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Organisational Memory

In a knowledge-based industry with high labour mobility, retaining that knowledge within an organisation during a drug’s lifecycle can be tricky. If we undervalue the knowledge, experience and marketing understanding which is gathered over time within our organisations, then we risk seeing those valuable assets simply walk out of the door with each individual moving on to pastures new. Isaac Batley suggests five steps to improving that ‘organisational memory’.
Whilst 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 both of the product itself, and more importantly the market environment and the marketing strategy, which reside within the people who work to commercialise the drug.  

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

Then, a whole swathe of people are needed to get the product onto 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 don’t think that all the knowledge gained during this process is generated within the company itself.  Ninety per cent of these people are interacting with customer 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, and yet on average, less than one per cent of those people will still be around at the end of the lifecycle.  Ninety-nine per cent of that knowledge will have been lost over that period of time.  How can we possibly 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 for this happening are not difficult to grasp.  Whilst staff turnover varies by company, 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?  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 of effort is also built into the way that global pharma is structured.  As a product transitions to Phase 3, 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.  And from my experience of supporting numerous companies through the pre-launch and launch phase, very few have robust systems for capturing and sharing the considerable knowledge that these hordes of people have built up.  

Even where there are systems for doing this, they are often so complex, labyrinthine and time-consuming that they are not used.  

And into all of this comes good old human nature.  When a new person takes over a role, they often 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 stopped altogether, and new ones set in motion.   

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

An inertia is created if the driver of individuals is their career progression, not the success or delivery of essential programmes.  The impact is that 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  

All of this happens because of the lack of consistent ‘organisational memory’: 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.  

To avoid this duplication of effort, loss of valuable knowledge and experience, and consequent reduced efficiency and effectiveness, pharma companies need to implement robust organisational memory initiatives.  

Because external partners are in many cases longer-term participants in the product lifecycle, they can sometimes be the conduit for this continuity – don’t make the mistake of assuming this can only be done internally.  

There are three elements which can make up an organisational memory strategy.  The first is to ensure you have robust systems for capturing knowledge – and allowing subsequent individuals to access it in the future.  These need to be user-friendly (so that they get used) and simple (so that people can find relevant information and knowledge going forward).  

The second element - perhaps perversely given that staff churn is the big issue here – is people.  Someone needs to take responsibility 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).

Thirdly, you must include external partners in your thinking.  Often it is agencies which hold the most consistent knowledge, and which are in the best position to bring new recruits up to speed.  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 both building genuine partnerships with your agencies rather than simply treating them as vendors; and for making sure that the agency element is accompanied by the systems and people elements in your organisational memory planning.  

Ours is a knowledge-based industry, and for as long as we undervalue the knowledge, experience and marketing understanding which is gathered over time within our organisations, then 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.     The first stage in addressing these issues is to acknowledge that they exist, and discuss both internally and with external partners the scope and extent of the problem.
2.     Organisational Memory policies should be written.  These should not be lengthy or for the sake of it, but 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 highlighting how in 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.  Noting that would give an indication to the numbers of people of treated, despite over three months of enquiry.  There was a general assumption someone must know, but no-one knew where to find anything.  

This casual indifference to the past which had shaped today’s organisation - and was part of its very being - raised a number of 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.  

The Author Isaac Batley is joint CEO of iS Health Group, a Cello Health company.  He can be contacted at  

4th October 2015



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