When Gurus Get It Wrong - Pharmaceutical Executive


When Gurus Get It Wrong

Pharmaceutical Executive

The Japanese are coming..when?

My third example comes from personal experience at the hands of one particular guru. I have mentioned elsewhere the value I consider Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad's concept of core competency has for the pharmaceutical industry. But I certainly would not take as carte blanche any other concept that at least the surviving of these two gurus, Gary Hamel, might have in their advice to pharmaceutical companies.

A few years before Hamel's core competency breakthrough, Glaxo sent a score of my colleagues and I on a residential training week at the London Business School. Gary Hamel was then on the staff there. We were addressed by him one morning at the School's elegant Regency facility. The topic of his lecture—for that is what it turned out to be—was Japan. Hamel's message was that the Japanese were coming—and that if we pharmaceutical types did not cater to this and prepare accordingly, our goose would be cooked.

At no stage did Hamel bring in any pharmaceutical element or example to his lecture. As far as we could tell, he did not appear the slightest bit interested in the then not particularly fashionable pharmaceutical industry. For when it came to question time...there was no question time. Hamel simply turned on his heels and departed smartly from the lecture theatre. That left some of us, including me, feeling a little thwarted. We would have liked to point out that actually pharmaceuticals was not exactly a star market for Japanese companies, and not likely to become one in the near future.

Of course, the Japanese pharmaceutical industry has had its successes outside Japan. But it has not improved its position a great deal since then. Indeed you can argue that it has gone backwards, Japan being one of the very few markets perceived as distinctly unfashionable, its thunder stolen by Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC's) and many other fast-growing developing countries. Within a couple years of our lecture from Hamel, the Japanese economy had imploded, and 20 years later it is still far from healthy.

However eminent management gurus from outside the industry are, and however applicable many of their ideas may be, they are prone to slip up from time to time when they turn to pharmaceuticals. That is usually because they do not have time to consider the key characteristics of any particular industry such as pharmaceuticals. A deep understanding of these specific characteristics is needed to meaningfully asses whether a new concept will work or not—however eminent the source. Many concepts soon prove universally useless. But in some cases what might work in other industries could be disastrous for pharmaceuticals because of its distinctive inherent characteristics.

John Ansell is Senior Partner at the CRO TranScrip Partners. This is an edited extract from his recently published book Transforming Big Pharma—Considering the Strategic Alternatives (Gower Publishing). He can be reached at


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