How to Give Pharma’s Culture a Collaborative Shot in the Arm

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Everyone talks about “open innovation,” but without the right working culture it won’t succeed. MeetingZone’s Anthony Prior explains how unified communications can help kick-start the necessary change.

For the past few years, the pharma industry has come under increasing pressure to become more open and collaborative. Rising operational costs, the expiry of lucrative patents, and the increasing difficulty of finding new blockbuster drugs mean R&D departments must take a new approach if they’re to successfully replenish their pipelines.

As analyst house PA notes, “We believe radical new ways of working and a culture of external collaboration are key elements in turning around pharmaceutical R&D productivity and bringing new medicines to patients faster and with more control on costs” (1).

The buzz phrase is “open innovation,” and industry giants, such as Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and others, have been busy developing and refining models to source ideas more widely and share research with other parties for mutual benefit. AstraZeneca, for example, has invited scientists from the Medical Research Council into its laboratories to share basic research. In 2014, AstraZeneca worked with Cancer Research and Pfizer to reduce the cost of clinical trials by introducing the United Kingdom’s first matrix trial, where several drugs were tested simultaneously (2).

There is of course, a balance firms must strike between collaborating more widely and protecting their intellectual property, but as the successful projects illustrate, it can be done. The bigger challenge is changing companies’ working cultures. Traditionally, pharma firms have jealously guarded their research, and in many firms, the culture of working in isolation is firmly ingrained in the mindset of researchers-and indeed the culture of the wider business. As a result, the sector has been slower than others to embrace the collaborative approach.

Across other industries as a whole, there are now numerous examples of profitable collaborations both within individual sectors and across different, non-competing sectors. Whether it’s Barclays teaming up with small financial technology partners to create successful ventures like the mobile payments app PingIt, coffee-maker Lavazza collaborating with Fiat to create an in-car coffee machine, or electronics manufacturer Philips getting together with crystalware maker Swarovski to create a range of fashion audio gear, the collaborative model is fast becoming the norm.

So how can pharma firms transform their cultures successfully to take advantage of the clear opportunities to be had? Before one can start reaching out beyond the walls of the firm, the internal culture must first be changed so that people no longer work in isolated, hierarchical silos. There must be a top-down commitment from senior management to any such initiative, but encouraging staff to be more collaborative won’t work unless the management also makes it as simple and beneficial for them as possible.

Many businesses in other sectors have found that by giving staff appropriate tools (along with sufficient and ongoing training), the transition to a more collaborative culture happens more naturally. There’s now a wide range of Internet-powered technologies and services designed to improve collaboration and communication, collectively labeled as unified communications. The term covers audio and video calling and conferencing, instant text messaging among individuals and groups, the ability to share and work on files collaboratively (without the confusion and proliferation of versions when communication is done via email), and the “presence” that gives the ability to see at a glance whether someone’s available to talk, text-chat, or participate in a meeting.

According to a survey (3) of more than 400 firms across all sectors, analyst Forrester Research found 70% of those with unified communications reported improved collaboration. Other benefits cited included greater customer satisfaction, faster problem resolution, improved project management, improved relationships with business partners, and shorter decision-making cycles. In addition, there are all the knock-on cost benefits, such as significant savings on travel-and if a managed service is used, the elimination of capital cost on equipment and the associated expense of supporting and maintaining it.


When implementing these tools, however, it’s important to have a sustainable plan to ensure the tools are understood and then actively adopted. Different systems are appropriate for different needs, and many firms require a customized mix of technologies to get the best results. Too often, these tools are deployed on an ad-hoc basis or without staff consultation, training, or management support, which can lead to unnecessary cost and poor take-up.

Working with a good provider will not only ensure that the right tools are implemented, but that staff can use them easily and effectively. For example, a combined MeetingZone audio conferencing service and Cisco WebEx solution was implemented for a CDMO, which facilitated better communication and collaboration across the organization as well as reducing operational costs significantly (e.g., on travel). Staff use of the tools grew by 66% in the first six months, and since installation, there’s been a focus on reducing travel through the use of unified communication technology. This is one example of how technology can drive collaboration. But how many other pharma firms can say the same?


1. PA Consulting, “What does open innovation mean to pharmaceutical R & D and how can it be realised?”, accessed Oct. 22, 2015.

2. The Telegraph, “AstraZeneca reinforces pipeline with open innovation,”, accessed Oct. 22, 2015.

3. Meeting Zone, “The Business Case for Unified Communications,”, accessed Oct. 27, 2015.  

About the author:Anthony Prior is global collaboration consultant, Pharmaceutical, Biotech and Life Sciences at MeetingZone.