Talent Drives the Digital Health Revolution

Pharma industry experts explain their approach to finding the right people.



When companies experience disruption on the scale that we’re starting to see in pharma, traditional chemistry is no longer enough. We need a new kind of science – people chemistry ­– as Jeff Elton, Managing Director of Accenture Life Sciences, co-author of Healthcare Disrupted (Wiley, 2016), recently pointed out in his eyeforpharma article: “The Importance of Talent and Chemistry in New Patient-First Business Models”.

Whenever immense change is on the agenda, the spotlight immediately falls on talent – because having the right people in place is one of the principal drivers of success. As Jim Collins said in 2001, in his seminal work Good to Great, “Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who’.”

“They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline – first the people, then the direction….”

New skill set

In today’s context, technology is ever more pervasive and influential: it can be disruptive in itself. Back in the day, Collins told us: “Technology is certainly important, but it comes into play only after change has already begun.” His core hypothesis remains good but new paradigms require new talent with new skills. Elton is clear that the increasing prevalence of digital solutions means “life sciences employees and future talent need a new, digital-first skill set”.

The importance of talent has not gone unnoticed at Bayer, for instance, which embarked on its own digital transformation in 2014. Jessica Federer, Head Digital Development, highlights leadership from the top and a very dedicated implementation team as the two pre-requisites for a successful digital transformation, but sitting at the top of a list of the keys drivers in any successful transformation, is talent.

“The number one thing for us is always the talent – the people. We do have people in our organization who are world leaders in digital marketing and multichannel marketing and integrated customer experience. We have brilliant people here and you’ve just got to have people that get it and understand it.”

But where do life sciences companies find such extraordinary talent – it can be elusive – and how do they build the necessary skills? Should they pan for gold in the open market or seek to polish their own homegrown diamonds in the rough? As with any fast-expanding area, talent in the digital space is currently limited, particularly at mid- and senior-management level. Bayer imports some talent but is aware that pharma is a distinctive sector, so that “you either love it or hate it”.

Center of excellence

Federer’s colleague Gerhard Arnhofer (who will be presenting at Multichannel Excellence in October) leads the center of excellence for integrated multichannel marketing for the pharma business at Bayer. Set up some nine months ago, the center is one of a number of CoEs within the company, designed to inspire and transform the organization.

Each deals with a different competency area such that the bundled competencies available within the centers enable the wider organization to build up its skills, competencies and knowledge in specific areas of focus. This approach is seen as the quickest and most effective way of building digital capability within the organization.

After several years of impact, individual CoEs are dissolved once they have done their work, at the stage that the organization as a whole understands more than the CoE can then deliver. Traditionally, this knowledge transfer takes three to five years. This is a technique that Bayer has applied for several years.

One solution is homegrown talent. Bayer runs a dual study program for undergraduates who spend time at a university on technology and economics programs and then half their time on the job within the corporation. Bayer is able to hire fresh talent out of that stream and can shape individuals early on in their careers.

Currently, there are a number of people within Arnhofer’s team writing their dissertations and the organization is interested to see whether this approach will accelerate the digital transformation or not. Topics covered by the students include AI, evaluating concepts of remote detailing, and business decisions analysis, among others. Team members fresh from university have a very keen eye for evaluating problems but need considerable time spent on nurturing them.

You look at who are the partners that are meaningful to your customers and how do you do something with that partner that creates more value for your customer and makes sense for a long-term relationship.

Additionally, Berlin has a thriving start-up scene, with a large number of talented people from the digital community originating from all over Europe. This represents a significant talent pool for the company.

External partners

Of course, sometimes that talent can come from external partners. For Bayer, these may range from well-known global digital disruptors such as Google and YouTube to regional and local collaborators. Federer explains: “You look at who are the partners that are meaningful to your customers and how do you do something with that partner that creates more value for your customer and makes sense for a long-term relationship.”

No less is required to create positive, value-based patient outcomes.

Accenture’s Elton describes how Biogen has hired an executive vice president of technology and business solutions from the high-tech industry, reporting directly to the CEO, to lead what the company calls “efforts to leverage advanced analytics to inform the drug discovery process, unlock new insights from clinical data and improve patient care through tools such as wearable and ingestible devices.” 

He explains that digitally savvy talent with experience in patient-care settings brings the disruptive influence necessary to turn brick-and-mortar-based operations into responsive – even anticipatory – scalable enterprises with vastly lower cost structures. “No less is required to create positive, value-based patient outcomes.”

Key steps

In conclusion, Elton advocates two key steps when acquiring talent for new roles:

1. Define the profiles of the new talent required – In the context of the patient-first business models that are being ushered in by the digital revolution and other profound changes to the healthcare landscape, he states: “We see patient-focused skills coming mainly from clinicians, allied health professionals, health services companies, and data scientists, but also from consumer companies where the talent already has the strategic vantage point and practical experience to fully challenge current healthcare models.”

2.      Find new recruiting channels outside the traditional areas – “Talent from industries that have already made the digital transformation and have shifted their focus to the consumer (financial services, consumer electronics) may be a natural fit for some new roles. Individuals who understand gamification could help devise systems that encourage and reward patients along their health journeys. Others will bring digital “leverage” in the form of artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced digital robotics, allowing machines and humans to work together for greater efficiency and immediate responsiveness. Accessing this talent will require input from diverse sources, including venture capitalists, academic institutions, large healthcare provider systems and even health payers.”


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