The pharma sector is slowly shedding its image as a digital laggard. The jolt from the COVID pandemic saw many companies hasten their digital transformation journey. Many of the early birds are tasting the low-hanging fruits of these forays. But a lot still needs to be done to truly catch up with other sectors.
So what are the best practices and learnings of these pharma digital torchbearers? Express Pharma, IPA, AWS and SAP conducted a Thought Leadership Forum on the importance of Maximising Value from Digital Transformation in the pharma industry. We summarise some key takeaways from this interaction.
The story so far…
Setting the context, the keynote address by Dr Sudarshan Jain, Chairman, IPA gave an overview of various aspects of the pharma industry, including security in cloud applications, vendor performance, supply chain uncertainties, and digitalisation of the field force. He emphasised the importance of investing in secure environments for enterprise applications and aligning procurement policies with vendor quality and performance. He also highlighted the need to build alternatives within the supply chain to mitigate uncertainties and enable the field force through intelligent recommendations.
Touching on embedding technologies like intelligent process automation and AI within business processes and discussing the challenges and changes in the Indian pharma sector, Jain spoke about the importance of leveraging technology, sustainability, demand forecasting, and supply chain control towers is also emphasised. He suggested adopting practices from other industries, reinventing sales and operations planning, and focusing on digital tools and analytics. He concluded by expressing his desire to collaborate for better-run pharma organisations and improved patient outcomes.
Next, Sudakshina Ghosh, Sr. Director SAP Customer Advisory Practice, Rohit Sinha, Principal BD, AWS and Sanjeev Joshi, Partner, PWC gave their insights on how digital transformation is imperative for the life sciences industry.
Calling it the ‘power of three’ Sinha highlighted how the partnership between SAP, AWS and PWC resulted in a perfect platform of innovation, which will give life sciences companies deep insights into where they can be, where they want to be, and how can they get there.
Commenting on how the digital journey of pharma companies has accelerated particularly post-pandemic, Joshi spoke about how each partner had solutions for different facets of this journey, be it across the vendor ecosystem, pharma operations or the customer interface. He emphasised that having a digital strategy, the right roadmap, the right products and the implementation partner is the key to success.
The three speakers jointly addressed points related to security, vendor performance, supply chain uncertainties, and digitalisation of the field force. The focus is on ensuring security as applications move to the cloud, with investments being made to run enterprise applications in secure environments with disaster recovery management infrastructure.
Rounding off the session, Ghosh mentioned the importance of aligning procurement policies with vendor quality and performance, and the need to build alternatives within the supply chain to mitigate uncertainties. Additionally, there is an emphasis on enabling the field force through intelligent recommendations to streamline sales processes. She also briefly touched on how technologies like intelligent process automation and generative AI are getting increasingly embedded applications to deliver better business process execution.
Ghosh also discussed how SAP is leveraging Chat GPT-based capabilities to expand incident reporting capabilities within EHS and asset maintenance processes. She highlighted the use of visual character recognition and language models to create incident reports, propose solutions, and make changes to future processes via continuous monitoring. Emphasising that these capabilities are being delivered today, she showcased how these AI-driven process innovations can be easily consumed by leveraging simple API constructs. She also mentioned the importance of language models for companies with global operations to ensure consistent incident reporting.
Early gains from digital transformation
With this context, the session segued into the first panel discussion, moderated by Viveka Roychowdhury, Editor, Express Pharma, with pharma CIOs and CFOs sharing their learnings on and highlighting specific areas where they have maximised the value of digital transformation.
Salesforce optimisation: Expanding on his learnings Suresh Bhise, VP-IT, JB Pharmaceuticals said the focus area of digitisation in his company continues to be automation and process optimisation, using data to get good insights, create value by increasing efficiency of capital, operational efficiencies which would help increase revenues. “We want to grow gradually on this, create value, show deliveries from the IT side to the business, and go closer to the business,” said Bhise.
Giving an example, he recounted how in the sales area, J B Pharma has created applications that have enabled the sales team to meet their targets, plan their doctor visits, utilise time spent waiting at doctor clinics to train themselves via e-learning modules, as well as pass on real-time data from chemists and distributors via apps back to the corporate team, which can then analyse the data to ensure production, marketing etc are in sync.
Shop floor automation: For Dhaval Pandya, CIO, Piramal Enterprises the focus is on increasing productivity, getting more out of investments already made and targeting the systems of engagement. In his opinion, the adoption of digitisation is much faster in these areas, with better results in the least amount of time. Hence supply chain, finance, and HR tend to become the target for intelligent automation. “Change is painful,” reasoned Pandya. “Digitalisation is painful for the people going through it but if you see the results, then you want to be part of that process.”
Bringing in experience from his past assignment in the airports sector, Hemal Shah, Head-IT, Aristo Pharma reminded how the Covid pandemic forced all sectors to accelerate their digital journeys. “Companies don’t have any opportunity if they are not automating, learning or adapting,” concluded Shah.
Finance: Speaking about how analytics can help derive value out of digitisation Lalit Kumar Singal, CFO, Macleods Pharmaceuticals recounted the finance function has to deal with millions of complex transactions like pricing validation of returned goods in strategic markets like the US. “By deploying analytical tools we could derive meaningful insights, playing a very significant role in the decision-making process,” explained Singal.
Areas of concern
Data Security: Commenting on the multiple ways life sciences companies can leverage data to not only come up with new drugs, but also different dosage forms, delivery mechanisms, and which ends up in delivering patient outcomes, Ghosh cautioned that “pharma companies have to invest a lot more in securitising the data.” Shah of Aristo Pharma agreed, commenting that “unless we adopt secure ecosystems, it’ll be very difficult for us to take the automation journey forward.”
Training: Pandya of Piramal Enterprises raised another concern saying, “As much as technology interventions are required, I think there are more process and people interventions required. So a lot of chain management and capability building is where investments are being made…The weakest link continues to remain the people. Unless and until you are training your people well enough, then the technological investments in these areas will start showing the benefits.”
Reinventing the pharma supply chain: With many challenges and changes in the Indian pharma sector over the past few years, Rahul Altekar, Director, Supply Chain Solutions, SAP asked supply chain chiefs how they are coping with the complexities and trends impacting the pharma supply chain, given that each company had to contend with both domestic and international markets, as well as the differences between branded generics and generics OTC etc.
Increasing complexity of pharma supply chains: Sreenivas Rao Nandigam, Sr VP Head – Global Supply Chain, Sun Pharma explained that from a supply chain perspective, demand planning is easier in the Indian market due to its streamlined nature, while the US market poses different challenges. Advancements in technology have made the lives of supply chain professionals easier, with tools like artificial intelligence assisting in demand forecasting and inventory allocation.
While acknowledging that the pharma industry has been a late adopter of technology, he noted that regulators and other extraneous factors make technology adoption slower. Even so, Rao said that “in the past three years, there has been an increased eagerness to adopt technology in non-core areas, such as finance and support functions.”
Given the challenges of processes like continuous manufacturing in the pharma industry, he emphasised the importance of utilising these advancements to improve efficiency.
Changing customer demands: Altekar drew attention to the changing profile of pharma customers, and asked leaders how they are dealing with the customer demands pressurising the supply chain.
Confirming this trend, Prakash Gupta, President, Global Supply Chain, Wockhardt said, “We learn a lot from the consumer.” He narrated how patients/consumers are today more informed, opinionated, and digitally inclined. They expect teleconsultations, digital prescriptions, home deliveries within hours, and lower costs.
To address these demands, Gupta said the supply chain department needs to adopt online deliveries, engage with doctors and patients through influencers, and expand distribution to midtowns and rural areas.
In this section, the speaker discusses the changing landscape of the pharma industry, highlighting the shift towards online distribution and faster delivery times.
Altekar compared the pharma industry to a quick-service restaurant, where customers expect to receive their orders in one hour!
Gupta also mentioned the upcoming online trade revolution in India, which he believes will happen within the next five years, rather than 10.
The need for speed: Drawing on his experience across sectors and pharma clients, Ashit Saxena, Partner – PWC highlighted that the pharma industry now has to be faster in everything that they do, whether it is R&D, procurement or supply chain.
Unfortunately, the supply chain as a whole function is viewed as a cost. Thus from a supply chain management perspective, Saxena emphasised the need for faster processes, lower costs, while maintaining high-quality standards and safety. He stressed the importance of doing things better and improving efficiency throughout the supply chain.
The sustainability angle
Additionally, “while pharma companies need to do things faster, better, cheaper, they also need to think of sustainability within the supply chain,” cautioned Saxena. For instance, he highlighted the need to responsibly dispose of chemicals and packaging materials, while exploring circularity in the supply chain.
Tech beyond IT: Beyond the role of technology, such as AI and machine learning, in improving processes and efficiency, Saxena encouraged pharma companies to understand emerging trends in technology and leverage them to be faster, better, and cheaper. For example, 3D printing spare parts and using variables to contact supervisors in maintenance.
Reducing time to service: Altekar asked how pharma supply chain heads were dealing with another imperative: the importance of reducing time to service. Comparing it to other industries like automotive and consumer and personal consumer packaged goods (CPG) where freezing durations are much shorter.
Wockhardt’s Gupta narrated how they have managed the challenges of demand forecasting and production in the pharma industry and succeeded in reducing the production cycle from 30 days to seven days, by implementing changes such as multi-sourcing and collaboration with suppliers to increase flexibility.
He also highlighted the importance of communication and interaction between the business teams and manufacturing teams to adjust production based on real-time demand. Summing up, Gupta said they are making efforts to improve agility and inventory management to meet customer expectations for timely deliveries.
Saxena described the efforts made by a pharma client to build a supply chain control tower to improve visibility and real-time decision-making, which resulted in agility and reduction in production frozen time.
Adopting best practices from other sectors
Throwing up cross-industry examples, Saxena suggested that the pharma industry should benchmark itself against other industries and adopt practices from them. While he acknowledged that regulatory pressures may sometimes contribute to inefficiencies within the sector, he specifically mentioned the example of aviation where engine failure during flight is not acceptable, drawing a parallel to critical machines in API plants.
Similarly, Saxena narrated how the pharma sector could look to the consumer goods industry, to improve its supply chain. He mentioned the concept of just-in-time (JIT) inventory, visibility with suppliers and customers, and better forecasting.
He also emphasised the need for understanding the cost of machine stoppages and the potential for supplier consolidation and highlighted the importance of continuously improving and looking outwards for inspiration to become a more efficient and effective industry.
Altekar summed up, emphasising the importance of locating flexibilities and exploiting them while respecting rigidities and compliances to become more like a consumer packaged goods (CPG) company.
Need to reinvent the pharma S&OP process
Sun Pharma’s Rao believes that it is now time to reinvent the Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP) process in the pharma industry. He explained that in the past, inefficiencies were tolerated because the industry was profitable, but now with shrinking margins and increased customer demands, there is a need for greater efficiency.
He suggested that digital tools can play a crucial role in digitising the process and creating a business case to demonstrate the value they can bring. He emphasised the importance of making a hard pitch and showing how these tools can save both effort and money. Additionally, he mentioned that in his company, the responsibility for the S&OP meetings lies with a neutral department called the strategy and analytics cell, highlighting the need for an independent view on demand and supply balancing.
Discussing the importance of the S&OP, he stated that it should be an independent entity under the MD’s or CEO’s office. Noting that in India, the focus is mainly on demand and supply balancing, and topics like analytics and return goods are not widely discussed, Rao emphasised the need for the Indian pharma sector to have the right mindset and culture to adopt SNOP and create effective organisations.
The way ahead
To sum up, current digital transformation trends in the pharma industry span the increasing role of process automation in improving manufacturing efficiency, digitalisation’s impact on field force engagement, and the importance of vendor management and supply chain planning.
There is also a need for self-reflection and honesty in assessing technology adoption. There also needs to be an emphasis on the importance of people and process changes alongside technology in driving better predictability and delivering positive health outcomes for patients.
- Security is a key concern as applications move to the cloud. Investments in secure environments and disaster recovery management infrastructure is pivotal
- Aligning procurement policies with vendor quality and performance is crucial
- Training and capability building for employees are vital alongside technology interventions
- AI and machine learning, is helping with demand forecasting, inventory allocation, and overall supply chain management
- The SoPs in pharma need reinvention with digital tools to optimise cost and efforts
- Life sciences industry must benchmark against other industries and adopt best practices for digital transformation
- Regulatory pressures and compliance requirements are impacting technology adoption