Digitalisation: moving past paperless

Updated: May 10

Words by Jade Williams

The pharmaceutical industry is on the cusp of truly embracing digital. How can businesses drive digital transformation beyond the pandemic and use their experience to digitise their internal processes?


Digital transformation was a key consideration during the course of the pandemic. For the pharmaceutical industry, moving business operations to the online world was essential in keeping stakeholders engaged, and it additionally proved that digital innovation can be positive for both patient and commercial outcomes. But has internal digital transformation caught up with the outward-facing progress that has been witnessed?


While the pharma industry has certainly taken leaps and bounds toward creating digital tools and solutions for external stakeholders, there is still some way to go in turning often archaic internal processes and systems into efficient digital alternatives. How can pharma harness the benefits of digitalisation and bring its learnings from the external world within?


Late to the game?


The development of digital solutions for older systems pays dividends in terms of streamlining workflows, boosting efficiencies and enhancing security. Certainly, analog and manual systems are a distant memory – gone are the days of rifling through folders of physical documents to find a specific page – but while most pharma companies are not drowning in piles upon piles of paper, many still have a way to go to achieve true digitalisation.


About “half of all pharma companies are at the starting gate of fully digitalising”, states James Choi, Executive Vice President, Chief Information and Marketing Officer, Head of Global Public Relations and Process Improvement, Samsung Biologics, at NEXT Pharma Summit’s ‘NEXT Normal: Pharma digital and commercial excellence’ event. And according to a McKinsey report on digitalisation scores, pharma placed second-to-last among a breadth of industries in its ability to wholly embrace digital practices – something Choi notes must be improved upon.


Going beyond paperless


Choi further comments that pharma companies are not necessarily approaching digitalisation in the correct way, suggesting that they are simply going paperless rather than truly digital. A traditional paperless approach, for example, will look at lengthy processes and stacks of pages and say, “why not convert all of this to an electronic means of operation” and collect “end user requirements that go into the functional and technical specifications [of the new system]?” Choi explains.


However, rather than collecting user requirements, Choi recommends gathering business requirements for one simple reason: users tend to manually replicate their paper-based processes into an electronic procedure, simply converting to digital files and not saving any time or effort, hence achieving paperless rather than digital status.


When considering digitalisation, Choi suggests a four-step approach for success: simplify, optimise, automate, outsource. He proposes that companies “start with a process, and then simplify that process to really evaluate the cost versus the value that is earned with every step”. Some legacy processes that were put in place before the pandemic may no longer be relevant and could be streamlined and synthesised through digitalisation for the post-pandemic world, for example. There may be countless examples where a simple automated process could replace multiple manual processes, and companies must do more than just replace the pen with the keyboard.


Pick a problem


Although enthusiasm for change can be pivotally important to a company fully embracing digitalisation, there are some cautionary steps to take along the way. Also speaking at the event was Francesca Wuttke, Founder and CEO, Nen, who states that companies must be wary not to buy into software simply for the sake of it. “If you innovate without a business case you are likely to face a lot of internal bureaucracy, as you are not going to get that right level of buy-in,” she says. Usually, when adopting new software or processes, employee buy-in is obtained when a technology offers the chance to reclaim precious time. If the new software introduced is not in fact necessary, and does not automate a process, the benefits are left as theoretical.


Choi suggests a four-step approach for success: simplify, optimise, automate, outsource

“If you start this process without really knowing the problem you are going to solve, you will waste a lot of time and resources on both sides,” comments Orchid Jahanshahi, Vice President, Life Sciences, ODAIA, speaking at the same event. To avoid not only failed adoption, but also wasted investment, companies must adopt digital solutions as a problem-solving tool exclusively.


Dealing with digital fatigue

Evolving digital models past the pandemic is not a one-size-fits-all procedure and will require teams to look internally at their processes and see where opportunities for digitalisation lie. Also appearing at the NEXT Normal event, Renée Amundsen, Vice President, Global Head of Business Innovation, Merck Group, conveys the idea that people grew tired of the constant adoption of new digital processes during lockdown.

“If we go back to when the pandemic hit, there was a huge digital appetite, however mid-last year we saw, all of a sudden, huge levels of digital fatigue,” explains Amundsen. Citing examples from healthcare professional engagement and their desire to return to face-to-face interactions, she asks: “Why did we reach this digital saturation point?” This same question can be applied internally within pharma companies, too. Just as customers were becoming disengaged with digital communications, employees became tired of the consistent onslaught of new digital procedures.


Half of all pharma companies are at the starting gate of fully digitalising

Finding the right balance between the digital improvement of processes and employee morale can be a tough task, but it is one that pharma companies must strive to achieve. Amundsen comments that “digital transformation is much more complex than just technical enablement”, and supporting employees when new platforms and procedures are launched is imperative to company cohesion and, ultimately, the success of the digital technology.


Pharma’s leaps of progress taken over the pandemic were key to catching up with the levels of innovation enjoyed by other industries. But there are plenty more treacherous jumps that must be landed to ensure tired processes are transformed into sophisticated digital systems fit for the post-pandemic world.

This article features in GOLD 21 – read the full issue here.