Pharma and the culture of technology

Daniel Marovitz

buzzumi

As our partnerships &amp, licensing focus month continues, Daniel Marovitz discusses the challenges in partnerships between pharma and technology companies, due to the recent culture change of social media.

We have all watched the social media revolution. It is one of the most profound changes in the history of human communication. In 2009, the total message traffic of social media surpassed the volume of email messages globally. Facebook now has some 950+ million members making it the company with the largest number of customers in the entire world. It’s still growing. The average user is spending an hour a day on Facebook. Needless to say, the average day has not gotten any longer and so Facebook has carved its way out of TV watching, books, music, etc. LinkedIn has 150 million members. Twitter has 300 million. They are all growing. The numbers are astounding.

Now it could easily be argued, that this is a “consumer” revolution. These are people connecting and sharing on websites and so it seems comfortable to say that this is not where a pharma company should be looking to market itself, or connect with industry. It is flawed thinking. All of those people on Twitter and Facebook etc are not 13 year olds with nothing better to do. The average age on Facebook is comfortably into the mid 30s. It is a pretty perfect analogue to the population of the developed world (You need to have some connected device to connect to Facebook).

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“The biggest issue is the painful realization that all pharma employees are representing their companies in social media daily.”

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Some of the people using these networks also work in pharma companies. They are researchers, scientists, and company heads. These networks are simply where PEOPLE communicate. Organizations ARE on LinkedIn and Twitter and yes, even Facebook, in increasing force, and with increasingly levels of engagement. Staying out of these means staying away from where the actual conversations happen.

So what is a pharma company to do? The biggest issue is the painful realization that all pharma employees are representing their companies in social media daily. What??? Call the law legal department, slam the portcullis down, how can this be? Well, it’s actually very simple. Pharma employees represent themselves-on social media sites. Most social media sites have some form of profile – a description of whom a person is and what they do to earn a living. Most people fill in with whom they are employed by. Now, they may not be tweeting or Facebook posting in some officially sanctioned way, but everyone who sees their social media footprint can see the person, their employer, and what they say and do. There is no way that their comments, photos, videos et al can be completely dissociated from the institution that helps them pay their bills.

The only way that this can be managed is by recognizing that employees have a powerful and positive way that they can help to brand and market their company. It requires a total shift away from the paranoid view that companies must have “official” spokespeople exclusively and a recognition that every employee IS (like it or not) representing your firm. They need to understand what they should and shouldn’t do. They need to understand simple guidelines. They need to learn how to keep themselves and their firms’ out of trouble… but it is impractical and even foolish to assume they will be silent. It is wiser to give them tools to be smart and safe and leverage every single employee’s social media network as part of the mechanism for spreading the word about a pharmaceutical company, its products, its successes, and its brand.

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“In the technology industry, major product failures are often openly acknowledged and discussed and yes, tweeted about and blogged.”

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This is difficult for banks and insurance companies and airlines – but for pharma it is particularly difficult, because their customers are, well, not their customers. Pharma is not accustomed to the voice of the patient. Sure, pharma spends tens of billions of dollars a year pursuing research and clinical trial data. In those processes, there are thousands of patients, but their voices are muted in a deep hierarchy of structure and process and order and formality. The social web is definitively informal, non-hierarchical, a democratizing force that turns a unknown 14-year old singer shooting YouTube videos at home into a platinum selling recording artist in a year (hello, Justin Bieber). How would pharma manage a “break out” patient?

What drives the challenge is not law, or technology, or governance. It’s culture. The culture of the web and the culture of the companies that build the ecosystems of the web is one of openness. A culture of sharing. A culture of blogs sincerely and transparently written by CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies. In the technology industry, major product failures are often openly acknowledged and discussed and yes, tweeted about and blogged. There is a tradition of the founders of tech companies writing introspective posts that they place on major tech websites talking about the company that they just shut down. Is such behavior even imaginable, let alone in evidence, in the pharma world?

The issue is that the tech ecosystem has won. Whether through social media, online data repositories, natural language processing, web-based video communication, the insights of “big data” – the tech army is encroaching on nearly every aspect of the pharmaceutical business. From the way drugs are discovered, tested, formulated, manufactured, trialed, and sold – technology now plays a big and ever increasing role in every facet of the pharma business. With the tools and techniques come the companies that manufacture them. With the companies come their people and a culture of transparency, of “launch and learn,” of speed, of willful self-cannibalization, and a mistrust of legacy structure. All of these cultural “memes” are anathema to the traditional pharmaceutical organization – that is the bad news. The good news is that pharma has stood against the technology wave for longer than the music, travel, real estate, and book businesses that had their modus operandi and business models turned upside down over night. Pharma can learn from the lessons of the industries that did not heed the warning of the transformational wave of technology and associated culture that was coming.

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“How do these partnerships work? In my experience, the only path is compromise, understanding, and a few brave evangelists.”

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So how do tech companies, which are racing into pharma, – and pharma companies whether through explicit strategy or implicit drift, that find themselves in the same neighborhood, work together? How do these partnerships work? In my experience, the only path is compromise, understanding, and a few brave evangelists. The issue for tech companies is how high their stakes are in the pharma world. Pharma deals in health, life, and death and is regulated accordingly. The pace of change and the circumspect approach to nearly everything is driven from this fundamental truth. For pharma companies confronting the culture of tech for the first time, they see rash decision-making, lack of process, and experiments that happen in public and not in the lab. What pharma struggles to grapple with is that in the tech industry, bureaucratic process and slow decision-making is more likely to hurt you than a bad decision you can recognize and pivot away from as fast as you made it. The bridge is about people. You need an evangelist. A pharma company needs someone who is prepared to embrace the new, be brave, and stand up for change- publically. The waves are finally lapping at the doors of the pharma industry… and change is inevitable, but to have it happen on their terms they need front-line, well respected, senior management-backed soldiers to cut through the undergrowth and be the bridge. Pharma must learn from this profound recent history. Pharma needs to embrace a new way of working. Go ahead, pharma, talk about how you feel. Where are the problems in this revolution? Tweet about it. It will be ok.

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About the author:

Daniel Marovitz is the CEO and co-founder of buzzumi, a smart, simple video platform that powers professional conversations online. buzzumi has core products in remote edetailing, online KOL management and as well as solutions for virtual clinics (telemedicine).

Previously, Daniel was the Head of Product Management and a board member of Deutsche Bank’s $5 billion Global Transaction Banking division. He also served as the CEO of DB’s internet business division. When he was hired in 2000, he was the youngest MD in the firm’s history. Prior to joining DB, Daniel was the VP of commerce at iVillage.com and a member of the management team that took the company public. He started his career at Gateway, the PC company, where he created Gateway.com and built the online business from zero to $750 million. At the age of 21, he was responsible for establishing the firm’s Japanese subsidiary. He is co-author of Three Clicks Away (John Wiley &amp, Sons).

For more information, please email info@buzzumi.com.

How can pharma form better partnerships with technology?