The importance of mindset and company culture to enable digital transformation in pharma.

Top 5 Takeaways

  1. Start with defining and understanding the traditional roadblocks of digital transformation in your organisation and include medical affairs in the process at the right stage.
  2. Assemble the right leadership team to define your cultural imperatives.
  3. Communicate your cultural imperatives frequently and clearly.
  4. Focus on people, agility and changing the mindsets of your staff across all departments.
  5. Embed training to support the process and use it to support an ‘always-be-learning’ mindset.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on the pharmaceutical sector’s ability to develop potential vaccines and new treatments at speed, what are the challenges of digital transformation in the industry? Is there a business case for a revolutionary shift in culture, business models and mindset to enable digital transformation to happen?

It is useful, when evaluating digital transformation, to understand the current maturity of digitalisation. McKinsey has a proprietary assessment tool for diagnosing a company’s digital maturity called the ‘Digital Quotient’ (DQ).

This research evaluated how 100 digital leaders perform across 18 common practices spanning four dimensions:

  • strategy
  • capabilities
  • organisation and
  • culture across 200 countries.

The pharma industry scored 27 against an average of 33, lagging behind highly regulated industries such as banking (32) and insurance (31).

Given the enormous investment in new technologies, digital and agile training and appointments of Chief Digital Officers, why is pharma struggling to adapt to a digital world?

“As we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be the primary role of pharma leadership to foster the right culture for individuals and teams to extract the full benefit of successful digital transformation in the future”

Understand complexity and regulation

The first challenge is understanding the unique complexity of industry. Starting with the basic business of research and development, the manufacturing, distribution and logistics, legal, regulatory, corporate governance, financial, business management and, of course, sales and marketing, this complexity can place an immediate destabilising block into any well-intentioned transformation project as each stage needs regulatory approval.

One solution is to integrate digital approval at every stage to mitigate delay. This approach is adopted by Bayer, as Sam Pinner, Multi-Channel Marketing Lead, explained: “We identified regulation as having a massive bearing with any digital transformation project, so we have addressed this by embedding a medic at the beginning of the digital process to ensure speedy sign off. This has really sped up the approval process.”

Medical affairs teams are an increasingly critical part in digitalisation and speeding up approval, consider whether you are leveraging their full potential across all stages.

Creating the right culture

Another key contributor is cultural agility. Every company has its own culture; unwritten rules, norms, history and values that influence people in its own unique way.

The often-repeated adage ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is incredibly relevant to pharma. Change managers can design a digital transformation effort to the tee, but if the organisation doesn’t possess the right environment and culture to nurture it, then the effort can be lost.

Some commentators argue that culturally pharma and healthcare are relatively resistant to change due to an historic tendency to subscribe to evidence-based reasoning. For example, if they cannot see exactly how a new tool or process will help them take better care of patients, they might believe it’s not worth implementing.

This is where agile working and cultivating adaptable mindsets is so important. This is a view endorsed by Digital Strategist Tinkara Pavlovcic Kapitanovic: “Agile and agile thinking across the company is the most important skill for digitalisation to happen.”

Another challenge is reframing staff mindsets to get used to more frequent levels of uncertainty. The current pandemic will provide invaluable lessons and pharma leaders must prepare for future major events like COVID-19 while still adapting, innovating and improving.


Related to culture is people. Too often the emphasis with digital transformation can default to conversations around new technology, automation and processes. Perhaps the greatest challenge of any transformation project is the people. Transformation requires teams to come out of their siloed mode of operations, collaborate, and trust each other to deliver on their commitments. My experience of designing digital disruption programmes is shaped around embedding agile staff mindsets at incremental stages before examining technical solutions. Many companies in regulated industries over-engineer the technical part of digitalisation, squeezing out all the uncertainty. However, empowering individuals to manage uncertainty is an essential ingredient of digital transformation.

Training as a key part of digital transformation in pharma

Supporting training and promoting an ‘always-be-learning’ mindset must be embedded into the change aspect of any transformation project. A proper training programme offers an opportunity to shape the minds of key stakeholders and provides the right framework to engender speed whilst helping to smooth over roadblocks.

Bayer’s Sam Pinner supports the importance of constant training: “We have definitely experienced and observed changes in people’s mindset and approach to digital across the business as a result of training, and the digital team is now far more agile and collaborative.” This takes time and leaders should allow those who will be using the tool to become accustomed to using it.

Gaurav Sanganee, Customer Excellence Manager from Boehringer Ingelheim, recommends small proof of concept tests for learning and progressing larger digital transformation projects. “An agile learning mindset is important to drive success. Learning through small test and learn scenarios is the way forward in driving a digital transformation mindset, as small wins start to add up and drive momentum. While having something as tangible as a clear and concise ‘lessons learned’ log post, project implementation can also help to share collective experiences with the wider group and is something worth adopting from industries such as aviation and the armed forces.”

In pharma, successful digital transformation projects are less about technology and more about cultural shift and transforming staff mindsets. When we emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be leadership’s primary role to foster the right culture to extract the full benefit of successful digital transformation.

David Reilly is Managing Director of Let’s Learn Digital, educating and inspiring business in digital and emerging technologies. Go to

Source: McKinsey & Company, Closing the digital gap in pharma

Tinkara Pavlovcic Kapitanovic’s comment is given as her personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.

Read more articles from the June issue of Pf Magazine.