Planning for converging technologies

Jon Bircher says that exponential growth in, and the convergence of, new health technologies make it more crucial than ever for us to challenge ourselves as we start this year’s strategic and brand planning cycle – considering what we need to be good at, and what we must deal with to be successful.

“Prediction is difficult,” wrote the physicist Niels Bohr. “Especially when it’s about the future.”

Clearly none of us knows exactly what the future holds, and yet we are all required to build the most robust plans possible, creating thriving organisations and winning brands. As we can’t define the exact future, we must build our strategies based on different possible scenarios created from what we could see happening within and around our industry.

The blistering pace of change in medical innovation, combined with the rapid convergence of different kinds of technology – health innovations, wireless connectivity, social networks, computational power and genomic understanding amongst them – means that painting scenarios of those possible futures is more important than ever, if we are to build meaningful plans for our organisations, franchises and brands.

Whether it’s wearable technology, from the Fitbit or Band-Aid sensors, to small portable scanners and diagnostics or personalised genome mapping, this convergent trend of innovative health technology, combined with a better-educated, more technology-astute population which is integrating technology into their daily lives: Pharma (if we can really call ourselves this anymore) cannot ignore the impact that these trends will have on how healthcare will be delivered and managed.

“…painting scenarios of those possible futures is more important than ever, if we are to build meaningful plans for our organisations, franchises and brands.”

These innovations have not just got the power to control health on an individual level, but they can connect patients directly to their physician. As soon as patients have in effect got as much information about their health as a doctor, the boundaries start to blur. And while pharma marketers and strategic planners cannot hope to second-guess what technologies will exist in the future, they do need to be aware of the trends, considering the implications on the commercialisation of their products.

The reality is that there is a whole range of different technologies converging at the same time and at a rapid pace, which is why this is such a crucial issue for pharma right now – especially when entering a new planning cycle. New materials and adoption mean that wearable tech is now a reality. Improvements in wireless connectivity mean that the information harvested by such tech can be monitored by patients, physicians and other healthcare providers alike. It also opens up the debate around data, ownership and access.

Overlay on that genome mapping, and suddenly you and your physician can predict your pre-dispositions, so you can utilise these newer technologies to better monitor health, prevent future illness or manage treatments. This is personalised healthcare in reality, not just brave words; patient power as a fact, not just a concept.

The genome project is perhaps the most important part of this jigsaw. It is already possible right now to buy a map of your genome for a few hundred dollars. Armed with that information, you are more empowered. Combine that with the power of social media to connect patients with a similar genetic pre-disposition, and the balance of power has shifted inexorably.

I have recently been working in an extremely distressing therapy area where over 40% of diagnoses come via the patient having found information and connected with other sufferers online… challenging stuff!

“Pharma (if we can really call ourselves this anymore) cannot ignore the impact that these trends will have on how healthcare will be delivered and managed.”

However, we need to be cautious about jumping on every new fad or interesting advance. We must consider how readily healthcare systems and pharma companies can adopt new technology and mindsets; it is the coming together of all of these trends and innovations that is more interesting than the new technology itself. Our landscape has fundamentally shifted in terms of what we can know and what we cannot know; what we can access and what we cannot access – and therefore what we can utilise and what we cannot utilise.

The big question is this: how can pharma plan in this inevitable future where genomics, biopharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, robotics, diagnostics and health tech converge, when in reality we can’t know exactly what it is going to look like, and when all of our experience is in the past?

The first point is that we have got to stop looking at the future with only a historical lens. We have to take those insights with us – those themes and those trends – but we also have use a scenario learning mind-set within our strategic planning process. Pharmaceutical marketers and planners need to spend a bit more time thinking about and reading up on some of the themes and trends which could impact their business, becoming a little more creative, and considering customers and competitors beyond those they are used to.

Let’s not just do market research amongst physicians, patients and payers. Let’s also talk to people who are at the cutting edge of nanotechnology or genomics, or social media or IT. Whichever way you look at it, these people are players in pharma’s future.

It’s not about being right or wrong about the future; it’s about developing some different tangible scenarios, some different ideas of how the future could look and using these as a test bed for strategy development.

So: what could it look like if more people could access health data wirelessly; what could it look like if there was widespread adoption of wearable technology; what would it look like if these data and diagnostics were relayed directly to the physician; what would it look like if medicines and interventions could be dispensed or delivered remotely, or directly by a programmed Band-Aid, or by an insulin pump, or sent by Amazon; what if your next competitor was an implanted micro-chip or was delivered by nanotechnology? What would be the implications on your plan and indeed your organisation?

Scenario learning is about creating different plausible, yet surprising future worlds to help you develop robust a strategic plan, bringing together some of the predicted knowns and unknowns in order to build tangible futures as part of your planning cycle.

In essence, you should ask two questions of the future: what is it that you need to be good at, and what is it that you will actually have to deal with. If you know what capabilities are required, that helps you shape your organisation, and structure your people, your recruitment plan and your culture. If you know what you need to deal with, you will know what your strategy must be.

“In essence, you should ask two questions of the future: what is it that you need to be good at, and what is it that you will actually have to deal with.”

As you go into strategic planning this year, make sure that at some point you are utilising the principles of scenario learning to provide tangibility on the future, to allow you to really test out what the right strategies need to be for you and your business. It is an engaging and creative way of gathering cross functional brand teams around strategy development.

If you are in the earlier stages of commercialising an asset, scenario learning is a critical tool, engaging disease teams around the future landscape, helping them understand the opportunity, unmet needs and TPP requirements. This will then inform the brand and organisational strategy.

Regardless of where these converging technologies end up, we have to get better at building scenarios and being more future-facing in our strategic planning sessions. The world is moving really fast; and our understanding of disease, treatments and how technology can be harnessed is seemingly exponential.

We are moving at such a speed that it is very difficult to step back and see what we are faced with: a world where access to innovative medicines and interventions is highly influenced by identifiable, knowledgeable, demanding, connected patients; and an industry which cannot simply be described as ‘pharma’ any more, as successful businesses finally take personalised medicine seriously – interacting, building and exchanging value with multiple customers throughout the patient journey, and offering solutions from diagnostic sensors, monitors and biomarkers, to drugs interventions, online services and data.

View Jon Bircher’s snapshot of ten ‘innovative health accelerating technologies’ below:

Snapshot of 10 ‘innovative health accelerating technologies’ (by no means exhaustive)




2. Taking the Pulse 2012

3. Healthcare Research Institute PWC “Social Media Likes HealthCare” April 2012



6. EvaluatePharma and the Pink Sheet



9. Ernst and Young “progression: Building Pharma 3.0” Global Pharmaceutical Industry Report 2011


About the author:

Jon Bircher is CEO at The MSI Consultancy, a Cello Health Group business, and designer of MSI’s FUTURES process. He can be contacted at

Closing thought: how can pharma plan for the future when we can’t know exactly what it is going to look like?