Data Science Calls for Shift in Executive Leadership Methods

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-10-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 10

Soft skills are needed to round out the hard numbers.

The art of decision-making has become more of a science over the past few years as companies explore the dynamic potential of big data. Who wouldn’t welcome the addition of rich numerical intelligence to help make more informed decisions? While recently re-watching the 2011 film Moneyball, which follows the story of a major league baseball team relying on predictive analytics to form a championship team on a limited budget, I was reminded that topics like artificial intelligence (AI), data science, and machine learning, while all based on numbers, still require skilled leadership—a lesson that should not be lost on pharmaceutical executives.

As the integration of data science continues its rush through the industry (see feature on page 30), there’s still much to prove, says Jeff French, vice president and chief digital officer at ViiV Healthcare. Senior leaders want to validate what they’re seeing happen through the use of these tools, so they are investing in outside organizations as well as internally to not only generate better predictive opportunities but to articulate its impact on leadership. This upskilling is helping leaders become more grounded in their data. And many companies now include technical leaders on their leadership teams to make sure they are upskilling the broader group more quickly.

“There’s a huge education going on at the senior leadership level about what it is their organization has and how it’s been working,” says French. “It used to be all about the dollars and cents of the business, but now it’s more than that. It’s about the experience your customers are having, and competitive and social intelligence. As a leader, it’s really changing how you interact.”

For example, as French recently discussed the future of ViiV’s content strategy, the conversation took on a new look. Just a year ago, the goal would have been straightforward, following a path that had been copied for years prior. But now, he and his team considered data from competitive and customer perspectives. As the information comes in quicker, leaders need to look at data and understand what’s happening in more real-time terms.

“Insights are now coming in as campaigns are happening,” says French. “That means as a decision maker, you have to respond much more quickly to make the call to say stop this, start over, redo this capability, etc. It’s a new muscle we’re flexing that, historically, at a senior leadership level, people didn’t really have to flex before.”

As leaders adjust to this new way of doing business, there’s also a new emphasis being placed on their soft skills. Being able to appropriately reflect on what the data indicate, and then articulate that in a way that’s meaningful to others is more important than ever.

“It used to be you could rely on process to make calls,” says French. “If somebody brought you an opportunity, in many aspects, you knew going into it what your options were. Now your options are vast. So you have to think about the story that you’re trying to sell and whether it lines up with your strategy.”

At the same time, leaders should realize that not everyone is on the same page, because their data may be slightly different in terms of what they understand. Though at the moment people are still questioning what they think is right, a leadership team should strive for a common understanding in order to make common decisions.

There also needs to be a certain amount of belief in the process. Leaders need to be progressive in their thinking about how to leverage this capability. An openness to explore opportunities and believe it’s going to impact their business is imperative. French also says big data needs to be demystified and that companies should invest in people who can do it specifically in the context of their business.

“Where AI is slightly different than intelligence—and one thing I think we’re going to struggle with in that construct—is will the data tell us what to do or is that data just a support capability for making the decision?” says French. “As leaders, that’s the piece I think we’re still playing around with a little bit, because we just don’t have the confidence yet in what it’s saying. We might think something is black and white and we need to do that, versus questioning that first, and then determining if it’s black and white later.”

Elaine Quilici is a Senior Editor for Pharm Exec. She can be reached at equilici@mjhlifesciences.com.