Innovation Regulation

I started my career nearly a quarter of a century ago at Boehringer Ingelheim. A 4-year stint in marketing and market research taught me so much and gave me an invaluable start, but left me frustrated, and wondering if the scale of these big pharma organisations, their structure, their history and their regulations would ever allow true innovative thinking to flourish.

Fast forward 20 years, and having spent most of the intervening period working pharma agency side with a focus on digital and technology innovation, pockets of progress along the way did little to fuel the fire of my expectations!

So, when I joined GSK 9 months ago I asked myself 2 big questions;

  1. What really makes pharma so slow to adopt innovative ways of thinking?

  2. Is pharma aware of the changing world around them and doing something about it?


Why so slow? The Big Bus

I’m in a global role at one of the bigger pharma companies, and only now do I appreciate the sheer scale of these operations. People who work in pharma companies are busy. They’re busy because they are working on multiple projects at once, and each project has multiple stakeholders involved in it from multiple parts of the business. Some of these projects can feel trivial especially to observers from outside, but of course they’re important to the people involved and are all building blocks of organisations that continue to be successful and highly profitable despite our challenging and changing times.

History, structure and regulations (especially) still weigh heavily and in many cases rightly so, but I almost sense the biggest factor behind the ‘slow’ façade is the word project itself. Without necessarily labelling it, big pharma has always employed a Waterfall approach to how it does business and how it runs projects. This works for pharma and fits with their DNA, but its rigid structure can enable a slow pace of progress.


Addressing the changing world. The Big (Bendy) Bus

Pharma has embraced digital and innovation, I don’t think anyone would disagree, but it is also fair to say that to date they have done so at a somewhat slow and steady pace compared with many other business sectors.

Looking out from the inside now, I must say that awareness of the changing world is high and that this is married with a commitment to change and innovate along with it.

New partnerships are being formed, expertise is being brought in from outside pharma and innovation hubs are everywhere to be seen. The biggest change for me though goes back to that word project.

‘Agile’ is a term that has been around for a long time now, but one I really see taking roots now….and the right roots at that! No longer just seen as a ‘techy’ way of running projects, but seen as the ethos it should be running through a business. A way of working that allows flexible thinking to flourish and a test & learn approach to be applauded.

This is leading to a real change in the pace that digital and innovation is being embraced by pharma, and I think everyone involved in the industry should be excited about this. From the very top, pharma is beginning to embrace this new way of thinking. It will take time. The front of the bus is already bendy, but I believe the rest will catch on sooner than you might think!

Colin Williams is Global Channel Manager, Email Marketing at GSK and a long standing executive committee member of the PM Society