Home » digital transformation » Why digital transformation of pharma is behind other industries … and how to overcome

Why digital transformation of pharma is behind other industries … and how to overcome

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Yes, pharma is behind most other industries in terms of digital transformation, e.g. of customer engagement and solutions. As a permanent repetition of the evident, multiple studies (example), journal articles and blog posts are frequently reporting about pharma’s digital retardation.

But that is not a fair comparison. Also part of the truth, markets for treatments, medical devices and health services are actually no free markets as with other industries, but highly regulated. I am not complaining, there are good reasons for having limitations in place. It is just a general circumstance which needs to be considered with the challenge of leveraging pharma customer engagement in the digital space.

But, despite a limiting environment …


… there are a things we in pharma actually can change

… to facilitate digital transformation of our customer engagement. There are some self-made road-blockers, which can be addressed and changed … willingness assumed.



… comes first. And should be self-understood … but actually is easier said and assumed than properly done.

I am afraid to say that we at pharma sometimes have a fatal tendency falling in love with fascinating innovative technologies, intriguing eHealth solutions and exciting digital projects … without checking if factually a prioritized customer need is met … if at all.

Serious customer-centricity means that asking and listening comes first. What are the burning needs of physicians or patients? Which of them can be met with digital measures, which by other? Which communication channels does each single one of them prefer? Where are bottlenecks? How can we marry customer needs with our business levers? How can me measure success? …

Getting the right message to the right customer at the right time and the right place via the right channel.

It is not about what we would like to do or what we think our customers would need. It is about knowing real-world customer needs and preferences first.



“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, one of my personal favorite sayings, originating from Peter Drucker, legendary management consultant and thinker.

And it is nowhere else more true than with digital transformation. Many people hear “digital” and think “technology”. No, that is exactly not what digital is about. At least not in the first instance. Certainly, technology is a key enabler. But it is not the solution. Especially with digital customer engagement, technology is nothing without a cultural change.

Digital does not fail due to lack of technology; there is a vast and multifaceted market of digital technologies available, which simply need to be picked-up and applied. Digital does not fail due to a lack of ideas for exciting projects; the heads of pharma guys are full of them.

Digital fails because we focus on innovative and exciting digital projects, and not on customer needs and preferences. Digital fails because it is ending up on top of the other stuff on people’s desks. Digital fails because people are concerned it might make their job redundant. Digital fails because it is seen isolated from other business activities. Digital fails, because the culture of the organization is no ‘fertile soil’, e.g. in terms of agility, collaboration and mindset.

Digital transformation is not about technology. It is about changing the way we work, prioritize and communicate, actually an organizational cultural change. And this challenge needs to be tackled seriously.


Digital upskilling

A key enabler of the cultural change mentioned before, is a general and broad digital up-skilling of the organization. Digital is not a niche for nerds and digital passionates. Again, it is about changing the way we work and interact with our customers. So, everybody needs to be included … and to be trained in digital basics. Actually that is also what pharma associates themselves tell us again and again with every survey done. People want to do more digital, but don’t feel well equipped regarding the what and how-to, and broadly miss opportunities to develop.

Willingness is not the issue, but enabling is a clearly identified bottleneck.


Over-engineered compliance processes

As mentioned before, we are working in a regulated environment. This is a given. But the responsibility for a pathological tendency to persistently over-achieve as well as for numerous over-engineered internal review & approval processes for digital tools and content, this responsibility is with pharma enterprises alone.

Most of those processes are still developed and optimized for creating printed brochures or one time launches of (static) websites. They typically do not at all fit to the highly dynamic reality of digital content and tools updates. E.g. …

  • The content of a disease flyer needs one review & approval pass and is used months if not years after. But digital content might be updated weekly, if not daily, if not even several times a day.
  • The internal review & approval process for an app version might take half a year. But in present-day agile environment there might be a new app version every 2-3 months, if not weeks.

There is no doubt that a the requirement for review & approval is vital. But digital business demands lean and agile processes for the same. And I dare to say, whoever is going to provide a smart solution for this general issue to the industry, is going to be a rich (wo)man.


“Cobbler, stick to your trade”

Honestly spoken, pharma should not try being the better digital tech provider. This simply is not our core competency, and all arrogant attempts being better than specialized companies have spectacularly failed. Always started with a lot of noise, but died silently after a couple of months if not years.

Let’s focus on pharma’s core business and its challenges first, where there is still more than enough to do, but simply shop the digital tech parts from the true experts.


So, let’s stop complaining about our industry being behind and authorities’ regulations repressing us.

Let’s start doing our part, removing self-made road-blockers and creating frameworks for pharma digital transformation unifying agile innovation and the legitimate wish for patients’ safety and needs.


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