate greater influence for organization-wide changes and signal that they are taking the potential of digital technologies seriously to transform their respective business models.

Interestingly, six of those individuals were appointed to top management within the last two years. This shift comes, as tech companies like Amazon and Apple inch further into medicine, in a different form, though. Taking a cue from this emerging trend, some pharma majors are also merging research and development of new medicines with digital technology and big data. Thus, even CDO responsibilities are going through a curious metamorphosis.

Is CDO position a temporary one?

This question is aptly answered in the 2019 Report on the study of CDOs conducted byStrategy &PwC’s strategy consulting group. The paper finds, the elevation of CDO at the Corporate Executive Committee or the Board level, ‘reflects the growing recognition that the digital transformation agenda now has strategic importance to most organizations, and that, unless it is driven from the top of the enterprise, it will not have the required momentum to drive business change.’ Overall in business: ‘More than half (54 percent) of CDOs have board-level status today, up from 40 percent in 2016’, the report highlights.

Although, it is construed as a general industry trend today, the report however, captures a clear dissonance. It found that leaders at many companies believe that putting a single person in charge of digital transformation may not be the best approach, as it is an intrinsic strategic priority, across the whole business, where agility becomes critical for survival. Thus, the researchers felt, as digital transformation becomes part of the core business, the next step will possibly be for the CDO to disappear. When it happens, digital transformation will become the responsibility of every member of the executive team of the organization.

Be that as it may, we shall cross that bridge when we come to it. At present,the basic groundswell for digital transformation of the entire business, is created from the C-Suite of the CDO. Thus, let us dwell on the scope of CDO in a pharma company.

Current scope of CDO in a pharma business:

Let me illustrate this point by quoting from the Press Release of Sanofi, dated February 12, 2019, appointing their CDO. It said, the CDO will be responsible for enhancing Sanofi’s strategy to integrate digital technologies and medical science to ultimately improve patient outcomes. His mandate will include scaling up Sanofi’s ongoing portfolio of digital initiatives by developing broad external partnerships, building out internal infrastructures, and exploring new business opportunities for the company in the digital space.

Thus, the role of a CDO is primarily focusing on both - developing a digital health strategy and improve internal capabilities, to effectively use new technologies and advanced analytics to deliver the deliverables, more effectively. As many would know, last year, both Pfizer and Merck announced appointments of CDOs for the first time in the company. In 2017, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) also created similar C-Suite positions.

Now, CDOs will need to prove their value:

Yes. That’s exactly what the Sanofi CDO said in the above Fierce Pharmaarticle – appeared on June 25, 2019. He was forthright in admitting, after a few years, pharma and biotech companies would be ‘kind of pressuring’ CDOs to ask, ‘Well, what have you really achieved? And show me the results. Have you made us more efficient? Have you transformed the way we work? Have you created new business? Have you really given us new tools, new technologies, new drugs which are digitally enhanced? And show me where they are.’

Hence, the pace of digital transformation of companies needs to be much faster now than ever before.

The current status of digitization in pharma:

Since, proof of the pudding is in the eating, let’s get a feel of the company employees in this area from their response to the query from the same ‘Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey 2018.’:

‘Overall, how effective has your organization been in using digital technologies to advance its business strategy?’ 

Industry

Very effective          %

Moderately effective  %

Not/Slightly effective %

Pharma

17

37

36

All others

22

42

46

The above details may not reflect a great progress for the pharma industry in digital transformation. Nevertheless, this space doesn’t remain barren either, not any more. Some signs of progress – some green shoots, I reckon, are indeed discernable.

Conclusion:

As I see it, the need for digital transformation is an existential issue for the pharma industry. No one can afford to let this initiative die. In any case, the technological wave of such dimension, power and relevance for all, will always prevail – getting stronger – as the days pass by.

That said, there isn’t much doubt, either, that many drug companies are finding it challenging to keep pace with the rapid progress of technology, where obsolescence is also equally fast. Some are also facing tough barriers to scale up digital transformation across the organization. The rest seems to be not very sure how and where to start it from.

On the other hand, as I also wrote in my article in this blog on April 08, 2019, fueled by, among others, Internet of Things, the health care environment, including in India, is moving towards a ‘connected healthcare’ regime. This disruptive change will demand the best value offerings from each brand for better patient outcomes.

The good news is, at least, some green shoots of digital transformation in the pharma space are certainly coming up. But its pace needs to be considerably accelerated and now, creating an optimal groundswell – always being on the same page with customers – for path-breaking outcomes.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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