Can Cross-Functional Leaders Competently Embrace Digital Innovation?

Is your company focused on accelerating digital transformation to become more patient-centric? That’s a rhetorical question since the life sciences industry has clearly established digital innovation as a business priority.

Digital innovation runs the gamut, from marketing tactics (e.g., apps, websites, digital communities) to relationships with providers/healthcare systems (e.g., EHR). From co-marketing opportunities with digital modalities to non-traditional relationships (e.g., Samsung)—and the creation of entirely new products.

Yet, not every company is equally prepared to move forward and launch new products to capitalize on the digital space. Indeed, a maturity continuum for digital innovation, when studied, can be instructional to the smallest and largest of companies in life sciences.

Debra Loggia, VP, Client Strategy at FFW Agency, describes three digital maturity levels:

  • Companies representing best-in-class digital transformation have infused digital throughout the organization. Disruption is viewed as an opportunity to create new value—and failure is accepted with lessons learned applied.
  • Companies with an established digital presence have defined a clear digital roadmap, and the organization is fully aligned on what needs to be done.
  • Companies that continue to be challenged in the digital space are still focused on an existing, traditional business model, a lack a common vision, and have internal challenges that prevent them from moving forward.

To go from challenged to best-in-class, companies must tackle multiple factors including strategy and growth; customer experience; supply chain and operations; technology; risk and cybersecurity; finance, legal, and tax; organization structure; as well as the type of people who work for them and who they hire in the future.

But don’t be daunted by this long list of factors. One foundational step that small and large companies can take: Starting today, nurture digital innovation by fostering cross-functional team collaboration built on trust. Indeed, members of effective digital teams must demonstrate specific competencies for enhancing reliability, credibility, openness (intimacy), and personal orientation—the foundations for trust.

The Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) hosted an evening event at Purdue Pharma to address how cross-functional team leaders can foster a trusting and collaborative mindset. As panel moderator, I had the opportunity to ask Loggia and three other experts to share their points of view on how to create cohesive cross-functional teams that trust one another. Three cross-funtional best practices include:

1. Collaborate to Embed Compliance into the Business

Panelist Sunitha Ramamurthy, Executive Director, Office of Ethics and Compliance, Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) Pharmaceuticals, Inc., shared a business case for the launch of a first-of-its-kind commercial partnership. The initiative aims to use digital health tools and services to help people living with COPD better manage their disease. BI has partnered with Propeller Health to evaluate how the digital tool impacts adherence rates and patient engagement with BI’s Respimat inhaler.

BI established a cross-functional model to enable functions such as legal, regulatory, and compliance to co-develop this initiative with the business team. The advice of these “supporting” functions was sought from the onset of the concept to the end, rather than the historical approach—engaging these professionals reactively. “There are numerous complexities and challenges with these types of digital initiatives: Compliance, regulatory, legal, and medical must be part of the solution,” states Ramamurthy.

2. Rethink Promotional Review

Members of trusting, collaborative cross-functional teams understand basic regulatory compliance requirements. Professionals who don’t master these government basics become impediments to efficiency and agility as new digital terrain is explored. It’s harder to contain judgments, impatience, and frustration when obviously non-compliant ideas are recommended or when new ideas are squashed without brainstorming ways to bring them into compliance.

“Creative can crash and burn under legal-medical review,” adds panelist Lori Goldberg, CEO, Silverlight Digital, a boutique digital media agency. “Developing transparency between all constituents emboldens team members to clearly understand campaign risks and nuances, earning a better outcome.”

3. Foster External Partnerships

Panelist Dr. Françoise Simon, Professor Emerita, Columbia University and Senior Faculty Member, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, analyzes digital innovation strategies in her new book, Managing Biotechnology: From Science to Market in the Digital Age (Wiley). She points to external collaboration for companies that want to be patient centric.

“In the past few years, information technology companies have rapidly entered the health space in a new convergence that presents both an opportunity and a potential threat for biopharma firms,” explains Dr. Simon. “In R&D, digital tools can optimize the development of targeted therapies, speed up clinical trial enrollment, and integrate patient-reported outcomes into clinical data. At the commercial end, these tools may allow a deeper integration of the customer voice, from product co-creation to post-launch communications, and they can help collect real-world evidence to prove value.”

Dr. Simon concludes, “What this convergence demands is the ability for companies to not only partner internally, but externally as well by identifying patient opinion leaders and obtaining their input through research and development, and collaborating with online patient communities.“

HBA and Cross-Functional Leadership Competency

According to Liz Coyle, HBA EVP, the association is building a competency toolbox for its corporate members to herald a new dynamic for the industry. “Our association is keenly aware that industry leaders must master cross-functional alignment for digital transformation.” HBA understands the unique set of competencies to achieve this. For example, healthcare professionals must be able to:

Recognize and address “mindset” and “behavioral style” impediments to collaboration.

Perry Sternberg, EVP and Head of U.S. Commercial, Shire, states, “You have to accept and be open to the fact that different functions will have different viewpoints and styles.” Sternberg, who moderated a workshop at HBA’s 2017 annual conference, believes, “It’s important to recognize and embrace contributions from differing perspectives as this will have a ripple influence within the organization.”

Make a convincing, cogent case to rally teams around a superordinate goal.

Amina C. Lobban, MS, MBA, Senior Quality Integration Project Lead, Quality Systems and Product Quality, Shire, says, “A cross-functional leader must be adept at galvanizing disparate team members around a single-minded, superordinate goal so everyone is focused on the desired outcome rather than their own process.” Lobban spearheaded the 2017 HBA Leadership workshop with Sternberg and Amy Pott, Head of U.S. Internal Medicine & Oncology, Shire. “Team members must also know how to write a reliable business case that enables every member of the cross-functional team to embrace the path forward.”

Navigate the regulatory terrain for digital innovation.

“When everyone is crystal clear on regulatory fundamentals, we speed up cross-functional team decision-making,” says Shalu Bhambhani, Sales Force Excellence Lead, Immunology, Shire, “That’s why another best practice is to ensure consistency across teams regarding regulatory compliance requirements. It’s important to level set expectations by training and testing team members to overcome any variations in knowledge and experience which can slow down reviews.”

“Our HBA ambassadors are seeking tools and advice on these and other competencies,” adds Bonnie Lappin, who has been instrumental in engaging HBA corporate partners in leadership building. “HBA members also understand the role of diversity in innovative cross-functional teams—that’s why the association is excited about this topic.”

  • Ilyssa Levins

    Ilyssa Levins is President and Founder of Center for Communication Compliance (CCC). Ilyssa helps manufacturers and their promotional agencies save time, money and manage risk, when promoting drugs and devices. She combines her regulatory compliance, marketing communications, and change management expertise to help clients achieve their goals.


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