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Collaboration, storytelling: potent potions for pharmaceutical

By Vicki Powers

Research and development spending in the pharmaceutical industry has jumped 43% since 1995, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America (PhRMA), even though new drug approvals have dropped 49%. All of that contributes to an extremely competitive environment where shaving years, or even months, off the average 12- to 15-year drug product development cycle can create huge returns.

Knowledge management is critical in the pharmaceutical industry, according to Carla O’Dell, president of the Houston-based American Productivity & Quality Center, because its product is actually “bottled knowledge.” The industry emerged as an early adopter of knowledge management in the mid- to late-1990s but ended up focusing too much on intellectual capital and codification, rather than knowledge transfer and collaboration. Many of those organizations backed off their KM activities for a few years, according to O’Dell, and lost ground.

“There’s been a major resurgence in the last two years in pharmaceuticals, however,” O’Dell continues. “Now when they are starting back, they are much more sophisticated about the people part of the process as well as the technology part of the process.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb and Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals use a combination of KM approaches involving people and technology. Their different approaches ultimately lead to the same goal—making better and faster decisions through the drug development phase to get medicine to patients quicker.

A people approach at Bristol-Myers Squibb

Melinda Bickerstaff ventured into knowledge management at Bristol-Myers Squibb straight from the consulting practice KPMG, which focused on building KM consulting tools. She consciously decided not to lead with technology. Rather, she approached her KM responsibilities by asking executives, “What keeps you awake at night?” Her goal was to discover the business issues that deeply troubled them and whether a knowledge component existed for the solution.

“This term ‘knowledge management’ is so abstract that people look at you with glazed eyes,” says Bickerstaff, who is VP of Knowledge Management at Bristol-Myers Squibb. “We really jumped from finding out what the business problems were to very targeted initiatives.”

Bickerstaff believes the best thing her group did was not to have a strategy upfront but rather let it emerge as a result of doing valuable work that people would label as “part of KM.” Now within Bristol-Myers Squibb, knowledge management is—because of people’s experiences—a variety of things that fall under that broad umbrella of KM, including knowledge capture, knowledge stories, communities, Knowledge Desktop and codifying documents.

“I don’t care what they call it,” Bickerstaff says. “It is all of those discrete things. Now 3,000 people might have a different definition of knowledge management based on their experience, and that doesn’t matter. What really matters is we’ve made a difference and helped them solve the problems that keep them awake at night.”

Variety of approaches

Bristol-Myers Squibb employs a variety of knowledge management initiatives that have continued to evolve. The group achieved enormous credibility just months after Bickerstaff joined the organization three years ago by capturing knowledge during the $8 billion merger with DuPont. It operates more than 400 Knowledge Desktops and communities of practice, which serve as solutions for cross-functional, diverse teams that work together around the world—especially with external partners. Knowledge Desktops serve as the central location to discover the history of projects, charters, ground rules, latest decisions and goals of the working team.

Later Bristol-Myers Squibb moved into Lessons Learned, which is an idea that began about two-and-a-half years ago around continuous improvement. The organization conducted Lessons Learned on several critical events in 2003 as a formal structure to gather tacit knowledge shared between people. One event, for example, focused on an unprecedented 15-0 drug approval for Reyataz by the Federal Drug Administration (fda.gov). What did the team do that was different? How can it be replicated again?

“This process has really taken off in the last year or two and is helping us change our culture,” Bickerstaff says. “We’ve had great success with it. Part of it is because we’re very much a relationship culture.”

Focusing on the people

A personal story exists after the discovery of each new drug in the pharmaceutical market—people who are living longer lives and people who are living more pain-free lives as the result of new research and development. Is it any wonder that Bristol-Myers Squibb relies on “stories” as its latest KM approach? The pharmaceutical giant’s newest KM tool focuses on storytelling. It adapted the successful practice from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to provide time for senior or tenured people in the organization to share tacit knowledge with others through storytelling. Bickerstaff says her group thought My BMS Experience—as it’s dubbed internally—was a powerful way to share wisdom, know-how and experiences without using typical e-mail or PowerPoint presentations.

“It’s so much more human—and almost recreates sitting around a campfire,” Bickerstaff says.

The KM group sponsored My BMS Experience sessions in 2003, with plans for quarterly sessions in 2004. Its first “storytelling hour” spotlighted a 34-year Bristol-Myers Squibb veteran, Chris Cimarusti, senior VP, Pharmaceutical Development and Project Management, Pharmaceutical Research Institute. Cimarusti spoke a solid hour to a standing-room-only crowd about growing up in the pharmaceutical industry, projects in his career, people important to him and the role his father played in his life. He received such positive response that the organization repeated it again at another site. Those structured conversations are based on the ideas of Steve Denning (stevedenning.com), who has done much work around the use of storytelling in organizations.

“We are really focusing on tacit knowledge—the stuff underneath that is really difficult to get at,” Bickerstaff says. “A company that can figure out how to do that and begin to share with others in the organization will be the company that’s really ahead.”

Collaborative Web space at Boehringer Ingelheim

While knowledge management activities occur worldwide in the Boehringer Ingelheim Group (BI), the organization operates a localized approach to knowledge management despite its mammoth size. The German-based global pharmaceutical organization has only one department with knowledge management as its title. That two-person department resides within R&D at BI’s U.S. subsidiary, Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. (BIPI). The Connecticut-based KM department has achieved recognized success both internally and externally.

The KM group’s main charge is to identify and improve key business processes and procedures as well as enhance interactions between project teams, support groups, management and external partners. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals established its first official KM initiative in 2001 with a Web-based, knowledge-sharing tool from Documentum called eRoom. That workspace enables project teams to work more effectively with external partners in product discovery and development initiatives. BIPI launched eRoom to key external R&D partners at the end of 2001 after a brief pilot phase. By 2003, it rolled out eRoom to its 650-plus R&D employees, as well as an additional 200 R&D employees located around the globe.

Partnering with IT

The KM group is fortunate to have a strong relationship with the R&D IT group, according to Eric Miner, manager, knowledge management. He believes one of the key successes in the eRoom and current portal rollout is the partnership between business and IT.

“Technology alone, however—no matter how enticing it is or what it has to offer—is not the solution; it’s the tool that enables you to reach a solution,” Miner says. “What we’re trying to find are business processes that can be improved. Therefore, the business must be the driver, knowledge management the enabler, and technology the tool.”

BIPI mandated employee training for eRooms, not only to demonstrate the simple nature of the tool but also to present the rationale behind the roles, procedures and standardization applied to the collaboration initiative. Miner conducts Team Leader Coordination Meetings about three times a year as a lessons learned exercise to focus on best-practice rooms operating in an innovative fashion. Miner says it’s amazing what some people use in their Web-based room that others don’t even think about.

The culture at BIPI R&D has changed almost unknowingly as the “early adopters” have begun to understand the value of sharing through such a collaborative tool as eRoom. Some of them now say they don’t know how they lived without it, according to Miner.

“People are now being valued for sharing knowledge,” Miner explains, “rather than being the one holding the knowledge and only providing it when necessary.”

Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals has achieved a number of benefits from its work in knowledge management and use of technology-enabled tools. The organization’s efforts have helped break down geographic and functional barriers as well as create a willingness to share with others. Employees have access to more information, which helps them develop new and innovative ideas.

Overall, the KM group has achieved its initial business objective: to better enable collaboration at BIPI R&D. eRoom is successfully integrated into R&D’s business environment. It’s officially accepted as the “collaborative tool of choice” for the Boehringer Ingelheim Group, based on BIPI R&D’s 100 eRooms; additional eRooms from separate, localized collaboration initiatives; and increased interest from other functional areas within the organization.


Vicki Powers is a freelance writer of knowledge management and business-related articles, e-mail vpowers@houston.rr.com.

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