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Next-gen workforce for a digital era

The need for the right people in the right place has emerged as one of the principal drivers of success in the digital era, making it exigent for pharma companies to redraw their strategies for talent acquisition and retention

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The tectonic shift in the pharma industry, driven by digitalisation, demands newer operating models and capabilities for companies to remain relevant and competitive. A KPMG report, titled ‘Pharma outlook 2030: From evolution to revolution,’ clearly outlines, “The pharma sector is at a crossroads. In a heavily disrupted marketplace, characterised by shifting payer attitudes and patient empowerment, neither incremental adjustments nor steady evolution are likely to halt the decline of the traditional pharma business model….Catalysed by an exciting range of new, disruptive technologies, the pharma industry needs to reimagine its future.”

This, in turn, necessitates the creation of a workforce with fresh ideas, more agility and specialised skills which haven’t been optimally utilised heretofore. The need for the right people in the right place has emerged as one of the principal drivers of success, making it exigent for pharma companies to redraw their strategies for talent acquisition and retention to thrive in future which will comprise both unprecedented opportunities and challenges.

As Jeff Elton, Managing Director of Accenture Life Sciences puts it, “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.”

So, which skills will be pivotal for progress? Let’s examine.

Pharma worforce of tomorrow
‘Digital-first’ mindset: Digitalisation is bringing about a sweeping transformation in the pharma industry. As a result, the nature of work in the industry is undergoing a sea change and a tech-savvy, digitally enabled workforce will be crucial for sustained development of the sector. Sumit Kumar, VP – NETAP, TeamLease Services explains, “Digitisation is a key skill which is changing the traditional styles of working for more efficiency, business transformation and competitive advantage. Be it research, consumer experience/engagement through digital wearable devices for effective decision making, sales efficiency through customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, using e-commerce platform as an additional sales channel or IOT bringing in efficiency in supply chain and manufacturing, digital skills have become a hygiene factor for hiring people across functions.”

Yashwant Mahadik

Yashwant Mahadik, President – Global HR, Lupin, reiterates, “Real-time information, combined with new models of healthcare delivery, requires pharma companies to utilise data in a better manner to develop and market new drugs. Therefore, pharma companies must adopt a hybrid approach by hiring individual digital champions and building a digital center of excellence. The power of digital can be unleashed across the organisation if it is woven across functions.”

Providing more details, Khushbu Jain, Industry Analyst, Transformational Health (Healthcare) Practice, Frost & Sullivan informs, “While automation and digitalisation have eliminated jobs requiring manual handling, it has also created a need for professionals who can work with automated systems. We are still working with hybrid models and have not achieved 100 per cent automation, and therefore, a mix of skills is required.”

Dr Sunil Singh

“There is a need for talent at the upper as well as lower echelons of the organisation to have a digital-first mindset. Larger pharma companies like GSK, Novartis, Sanofi, Takeda, Bayer have already set the momentum by hiring Chief Digital Officers to embrace and fuel the digital revolution”, she adds. Analytical abilities: “Future operating models will view and incorporate data as DNA, the fundamental ingredient for the entire organisation, governed by a top-down mandate and actively supported by every employee. As the pace of change accelerates, dramatically expanded and continually renewed data will become vital to survive. It will be key to enabling pharma leaders and individual employees to make the best decisions at optimal speed,” states an OPPI report on ‘Workforce of the Future’.

And, it seems that this statement is already coming true, especially in pharma R&D. As R&D expert, Dr Ajit Rangnekar, Director General, Research and Innovation Circle of Hyderabad Partner, SVP India, informs, “A quick search of literature shows that technology companies are aggressively building new competencies in the life sciences space. These companies already provide crucial input by leveraging new technologies such as AI, cloud-based platforms, machine learning, cognitive technology and wearables.” He cites the following examples to indicate the growing use of data and analytics in pharma:

Khushbu Jain

1. IBM’s cloud-based platform for drug discovery launched in December 2016. The platform uses deep learning, natural language processing and cognitive technology to support researchers in new drug discovery. Pfizer is using the platform in immuno-oncology research and also in recruiting patients for clinical trials.

2. Microsoft launched Project Hanover in September 2016, which uses AI to create a genome-scale database to treat cancer. The database uses machine learning to personalise the drugs to be utilised on a patient-by-patient basis.

3. Verily Life Sciences launched a wristwatch called Study Watch in 2017, which will help gather health data during clinical studies. The data captured will be used to identify patterns in the progression of Parkinson’s disease and research for possible solutions. Thus, a data-driven mindset and analytical capabilities will be very significant for pharma R&D professionals of today and tomorrow.

However, Dr Sunil Singh, CHRO, Cadila Pharma also outlines the need for these capabilities across functions and states, “Since it’s a customer facing job, the professionals need to be smart and quick in their decisions and analysis. They need to be able to analyse any situation and come to a conclusion which is beneficial for the company.”

Sumit Kumar

Jain reiterates these views and states, “Data curating, processing and generating actionable insights is a skill required for every single individual in the organisation. This translates into proficiency with analytical tools and does not stop at modelling data but also extends to generating insights,” Mahadik continues that line of thought and opines that analytical skills will support technology adoption successfully and enable leaders as well as individuals to interpret trends and gain relevant insights. This, in turn, will help them take the best decisions at an optimal speed. Therefore, he recommends that recruitment processes should identify and test analytical abilities of potential talent. Additionally, existing talent must be empowered with relevant training to utilise analytical tools better.

Stronger IP and regulatory expertise: Aspects like IPR, R&D incentives, pricing and access to medicines etc are closely linked and very central to success in an industry as complex and regulated as the pharma industry. Therefore, individuals with sound understanding and knowledge of these areas will be coveted by pharma companies across the globe as they explore newer models for sustainable R&D output and growth in international markets.

As Kamal Dutta, MD, Skillsoft India explains, “Talent with the right skills can prove to be very useful in product innovation, current research and development, both of which are intrinsic to the financial development of companies operating in the pharma space.”

Kamal Dutta

“The need for deeper science understanding – be it therapy areas like immuno-oncology or platforms like microbiome, or be it advanced solutions like cell and gene – the demand for clinical scientists who can think beyond the traditional paradigm of science is very high. Thus, stronger IP knowledge to work in an open innovation setting and global regulatory expertise to grow across regions and geographies will also have immense value.” She also accentuates that the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams and interface with external stakeholder like regulatory agencies, outsourcing partners (CRO/CDMO), and third party vendors like ICT companies will be a vital skill in times to come,” enlightens Jain.

Mahadik expounds, “In the near term, what we see happening is clinical trials and drug development moving to the virtual world. In the long term, we will see personalised drugs being delivered to our doorsteps and 3D printing transforming the way drugs are being delivered.” Therefore, companies can stay nimble and can adapt to the changes by building a forward-thinking workforce – a combination of digitally evolved and knowledge driven individuals, he adds.

Dr Singh apprises, “With increase in globalisation, pharma companies need to be well prepared for international markets and its regulations. Any pharma company needs to now work in international markets in addition to domestic markets. This requires a global workforce. It is always advisable to have talents who have worked abroad or have an experience of dealing in international markets. This gives a wider perspective and experience to the team.”

Relationship management skills: There will be a significant change in the way medical reps (MR) of the future will create, evolve and maintain customer relationships. They will have to transform into relationship managers and adopt more consultative approaches which will be centered on problem-solving to enable better engagement with consumers and effective brand building.

Ajit Rangnekar

Mahadik puts it very succinctly as he says, “People who work on establishing a strong relationship stand a better chance of being able to convert deals while maintaining the trust of the consumer. It is no longer about ‘selling a pill’, it is about helping doctors ‘establish a rapport with their patients’ and helping patients to better ‘manage their disease’.” He also informs that medical representatives of pharma companies will henceforth have to support doctors through training, education, engagement, product availability and compliance to enable them to provide better services to their patients.

Supporting this point of view, Dr Singh elaborates, “Pharma industry is a competitive one. The whole business revolves around the direct relation one has with the customers i.e. doctors. The industry has thousand companies operating, working with the same products. It becomes difficult to make a niche for your product. So engagement and relationship management with the customer becomes a necessary skill. A professional who can have long term relationships with the customers is an asset.”

Soft skills matter
At the same time, the role of soft skills will also become very important to enable life sciences businesses to thrive and flourish. Here is a list of the soft skills that our above mentioned experts believe would be vital for pharma professionals of the future.

1. Good communication skills – Experts unanimously claims that as the pharma sector evolves and becomes more customer-centric and patient-centric, good communication skills will be an important marker of success. Therefore, it is important for pharma employees to be able to communicate their ideas effectively and precisely.

2. Design thinking- To make an industry agile and responsive, its workforce needs to adaptable and growth-oriented. Varied experience, an open mind, innovative thinking and an ability to overcome change and uncertainty will be imperatives for people who want to grow and succeed in the life sciences sector.

3. Learning agility – Continuous learning is necessary for any professional’s growth. Hence, the industry would need professionals with a growth mindset, individuals who are ready to constantly upgrade their existing skill sets and empower themselves through various training and development opportunities offered to them.

4. Empathy: This is a very critical ability for professionals of the pharma sector who deal with disease management. Therefore, as patient-centricity takes centre-stage, employees of the future must add value to a doctor or a patient’s life with their ability to find identify and come up with solutions to problems that hinder progress.

5. Ethical conduct: Though an understated skill, experts underline that ethical conduct is very crucial in this era of data integrity and increased limelight on pharma engagement with stakeholders.

Strategising to be future-ready
Thus, as Jain points out, “Competing trends like value-based care, pricing pressure and thus, pressure on pharma profitability, patient-centricity, open innovation, virtual pharma coming to the fore, industry consolidation, etc. are catalysing the evolution of skills.” So, how are pharma companies making their work-force future proof? What are the strategies that life science employers have adopted or should consider adopting to identify, develop and retain necessary talent?

Let’s see what our experts have to say on these aspects.

In an earlier article, Thammaiah BN, MD, Kelly Services India outlines, “Talent acquisition, defining jobs and roles and the company’s business strategy go hand in hand. Even before setting out to acquire talent, companies should ensure that they have proper systems and processes are in place, while jobs and roles of each department and individuals are well defined and documented.”

Elaborating further, Dr Singh states, “The best strategy to ensure a future ready workforce is to create employees who can adapt to change. Therefore, it is necessary to move the employees early in their careers as they become resistant to change later. The next strategy will be to create diversity in the workforce. A diverse workforce will lead to a diverse culture in the organisation.”

“Employing strategies such as talent management and talent mapping where we identify critical competencies to help them grow to the next level can encourage them to stay in the system. Encouraging initiatives from the members should be made a part of the culture. Newer development and learning programmes can be made available for the workforce to make them relevant in the changing times. Customised training programmes with timely interventions according to the skills of the employees should be incorporated to build their capabilities and help them grow. A learning environment is one of the major factors in retention of talent,” he adds.

Mahadik opines, “Help individuals accelerate their careers by training them and empowering them to stay relevant and succeed. However, re-skilling should go beyond just training – especially for those who have held a certain role/job title for years. Organisations should encourage a sideways move and support employees on their journey. An example of re-skilling that I came across in a 2019 KPMG report: Global telecommunications giant AT&T has been involved in a massive, company-wide program to re-skill 100,000 employees to enable them to take on newly created roles.” “In addition to looking at re-skilling the existing employees, companies can work on creating partnerships with academia to have access to students and new research. They can also explore collaboration with other companies to pool combined talent,” he further informs.

Jain believes that pharma companies will have to strike the balance between pooling forces for the immediate requirement as well for future requirements. She says, “While hiring and reskilling for immediate requirement has been the norm, investing in workforce of the future like training on AI/ML/VR/digital twins, Blockchain, IIoT platforms are very crucial. This will create a streamlined adoption path for new technologies, and allow companies to stay nimble with the fast pace of technology change. Pharma will have to ensure percolation of the concept of patient-centricity across the organisational chain, be it designing patient-friendly doses in the R&D lab, or be it retaining the patients during clinical trials or ensuring medication adherence post commercialisation. Companies will also have to train employees on mastering the virtual communication and collaboration skills, to be able to work in multi-site settings across the multi-cultural and multi-lingual workforce.”

Detailing further, she explains, “While there is merit in sourcing talent from other industries (Merck from Nike, GSK From Google, Novartis from Sainsbury), which are more advanced in terms of digital adoption and exposure, it will be of paramount importance to break silos between digital talent, scientific talent, and sales talent. It is the gestalt of skills that will serve as a differentiator in the future. This will require the reskilling of resources, introducing transparency in operations and establishing a common vision that drives the entire organisation. Pharma also needs to engage fast and engage early with academia for inculcating transferrable skills in the future resource pool, for e.g. academically inclined scientists understanding the business case, the design need of ideas etc.”

Rangnekar suggests, “The most important recognition is that, in future, companies do not need to have all the talent themselves. Specialist talent will be scarce, and expensive, but available to be brought in to work on a project. Working with multiple external players simultaneously will be the most dominant strategy. That will also need strategies to protect and properly value their own, and others’ IP, and negotiate complex development projects. They will also develop different financial rewards schemes, as in house staff work with external players to minimise the risk, access know how and fund the new developments.”

Thammaiah opines, “As the industry takes strides towards innovation and new drug development from being a bulk drug and generics oriented market, the career opportunity is immense. In a corporate world that is more unpredictable than ever, the pharma companies that are agile and super-responsive, powered by an inspired work ecosystem, will be the successful organisations of the future.”

Luckily, it seems that the pharma sector has already woken up to these realities and have started engaging several activities which will help them build a strong workforce for the future. Kumar informs, “Employers are looking beyond local territories to identify talent and bring in diversity of knowledge, experience and culture to promote creativity and innovation. Structured, blended, learning programmes are being designed to gain and apply knowledge at work place to enhance productivity and develop talent at entry and lateral levels. Likewise, retaining talent is a concern for any organisation. Therefore, there is increased investment in social capital by aligning human capital with the values and vision of the organisation.”

It is clear that as businesses become more nimble, skill sets need to evolve. And, whether it is about acquiring talent or engineering the skills of the workforce, it has become imperative for pharma companies to align their talent strategy with their future growth plans.

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