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Build, Buy, or Partner?

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Published on
April 15, 2022

As part of the NEXT Normal Pharma Summit of 2022, it was my pleasure to sit down with Francesca Wuttke (former Chief Digital Officer of Almirall, and most recently the Founder and CEO of nen, as well as John Lineen, the Senior Director of Engagement Planning, Immunology and Cardiovascular Franchises at BMS, to discuss the state of pharma’s investments in digital tools, talent and partnerships. Here are some key takeaways from this great session.

A Human-Centric Approach to Digital Transformation

Each person on the panel had a unique perspective on digital transformation, reflecting their diverse experiences and responsibilities, but everyone stressed the centrality of people and their organizations to technological transformation. Digital transformation is more than acquiring a bundle of new technologies: it means addressing the human needs that these tools exist to meet. That means that we need to start with a use-case or business-case and work to solve the problems we have through the use of technology.

The term “customer experience mindset” is now commonplace, but it does describe a real need to get the right information, at the right time, to the people who need it. This is exactly where new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) can be useful.

While there is sometimes fear or hesitation surrounding these technologies, these tools aim to help people with their jobs, or personalize services to their needs. Ultimately, it is the needs of stakeholders that will drive lasting change within organizations.

Buy or Build?

The decision of whether to use an off-the-shelf technology solution is something that should be done on a case-by-case basis. Generally, it’s better not to reinvent the wheel. Out-of-box solutions are an obvious choice for smaller organizations that lack the resources to develop their own tools, but also for larger organizations that want to deploy tools quickly and focus on their core competencies. It’s hard for pharma companies to develop the internal talent and competencies, including AI/ML and engineering, to be able to productize innovations that are user-friendly and at scale. Tech companies are experts in this area, since it is their core business. Using a proven technology also carries a lot less risk than creating your own.

On the other hand, a large global matrix company with a diverse pool of talent and vendors may look to leverage what it already has. In practice, most organizations are using a mixed approach, partnering with small innovative companies for “bolt-on” tools and platforms that enhance their internal digital capabilities.

Working with Startups

For businesses in the pharma space, working with small tech companies can bring challenges for both parties. In some cases, an organization will have to rethink its internal processes if it wants a partnership to go anywhere. Startups move on a short timescale, and lack the time and resources to go over lengthy legal documents or wait months for answers to questions. Francesca had a few suggestions to help both parties smooth the path:

Firstly, make sure the problem is matched to the startup. This might seem obvious, but it's essential that the startup’s value proposition is a real priority and solves a pain point for the pharma client, as innovation for innovation's sake often stays in the proof of concept stage and doesn't move further.

Second, pharma organizations need to be upfront with their needs and expectations. Startups need honest answers about whether a project will actually go ahead.

Finally, both sides need to be clear about objectives and their ability to meet them. Transparent communication is vital to a productive relationship.

Finding Champions at All Levels

No matter how powerful a technology is, it won’t be effective if no-one in the organization uses it. A project without internal uptake is dead in the water. People simply won’t invest time and effort into something just because it is a neat technological widget: they need compelling reasons to adapt.

A new technology needs champions, people who see its value because it addresses a problem they find real and important. This goes for all levels of an organization, from frontline teams to leadership. On the one hand, leadership needs to see a good business case for any innovation. On the other, people on the ground need to see tangible benefits from adopting a new tool ― it should save them time or make them more effective.

In a large organization, in which there might be thousands of use cases for a new technology, it’s also important to come up with practical set of specific use-cases (for example, “Can I digitize a patient trigger so that I can see a physician more quickly?”)  rather than a general use case like “efficiency”. This will help you focus on matching technology to the real needs of people in your organization.

Involve Everyone, Early

Just as it’s important for pharma businesses to have early and transparent communications with their technology partners, people within the organization should be using new technologies and involving end users with them from the early stages. If people in frontline roles like sales aren’t able to give feedback early, there is a danger you will end up with a product that no-one can use. Building champions early in your digital transformation can help you create buy-in and momentum for its use later in the rollout process.

Build or Buy or Partner? Pharma's bold Investments in Digital Talent and Partnerships full recording.

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