top of page

The Digital Culture Wars

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Words by Michaila Byrne

As Bob Dylan declared in his anthem for a generation, the times are a-changin’. In this technological revolution, the sentiment rings as true today as it did back in the swinging sixties and as the culture wars rage on and partisan politics dominate the headlines, one thing we are all able to unite around is the certain prospect of a digital future. The pharmaceutical industry’s initial resistance and trepidation when it came to adopting digital technology is in decline, but how can the industry encourage agile mindsets and create a sustainable culture that integrates digital transformation within organisations and unites people under a common purpose?

“The pandemic has been the fastest catalyst of change we could have anticipated,” says Karan Arora, Chief Commercial Digital Officer, Global Vice President, AstraZeneca. These digital tools have long been at our disposal, but it was a global pandemic that served as the impetus to fundamentally change our approach to and acceptance of them. Mo Fors, Head of Global Commercial Digital Innovation, Almirall, reflects: “We misinterpreted the future and pharma didn’t succeed in creating the right infrastructure for the future. Most clinical trials stopped because we didn’t have investment in virtual clinical trials.” In essence, it was an overcoming of cultural obstacles that was required for digital mindsets to be adopted within the industry, proving that we could have arrived here much sooner.

As Nikos Georgiades, Senior Vice President, Global Head of Digital Commercial Execution, Novartis, puts it: “We all need to go through change management and change curves when new things appear in our world… even though we all recognise and see that change is happening, how we interpret it varies quite a lot.”

Naturally, we don’t want to be relying on unpredictable external forces to jumpstart change, so how can pharma motivate employees to internalise a digital mindset? Francesca Wuttke, Chief Digital Officer, Almirall, advises: “Having much more of a start-up mentality: an entrepreneurial mindset, versus more of a traditional corporate pharma one, is certainly going to serve us well in the future.” Creating a culture in which mistakes are allowed to be made and in which failure is viewed as an inevitable by-product of experimentation and measured risk-taking is fundamental to true innovation. She continues: “We need to adopt a mindset of experimentation, and at its core, that is what our industry should be all about. We need to try things, fail, and talk about those failures.”

An entrepreneurial mindset, versus more of a traditional corporate pharma one, is certainly going to serve us well in the future

But an internal culture shift and individual buy-in is a crucial step that cannot be neglected. As Erasmus Holm, CMO and Lead, Digital Transformation, Nordics, MSD, confirms: “For me, the first part of agile would be output, culture, and environment. Then we can go into innovation.” Although speed is important, Holm advises against pharma constantly comparing itself to Silicon Valley start-ups or tech giants like Amazon and Netflix who aren’t really pharma’s competitors: “Big companies want to be like start-ups and start-ups want to be like big companies.”

Becoming digitally transformed takes more than just action; rather it is about individual mindsets permeating the wider culture and taking pharma over that tipping point into digital revolution. Perhaps pharma can take heed of the late, great David Bowie’s advice in his anthem Changes, to once and for all ‘turn and face the strange’…

bottom of page