Pharma: The Sector’s Growing Commitment to Digital

Technology and InnovationSuccessionHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisoryTechnology, Data, and Digital OfficersExecutive Search
min Report
October 10, 2019
12 min
Technology and InnovationSuccessionHealthcareBoard and CEO AdvisoryTechnology, Data, and Digital OfficersExecutive Search
Executive Summary
How digital leaders at the largest global Pharma companies are advancing digital capabilities in their organizations.



The digital wave has fully engulfed Pharma companies. Digital is growing in importance as a topic of strategic differentiation and business enablement. For the last several months, Russell Reynolds consultant Maneesh Dube has met with digital and technology leaders at 10 of the largest global Pharma companies to understand how they are implementing and advancing digital capabilities at their organizations and the implications for business and talent.


Technology, digital and data capabilities are increasingly intertwined

As Pharma companies move aggressively on their overall digital strategy, their data, technology and digital functional capabilities are becoming increasingly intertwined. While, currently, the Chief Digital Officer (or Chief Digital and Information Officer) often defines and leads the digital strategy, it is important to note that a single transformation or digital leader is insufficient to drive an enterprise-wide transformation. The leaders of each of these functions – technology, data and digital – must be visionary and transformative and interface with their counterparts to drive a coordinated and systematic change in the organization. The leaders in these roles are viewed as business “Game Changers” that transform business operations as well as mindset and culture. As the scope and scale of digital, data and technology efforts expand, these roles are being elevated to the ExCo level in their organizations, as their activities are of key strategic importance.


New revenue streams

Pharma companies are looking to new technologies and digital tools to enhance existing and to add new incremental revenue. The approaches to and objectives of building such tools varies, but many digital programs start as pilots to enhance operational efficiency and cut costs. These can quickly evolve into consumer-facing, revenue-generating programs. Pharma players have also begun to experiment with building applications (often with a partner) for patient use. In addition to creating an important health resource or disease management tool for patients, these apps integrate the company with aspects of health management traditionally outside the purview of legacy pharma. In our conversations, we learned that the strongest digital tools and applications are designed leveraging existing technology infrastructure and tap into existing institutional data and expertise. 

Selected examples of emerging potential new revenue streams for Big Pharma: 

Digital therapeutics
Software-as-prescription to provide FDA-approved tools prescribed by physicians to help patients manage, and in some cases, cure diseases.

AI-driven drug discovery
Leveraging new data, analytics, and AI and ML technologies to drive scientific biological innovation to identify and develop drugs at a pace that was not possible before.

Virtual healthcare
A future play for Big Pharma, HIPPAcompliant communication technologies that support the management of large patient populations and offer more frequent touchpoints for patients with their care providers.

Struggling data efforts

Innovation in both digital technology and the biological sciences is advancing at a furious pace, with the quantity of data generated growing exponentially. According to a recent IBM report, 90 percent of the data in the world was created within the previous two years1. Further, an IDC white paper that examined and predicted the makeup of future global enterprise data concluded that while healthcare currently has a smaller share of enterprise data compared to other industries, healthcare is primed to grow the fastest and is expected to surpass the media and entertainment sector and match the financial services sector by 20252. Pharma companies sit on a large portion of that data, and there is a wealth of information hidden within it regarding drug discovery and development, patient populations, patient outcomes, patient behaviors and commercial opportunities, among others. Business success today means pivoting from data-enabled to data-driven activity in order to operationalize and monetize this data.

In order to fully leverage this data and layer on new disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), data must be interoperable, recent and of reasonable quality to be usable. The reality is that most organizations are still working on the foundation of organizing and connecting the data they already have and creating and consistently implementing processes to ensure that future captured data is readily useable. The Chief Information Officer of a large Pharma company told us that they have 5,000 data sources in their organization. To capture data across these sources - not just once but repeatedly through a regular data refresh cycle - is itself a monumental achievement. In this context AI and ML solutions are difficult to scale and to provide the desired insight. There is more foundational work to be done.”


Many Pharma organizations are aware of the current limitations of their data integrity and of operationalizing their data. All the executives we spoke with said their organizations are actively implementing new IT infrastructure, processes and retroactive data integrity programs to move the needle. These large data efforts are a step in the right direction, but still fall short of the enterprise-wide streamlining and unification of data assets required to truly transform the manner in which data drives the business.

While such transformation takes time, successful data milestones will be achieved more quickly by leaders with the requisite data expertise leading the effort. In the cases where we’ve seen the most success, Pharma companies have hired several leaders to drive data efforts, including:


“A Thousand Flowers Blooming”

Many business leaders who are eager to leverage disruptive digital technologies have responded to what one Pharma executive described as “slow, centralized corporate digital initiatives,” by developing the digital capabilities of their own units. The positive side of this organic fostering of digital capabilities is that it allows companies to crowd-source internally for the best ideas. Now, as centralized digital efforts gain momentum and companies begin to develop comprehensive, organization-wide digital strategies, these disparate, unit-level digital initiatives face a challenge – will organizations abandon these initiatives in favor of a broader strategy or will they “capitalize on the entrepreneurial zeal” that launched them and bring them into their larger digital strategies?

Our observation is that most organizations are trying to integrate those early digital initiatives into the fold of the centralized digital strategy, but are encountering the organizational challenges that accompany change, testing the resolve of leadership. Leaders who are both technologically and organizationally savvy are key. Specifically, they should be able to identify and scale good digital ideas and be able to foster a culture of innovation throughout the organization, empowering every employee to believe that “action is close to me,” not far away in a corporate headquarter. By sourcing ideas from within, organizations inevitably have more enterprise-wide buy-in when centralized ideas are rolled out, since employees know that their voices are heard.

In summary:




Pharma companies’ hiring strategies reflect the regional differences of the global digital talent pool

As the demand for disruptive technologies grows, so does the need for talent. While no part of the world is left untouched by the emergence of disruptive technologies, there are clear, region-specific pockets of expertise emerging. Specifically, we have observed a talent gap between the global digital and IT talent in the US and the rest of the world. The regulatory environment in the US, in general, and the ability to make broad use of customer data, in particular, play a part in this talent-development phenomenon.

With this reality in mind, global companies are re-evaluating their location strategy to build digital hubs in regions where top talent already resides. Companies that are caught up in legacy decisions and are unable to refocus on talent hot spots are finding themselves losing the talent war. We spoke with an executive at a leading Big Pharma company who said that their company is shifting its regional balance in technology and digital leadership. Until recently, 70% of the technology and digital workforce was located in Europe. The new strategy will transition 60% of the digital workforce to the US.

Digital and technology talent is increasingly coming from outside of Pharma

More and more, Big Pharma is looking outside the sector to hire talent skilled in building, implementing and leveraging disruptive technologies. Our recent analysis of Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) at Big Pharma organizations found that only 25% of CDOs had previous experience working only in life sciences. We have seen this occur within other sectors as well. For example, the transportation, retail and hospitality sectors have each, over time, looked beyond their industries for talent as their commitment to digital innovation has grown. Hiring outside of the industry is essential to leveraging successful models that have already been tested and to adopting new capabilities and mindsets.

Leading Pharma Companies – A 2019 Profile of Chief Digital Officer


The challenge for Pharma companies is to position themselves as employers of choice. In our recent conversations, two barriers were often cited. First, Pharma companies are not traditionally perceived as tech-savvy players, willing to make the risky investments that are required to build cutting-edge technologies. While this was true in the past, today most Big-Pharma companies have progressed. Second, there are huge cultural differences between Big Pharma and emerging technology organizations, with the former having a reputation of being rigid, risk-averse and hierarchical, which tends to be less appealing to Millennial digital talent. The good news is that many of the Big Pharma leaders we spoke to were well aware of this difference and are working actively to create less hierarchical, more nimble organizations that allow new digital and technology experts the room they need to explore, learn and fail fast.


Evolving role from “Technologist” to “Game Changer”

In this time of rapid transformation, Big Pharma is asking much more of its technology experts than it has in the past. Within the last few years digital and technology topics have been elevated to the ExCo and board levels, and the scope of the CDO role has expanded to encompass essentially every aspect of the business. Where previously a top-notch technologist or IT professional would do, today this leader must also be a visionary with an informed and bold perspective on the future. They must be capable of taking actions today that will set the organization up to thrive in the technology and healthcare landscapes of tomorrow. The head of digital and technology must also be commercially astute: able to translate digital innovation into revenue and shareholder value. Finally, this leader must be a change agent who is able to leverage the excitement of change and transform culture and mindset, all the while managing unpredictability and successfully ushering the organization on its path forward. This skillset is a departure from the profile of the typical Pharma CIO or IT leader of the past. In today’s talent market, we identify three key archetypes of digital technology leaders.


Digital Technology Leaders – Archetypes

The next generation of digital leaders is emerging, but they need the space to experiment and thrive, and this requires the unflinching support of top leadership. Do today’s digital leaders have that support? In many instances they don’t, but a wave of new hires in senior technology and digital roles suggests a growing commitment to innovation and agility within Pharma’s digital organizations. Today, turnover in senior technology and digital roles is highest amongst C-suite roles. As Pharma companies experiment, so do the new hires.

In summary:


In closing

Big Pharma companies have clearly begun their digital journeys. They need digital and technology leaders with the organizational, technological, and commercial acumen to take them along the way. The sooner companies in this sector build organizational structures that nurture digital innovation and cultivate cultures that attract digital talent, the sooner they can create value and win in the marketplace.


1 IBM 2017 Marketing Trends Report
2 Seagate and IDC. Reinsel, Gantz and Rydning: The Digitization of the World From Edge to Core, 2018: