Overcoming Obstacles to Digital Transformation Success in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Executive Summary

We asked thirty-two digital leaders at large pharmaceutical firms about the challenges they face in achieving digital excellence in their companies. Surprisingly, the biggest challenges are not related to creating digital capabilities, but rather to the complexities of shifting company culture and plotting a clear course toward the digital vision. Faced with this daunting task, digital leaders should map any tensions related to their firm’s structure, culture, or processes as part of the change management process and then select individual activities that directly tackle the most pressing issues. Their best bet is to tell the digital vision as a story and convince the organisation that digital success requires change.

Companies surveyed for this report: AbbVie, Astellas Pharma, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Eli Lilly and Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson / Janssen, Merck & Co., Mylan, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Teva Pharmaceuticals.

What are Pharma Digital Leaders’ Key Challenges?

In the decades since the birth of the public Internet, many technologies have come and gone, bringing businesses numerous opportunities and challenges to redefine their customer relationships. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception—but our digital excellence maturity research indicates that many pharma companies haven’t fully gotten to grips with this and thus fail to consistently capitalize on these opportunities. To find out what factors are blocking companies from reaching digital excellence, we asked digital leaders at large pharmaceutical firms what their main challenges are. They told us that they struggle to:

  • Lead a cultural shift. Digital transformation programs are about getting the right technology into the hands of the right people. The technology itself isn’t a problem; just six percent of digital leaders believe that getting the right technical requirements is an obstacle to progress (see Figure 1). The legal and medical compliance framework around digital capabilities is more of an issue; one-quarter considers it to be a roadblock. But the main challenges that digital leaders face relate to their company’s structure, culture, or operations. Half of these digital leaders are at firms that lack an internal culture that embraces digital capabilities. Nearly as many struggle to change the mindset of marketers—their primary customer group—to do their job differently (i.e., incorporate more digital).
  • Set a mission. Forty-four percent of digital leaders find it difficult to put an effective overall digital strategy in place to steer the company toward better results. Nearly as many feel that setting a clear vision for the overall digital road map is an obstacle to company-wide digital excellence. Having an unclear digital mission—or none at all—will confuse many people in the company and fuel skepticism about digital, making it difficult to prioritize digital programs and allowing other groups in the organization to follow different and disjointed paths.
  • Gain the support of key stakeholders. It’s difficult to transform a large company into one that embraces all of the changes that digital technology brings. Even though the shift to digital affects all customer functions, most departments or individuals don’t make coping with digital disruption a high priority. Digital leaders struggle mightily to get departmental support for the digital road map; thirty-eight percent report that gaining the support of executives and other key business leaders is one of their main obstacles to achieving digital excellence.


Create a Tension Overview and Choose Projects Carefully

Digital leaders report that they face many different types of obstacles to digital success. Some of these originate in the organization’s culture, others in its structures or processes. As a first step, we strongly recommend that digital leaders create an overview of the level and type of tension in various areas of the company in the context of digital transformation. Depending on requirements, this overview can be anything from a back-of-the-envelope tension chart to a more sophisticated scorecard such as our Digital Excellence Maturity Model (see Figure 2). This exercise will indicate which groups to target with additional digital buy-in efforts, where to remove significant obstacles, or where to add resources to build on positive results. Specifically, successful digital leaders will:

  • Invest time and money into telling the digital vision as a story. To mobilize support, some leaders opt to develop their digital vision pitch around a compelling story related to the future of the business, while others go for a more aggressive approach, tying it to the company’s burning platform. Regardless of how you tell your story, it’s vital that you explain why change is necessary and why digital is part of the solution. Practice, test, and refine your pitch and put the necessary resources into developing compelling media to augment it. For example, to set the tone in key meetings, the head of the digital center of excellence at a top-five pharma company worked with an agency to create a compelling video to introduce the topic of digital disruption. In a similar vein, AstraZeneca’s “The Future of Healthcare” is a good example of a video that conveys and communicates a vision.2
  • Make intelligent hiring decisions. Digital transformation isn’t only about creating digital capabilities, it’s also about organizational savvy—and your hiring strategy should reflect this. To facilitate organizational change, most of the digital group’s team members should possess change champion skills, including the ability to communicate a vision in an inspirational manner, network proactively to connect people and groups, and manage the change process to prove that the team—and company—is making progress.
  • Pick their battles carefully. Digital leaders unanimously tell us that their to-do list is long and never-ending—but it doesn’t have to be that way. Fully understanding the organization’s state of digital excellence will make it easier for you to say “No” to some activities and focus on those that are the most effective at removing obstacles and creating successes. Our research indicates that digital leaders make the most progress when they prioritize tasks that go toward demonstrating that the digital vision is real—such as projects that use robust measurement frameworks to show the value of digital. Armed with proof, you can expand buy-in throughout the company, better communicate the digital vision, and expand the scope of initial successes.


DT Associates fielded its Q1 2014 Global Digital Excellence in the Pharmaceutical Industry survey to forty-nine digital professionals who demonstrated interest in and familiarity with digital marketing and strategy as part of their role in a pharmaceutical organization. The forty-nine professionals who completed the survey answered basic questions about their role, their team, and their budgets. Based on answers to these questions, we excluded seventeen of the respondents from our final sample, which included only those who have significant digital responsibility and budget (e.g. heads of digital, digital directors, and digital leads).

We fielded the survey from January 2014 to February 2014. Respondent incentives included a copy of a business eBook or a donation to a charity, as well as a copy of a report containing the collected survey data.

Our sample is not guaranteed to be representative of the population. Responses don’t make precise maturity scores for respondents’ respective companies, and, unless otherwise noted, data is intended for descriptive purposes.

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Tim van Tongeren crc

Tim van Tongeren

Managing Partner

Tim has worked for more than fifteen years with commercial leaders to navigate their strategic and organizational transformations required to thrive on digital technology change. In his current role as Managing Partner, he leads DT’s Solutions and Consulting offerings to advise the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms on how to best achieve customer experience success through digital transformation.

Dennis van Rooij

Managing Partner

Dennis is a recognized expert on how pharmaceutical executives can take full advantage of new digital technologies to bolster their business objectives. He brings a strategic yet pragmatic perspective on digital transformation for the pharmaceutical industry…
Dennis van Rooij crc

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