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Offshoring data management

Offshoring is not just the future for pharmaceutical market research, it is what’s happening right now

Offshoring data management

Outsourcing some – but not all – services in a function to a provider in a lower-cost country has been going on for 20 years: first when companies started moving production to China, then when India began to be seen as an attractive place for software development and IT a decade or so ago.

And this is the case now with data management as well. But data itself is no longer what makes you stand out: instead those of us in market research need to move towards generating customer and market insights – in other words, how you translate the information you have into improvements in your bottom line is the really important thing.

Market research must adapt and change to take account of these changing times: companies need more insights and we have to provide them through consultancy to brand teams and other management functions, using what our offshore providers are doing to provide analysis for our business. This is something you simply can't provide by just reporting on retrospective market data. As an industry we have to become more strategic – and if market research refuses to fall in with this trend then there is a high risk that departments will be offshored whether they want to or not.

The market research team of my own company, Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals, started this journey in 2010 by linking up with an Indian company, Evalueserve. Reducing cost is an issue but, although it is cheaper to operate in India than in Europe, we didn't go for the cheapest option. 

It makes no sense for a company to offshore to a lower-cost country just to save money – we need to know that our partner's employees are treated well, paid fairly, receive good training, have goal settings, get healthcare benefits and so on. To make offshoring a commercially viable option you need quality and flexibility, the ability to handle fluctuating workloads and the capacity to react to changes in skills requirements.

So what is it possible to offshore? Standard reporting and simple analytics are an obvious starting point, followed by competitive intelligence and complex analytics when both sides are confident enough that this can be handled. It's crucial to remember that you can't expect offshoring to do everything you need at the beginning. 

So if you select the right partner he will learn quickly, but things will necessarily be slow at the start, getting faster as you move through the transition stage. This means savings are lower at the beginning because of your set-up costs and the time you will have to invest. 

There are challenges and risks too, of course: on the staff side people can be hostile and resistant to change, scared that their jobs will be transferred to faraway countries. Operationally, there are legitimate concerns about losing control and data quality, and about how your IT and operating systems will talk to each other.

To overcome this, you must be actively involved in steering activities, with periodic tracking of quality on KPIs. For example, if you see that things are beginning to drift in the wrong direction – over prioritisation of tasks, for example, or confusion over deliverables – then you must not let it escalate. From the start we had a clear communication plan: for the first 12 to 18 months only one person at Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals – me - was allowed to give instructions and only one person at Evalueserve was allowed to receive them. 

Consciously working on integration is important: you have to make your offshoring partner's team feel that it is part of your team. It can't be a supplier-client service contract – instead it has to be a people partnership. Decision-making has to be participatory rather than dictatorial. We meet each other four or five times a year and take individual co-workers to see one another to familiarise and socialise. 

For those considering offshoring my advice would be: don't think of this as a threat, but look at it as an opportunity and work out how to be actively involved in driving activities. It is better to do this than be offshored in the future. Because offshoring will be happening more and more: in market research we will always have to demonstrate what additional value we bring to the business – and the way to do that is to be as close as possible to it. If you are simply reactive, gathering information and producing reports, then your function is vulnerable – but if you are using that information to act as a consultant and networker, making recommendations for moving the business forward – that cannot be offshored. These are the new core activities – and you may even see an increase in headcount. And even though functions like data and reporting are no longer core assets, you have to keep those skills and knowledge in-house, not least so you know where your offshored functions should be heading.

A final point: you must be both sensitive to the country you are going to, and culturally curious about it. Your mindset and mood is really important: you must socialise, get used to its way of doing things and establish personal contacts. The process isn't just about the technical – although that is important, of course – it is also about patience and empathy. And above all, remember to maintain contact. Understanding one another, working with each other and providing timely, candid feedback will give you the best chance of making your venture a success. At Bayer we aren't losing control, we are simply expanding the reach of our global market research team. 

Article by
Dr Thomas Hein

VP, global market research, at Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, and president of EphMRA (European Pharmaceutical Market Research Association).

20th August 2013

From: Sales, Healthcare



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