Harnessing organisational memory

In an industry with high rates of labour mobility, retaining knowledge within an organisation over the course of a drug’s long lifecycle can be difficult. Isaac Batley outlines why it is important to have systems in place to ensure valuable information is not lost and effort is not duplicated when staff move on.

While pharma companies have some very tangible assets – the medicines themselves – the ability to maximise the commercial benefit of those assets is based on something rather less tangible: the in-depth knowledge and experience of the product itself and, more importantly, the market environment and the marketing strategy, which reside with the people who work to commercialise the drug.

Because of the nature of our industry, there are many people involved in developing, launching and marketing any given product. First there are research and development, alongside pre-clinical and clinical personnel and the regulatory team.

Then, a whole swathe of people are needed to get the product on to the market in the first place: pricing and reimbursement experts, government affairs, public relations people, and patient relations teams. Alongside these are the sales, marketing, health economics and outcomes research (HEOR) and medical affairs functions, to name but a few.

And remember that not all the knowledge gained during this process is generated within the company itself. About 90 per cent of these people are interacting with customers or potential customers, and all of them have deep and relevant knowledge of the product itself, not to mention insight into how and why certain decisions have been made during the lengthy process of bringing the product to market (and maximising it during its in-market lifecycle).

That knowledge is vital to ensuring the success of the product from start to finish yet, on average, less than 1 per cent of those people will still be involved at the end of the lifecycle; 99 per cent of that knowledge will have been lost.

How can we hope to succeed when so much knowledge, experience and understanding has slipped away? Why, as an industry, do we put so little value on this ‘organisational memory’?

The reasons are not difficult to grasp. Staff turnover varies by company, but ours is an industry with significant labour mobility. Staff are redeployed to other teams, or leave the company altogether. Within brand teams, turnover can be as high as 50 per cent each year.

“You could argue that this mobility keeps things fresh and innovative, but at what cost?”

You could argue that this mobility keeps things fresh and innovative, but at what cost? If knowledge is not transitioning from one generation to the next, at best we face duplication of effort, at worst missed opportunities and repeated mistakes.

This duplication is also built into the way that global pharma is structured. As a product transitions to phase III, the global team roles are generally replicated in nearly every market in the world – often with little thought given to a strategy for transferring the knowledge already gained to these new teams.

By the time this happens, the number of people who have had input into any given product is likely to have moved into the thousands, and for more important products, tens of thousands. From my experience of supporting numerous companies through the pre-launch and launch phases, few have robust systems for capturing and sharing the considerable knowledge that these hordes of people have built up.

Even where there are systems in place, they are often so complex, labyrinthine and time-consuming that they are not used.

Then add in human nature. When a new person takes over a role, often they don’t trust the work that has been done, and the knowledge that has been shared (if indeed it has been) by the person they have replaced. This inevitably means that work is repeated, some projects are stopped altogether, and new ones are set in motion.

Even worse, projects such as customer and stakeholder mapping, which have already been completed, are done a second time. Then, the new manager may themselves move on to a new role, only for the whole process to repeat itself. Throw in a reorganisation or two and you see how, in some cases, organisational memory hardly seems to exist.

“An inertia is created if individuals’ drivers are their own career progression, rather than the success of essential programmes”

An inertia is created if individuals’ drivers are their own career progression, rather than the success or delivery of essential programmes. There is no tacit knowledge retained, and organic learning is stifled.

Perhaps it is time to review what a successful career looks like, and accept that ten years in a given therapy area or a brand may be a pre-requisite to support organisational learning

Too many pharma companies’ knowledge bases are simply a collection of individual experiences and memories, none of them brought together in a way which can be passed on. They need to implement robust organisational memory initiatives.


There are three elements in an organisational memory strategy. The first is to ensure strong systems are in place for capturing knowledge – and allowing subsequent individuals to access it. These must be user-friendly (so that they get used) and simple (so that people can find relevant information and knowledge in the future).

The second element, perhaps perversely, given that staff churn is a big issue, is people. Someone needs to be responsible for ensuring that the organisational memory bank is kept topped up, and that person has to have the right authority, but not stifle good work (which is especially prevalent when individuals self-appoint to this kind of role).

Third, include external partners in your thinking. Often, agencies hold the most consistent knowledge, and are in the best position to brief new recruits. When the agency relationship is right, it often outlasts the tenure of individuals within the client organisation.

Of course, you might argue that this is a threat, with the agency holding the balance of knowledge (and hence power); this is a compelling argument for building genuine partnerships with agencies rather than simply treating them as vendors, as well as for making sure that the agency element works with the systems and people elements in your organisational memory planning.

Ours is a knowledge-based industry and if we undervalue the knowledge, experience and marketing understanding gathered over time in our organisations, we risk seeing those valuable assets simply walk out of the door with each individual moving on to pastures new.

Five steps to improving organisational memory

1. Acknowledge that issues exist and discuss the scope and extent of the problem, both internally and with external partners.

2. Write organisational memory policies. These should be concise and, above all, practical.

3. Give careful consideration to the nomination of organisational memory responsibilities within teams, wider departments and the overall organisational structure.

4. Develop systems which are easy to use, interrogate and complete.

5. Don’t be afraid to use external support appropriately; sometimes this is where you will find the biggest repository of memory for your own organisation.

Case study: a lost history

A few years ago at a major congress marking the 50th anniversary of something significant, we proposed a time wall to highlight how, over that period, the client company had added really significant value to the lives of those in the country and profiling lives saved etc from this success.

Interestingly, no-one in the company knew how to find any data: sales data, prescription data, ex-factory production data. They found nothing that would give an indication of the numbers of people treated, despite over three months of enquiry. There was a general assumption that someone must know, but no-one knew where to find anything.

This casual indifference to the past which had shaped the organisation, and was part of its very being, raised questions about the company’s attitude to its own heritage, about the pride it had in its history, and about how such significant advances in research and treatment should be so casually disregarded.

It also called into question why there was no induction process for new starters to highlight the history, ethos and impact of the organisation, to inform and become part of the ongoing organisational memory.

If this sounds like your company too, perhaps it is time to initiate the steps outlined here.


About the author:

Isaac Batley is joint CEO of iS Health Group, a Cello Health company. He can be contacted at Isaac@is-health-group.co.uk.

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