Partners in Learning

May 1, 2004
Patrick Clinton
Patrick Clinton

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2004,

College isn't just for students anymore. It's for companies too. Over the past decade, institutions of higher education have increasingly found that some of their most important stakeholders are their students' employers?and that they can extend their reach and influence by responding to the needs of local and regional business.

College isn't just for students anymore. It's for companies too. Over the past decade, institutions of higher education have increasingly found that some of their most important stakeholders are their students' employers—and that they can extend their reach and influence by responding to the needs of local and regional business.

Industry has made discoveries as well: that knowledge continually grows obsolescent and needs updating; that professional growth requires more than narrow, job-related training; and that universities, especially today's new breed of entrepreneurial institutions, are flexible, innovative partners.

This article looks at the range of partnerships between higher ed and pharma, from traditional degree programs to sophisticated, tech-enhanced training sequences. The take-away: In the words of Kathy Grayson, editor of University Business magazine, which covers the business of higher ed, "The companies that are going after what they need are getting it. If they're waiting for the schools to come to them, they're going to be left behind."

New Contexts

Business training has been part of higher education's role for decades, but in the 1990s that role grew explosively. There are several reasons why:

  • In a time of rapid technological growth, companies became aware of how much their employees needed to learn, and came looking for help.

  • Local governments, focused increasingly on regional economic development, pushed schools to support industry with training.

  • New educational technology created new routes to distribute knowledge, and new possibilities for partnering

  • The rise of for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix created new models of how schools and companies could work together.

The pace of deal making between businesses and higher ed has accelerated in the past two years. "There have been a lot of presidential changes over the past two years, and a lot of very young, progressive presidents are coming into these schools from the corporate sector," says Grayson. "Partnerships with regional and local industry are no-brainers for them."

School for Selling

The simplest form of collaboration occurs when companies provide advice to schools that are developing industry-specific programs for their own students. There's a long history of collaborations of this sort between higher education and pharma. One of the most recent helped create the medical sales major in the department of business administration at the all-women's College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. The program, thought to be the first of its kind, is one of a trio of new sales-related majors at St. Catherine. (The other two focus on business-to-business sales and financial-services sales.) It was launched in 2001, funded and designed with the help of Pfizer.

Life Science Partnerships

The school first focused on sales in 1997 when it received a challenge grant from 3M Corporation. "3M recognized two things about their sales force at the time," explains program manager Debbie Stewart. "One, it was predominantly male. Two, many of them would be retiring soon, and 3M had not done what they needed to do to replace them. So they went to half a dozen colleges and universities around the country and said, 'Build us a curriculum that elevates sales to an academic discipline at a professional level.'"

St. Catherine set to work, and within a few years additional sponsors came around, asking for industry-specific programs. One was Pfizer, which provided a list of competencies students needed to develop, and helped administrators decide what existing courses filled the bill and what new ones were required.

The two principal innovations in the curriculum were a course on how to interpret medical research and another on selling to managed care. In addition, students take liberal arts courses, the core sales curriculum, plus anatomy (or chemistry) and physiology, medical terminology, and healthcare economics.

The program also keeps students in close touch with the industry. "From the beginning, we pair them with mentors doing the kinds of jobs they've expressed interest in," Stewart says. "In the introduction course they do an informational interview, getting a sense of what that person's job is all about. As they move forward, they shadow a rep on a sales call or sometimes an entire day of calls. They get a clear notion of what being in that role will be like."

The program is offered both as a major for traditional undergraduates and as a certificate program for students who already hold a bachelor's degree. The first half-dozen degrees in medical sales will be granted this spring.

"The strength of this program is that it kind of gives hiring managers the best of all worlds," says Stewart, who herself once ran a sales force in the field of audiology. "The students have very strong critical thinking skills because of their liberal arts background. They understand business generally and can relate to customers on that basis. They may not have specific product knowledge when they graduate, but they certainly have the buckets to put that information in."

The In-House Classroom

When a company helps a university develop an industry-oriented program, it's good for the industry, but there's no guaranteed benefit for the company. As a result, many focus their educational efforts not on possible future hires but on current employees.

One strategy many companies have employed involves bringing an existing college or university program to the company site. Typically companies are able to work out a schedule that suits their employees. The content can be off-the-rack, or company-specific knowledge and practices can be woven into the curriculum. For example, for the past two years, Watson Pharmaceuticals in Corona, California, has offered a 100-hour certificate program in pharmaceutical engineering, taught on Watson's site by nearby California State University–Fullerton.

Training Trends

The program is conducted on a cohort model—which means that a group of students enter together and take all their courses together for the length of the program. It lasts about a year, six weeks on, one week off. "It's open to almost anybody as long as it's along the lines of what they do on the job—or what they will be doing," explains Watson senior training specialist Gregg Sherman.

Watson has put two groups through the course—a total of about 35 people. A third cohort starts in the fall.

The program was created by Cal State–Fullerton's University Extended Education division as one of its regular public offerings. The program consists of five courses, each 20 hours long. Courses cover:

  • Biotechnology and bioprocesses

  • Process engineering in the pharmaceutical industry

  • Facilities design and maintenance

  • Validation and verification

  • Regulatory affairs and quality assurance.

"The courses are taught by industry experts," says Carol Ferguson, business development specialist for the university. "The courses are not just about technical issues, but also hands-on, real-life applications."

The use of professionals as instructors can raise issues, Ferguson explains. "We are currently working with one client, and my usual instructor worked for a direct competitor. We had to make other arrangements. We sign a confidentiality agreement, and our teachers are savvy enough to block their ears when student questions might give away proprietary information."

For Sherman, part of the benefit of the course was the interaction across functions. "In my class, we had a cross section of the company—manufacturing people, quality folks, support functions," he says. "The thing that's hard to measure is how those 20 people now interact together. We feel like we can solve any problem regardless of whether we covered it in the classroom or not."

Anytime, Anywhere

One of the best-known university programs serving pharma is the Executive Pharmaceutical Marketing MBA offered by the Haub School of Business at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. The St. Joe's MBA is offered both in a traditional executive format (weekend classes, with a completion time of two to six years) and in an online format (one online course per month plus three on-campus residencies, for a total of 22 months). St. Joe's recently completed a special offering of the online version exclusively for Pfizer.

"We made a compelling case for higher education and an industry-focused curriculum," says Terese Waldron, director of the executive and executive online programs. "They were looking for a model that would provide opportunities for folks in other parts of the country. And we were certainly able to fulfill that requirement."

The program, like St. Joe's regular online MBA, is a 48-credit, 22-month program, accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the gold standard of business-school accreditation. The first cohort consisted of 25 students from across the country. Applicants were screened by Pfizer, then by St. Joe's. Admission requirements included four years of specific industry experience, a letter of recommendation, and an undergraduate grade point average of 2.5 or better.

The program launched with a six-day residency at a conference center near St. Joe's, including orientation and intensive courses on finance and accounting. A second residency was scheduled midway through the program, and the capstone was a three-day simulated product launch, created by StratX. The rest of the program is conducted online, using an "asynchronous" model—most work can be done anytime the student wants, using web-based presentations, discussion boards, and the like. The anytime, anyplace capabilities of the online program were crucial to a student body with busy schedules and heavy travel commitments.

Overall, online education has a reputation of having high dropout rates. That wasn't the case with Pfizer. "What's remarkable to me is that at least 7 or 8 of the 25 were promoted, transferred, or went through a relocation cycle," says Waldron. "One member and his wife had twins. Another and his wife had just had triplets. There was an adoption. A lot of life events took place, and amazingly these people were able to keep track with the program."

One advantage of bringing the MBA in-house—rather than sending students to an executive program populated by employees from other companies—was that students could freely discuss Pfizer material. "We sign confidentiality agreements through the business school, and our faculty are on board with those requirements," says Waldron. "There's a great opportunity for Pfizer issues to be discussed, and students worked on specific projects related to Pfizer products."

For Waldron, the key benefit of a project like the Pfizer MBA is the loyalty it can create. "The real challenge for companies like Pfizer is the return on investment, short term but also long," she says. "It's related to how well people will perform, how much their lives have been enhanced, how much more they might contribute than ever before, and how truly grateful they might be to someone who has underwritten this kind of advantage for them."

An Ivy League of Their Own

Continuing-ed programs have been around for decades, but not all content areas have been equally well served. "We used to laugh that you could get a law degree or a business degree in any storefront," says David Burnett, who recently retired as head of Pfizer Research University and currently works as a consultant in healthcare education. "But if you were a scientist who came to an R&D setting with a bachelor's degree it was a different matter. Master's programs in biology and chemistry were not part of anyone's continuing-education portfolio."

For Pfizer R&D, that was a problem. "People in bachelor's-level positions in R&D have limitations on their careers," Burnett says. "If you don't have a PhD it's rare to get a chance to move ahead. So there's a pattern by which young scientists work for a year or two, realize they haven't got the credential they want, and leave to go back to school."

To slow the turnover, Pfizer brought a master's program to its Groton, Connecticut, research facility. To make the program particularly attractive, Pfizer went Ivy League, and negotiated with Brown University to provide a master's in biology. A few years later, Pfizer added a chemistry master's from the University of Rhode Island, and finally a master's in statistics, taught partly on the Pfizer site and partly on the campus of the host institution, Yale.

"It was really a very traditional partnership," Burnett says. "The innovation had to do with persuading the Brown faculty to travel to the Pfizer site and waive the laboratory requirements, because these people were, after all, working in professional laboratories every day. We tried make sure the rhythm of courses offered was right, so our students could continue to make progress and not get trapped by a required course that suddenly disappeared for a couple of years."

The least successful of the programs was the statistics degree. "Many people aspire to degrees in statistics, because it is so relevant to the work done in pharmaceutical R&D," says Burnett. "But we learned that after the first couple of introductory courses, the work becomes quite advanced and esoteric, and hardly the kind of thing that a nonspecialist can pick up out of general interest." Pfizer dropped the program after the first few cohorts. The Brown biology program, on the other hand, after more than 10 years and 100 graduates, is still going strong.

Pfizer made no attempt to integrate company material into the master's programs. On the other hand, the company is well aware of the value of the proprietary knowledge it has acquired over the years. To capture and disseminate that information, Burnett was in charge of developing "Pfizer Research University" to collect business knowledge and use company experts, assisted by instructional design consultants, to teach it back to younger employees.

As for the degree program, says Burnett, "it was an employee benefit in the most robust way. The leadership of the Pfizer research division wanted this to be the classiest place to work that could possibly be imagined for a scientist."

My Partner's Partner

For universities that want to work with global corporations, the challenge has been to move beyond the limitations of the traditional campus. Online education has been one strategy. In some fields, universities have developed extensive multicampus systems. (The largest include both the for-profit University of Phoenix with 130 csites, and the not-for-profit University of Maryland University College, which thanks to its long history of training US military personnel, has locations in 23 countries.)

One of the most interesting strategies is the one used by Boston University's Corporate Education Center (CEC). BU, a pioneer in university-based corporate training, has developed what it calls the Boston University Education Affiliate Network, which gives it reach into 42 metropolitan areas in 27 states and four international locations.

The CEC evolved from a traditional continuing-education program that BU started in 1965, which led to a relationship with the consulting firm Keane. "They wanted recent college graduates up to speed," explains Rick Freeman, the center's chief business development officer. "So we put together a 10-week boot camp intensive training for programmers. It worked out, and we started offering different kinds of skills training solutions for technology for corporations."

BU formed a close relationship with the Project Management Institute, a not-for-profit that provides research, standards, and certifications for project managers. The relationship led to more relationships with regional industries. Eventually, it became clear that the CEC was ready for a new step forward. "About three years ago, we were saying to ourselves, 'We've trained 100,000 professionals. We know we have stuff that works. We get a lot of feedback from a lot of clients. How do we maximize that investment?"

Freeman and his colleagues realized that part of what they had as an institution was their relationship with "best of breed" channels such as Microsoft Partners and the Project Management Institute (PMI). So they decided to build their own. "We targeted independent regional education providers, whether they were training companies or academic institutions," says Freeman. "The point was to find what we call strategic affiliates. We have two kinds of affiliates, those that we come in and provide all the resources, and those that we teach how to do it themselves—teaching them not only the content but the methodology of how to deliver it."

Within the network, BU serves partly as a source of content, partly as a guarantee of quality, partly as a trainer and certifier of instructors, and partly as coordinator. Projects come both from the university and from the affiliates.

That was the case with BU's biggest recent project with pharma, a 24-week project-management course for 200 managers at Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Freeman explains, "Our partner Alphanet Learning Solutions had been providing technical training solutions to BMS for years. They worked very closely with a couple of the key executives in charge of the Information Knowledge Management group, which is in charge of worldwide standardization of software. They had pockets of people that had gone through PMI training, but it had been kind of grass-roots and sporadic. Our affiliate brought us in, and we convinced them we had a solution to help them build standardization throughout the organization."

The result was an elaborately coordinated program that included an introductory class for 1,000 BMS employees, a team-taught 12-week, 24-hour intensive course for 200 managers, over-the-shoulder mentoring, and an online library of templates and practical materials, offered at BMS sites in three states. The culmination of the course was a session in which students presented a detailed project plan to BMS execs—the audience they'd been training to communicate with.

Plans for the future include taking the project-management program to additional BMS sites globally. BU has the facilities to deliver courses online, including voice-over-IP technology and an "adaptive learning" system that automatically matches a learner to appropriate levels of material. But Freeman says he expects to stick with a more face-to-face approach. "We're one of the grandfathers in using technology in training," he says. "I've had a lot of success with engineers and programmers for online stuff. The rest of the world still likes in-person education. The "digital wrap"—using online tools to introduce concepts up front or to support back-end projects—is fine. But especially when you're working with teams, it's easier to do it in person."

The School of Experience

There's academic knowledge, and then there's real-world knowledge, and sometimes the trick is working out how the two coordinate. That's the idea behind the Institute for Pharmaceutical Industry Fellowships at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The program transforms recently minted doctors of pharmacy into pharma industry professionals by placing them in one- or two-year positions at pharmaceutical companies and related businesses such as medical communications.

The program started in 1984, and currently has 70 fellows and a dozen partner companies, including Novartis, Sanofi, Roche, and BMS. The core areas are clinical research, regulatory affairs, medical affairs, and marketing, explains program director James Alexander. In addition, he adds, "We have a handful of entrepreneurial programs investigating areas where pharmacists can contribute."

Candidates apply in their last year of graduate study. The institute conducts a massive interview session for 200 or more potential candidates at the annual meeting of the American Society of Health Systems Pharmacists. Candidates are matched with jobs in the New York–New Jersey area. Participants are officially employees of Rutgers; their pharma company hosts make a grant to the university, which pays them a stipend for the duration of the program. There is an academic component to the program, including monthly seminars. "The fellows are doing a lot of teaching at the school," says Alexander. "They're collaborating with faculty members to get publications, presentations, and posters at a variety of meetings. But clearly the focus is that they get their industry experience."

That experience trains fellows for places in the industry—places that would be difficult for many of them to get otherwise. Overall, the program has 250 alumni working at 30 companies. Perhaps the most striking case is Bimark Medical Communications, which has hired close to a third of its total staff out of the fellowship.

"The word is out there now that this is the pathway to industry," says Alexander, himself an alum of the program and an industry veteran. "The experience people have in this program is really career changing. It allows them to enter a whole new forum. They come back to us and say, 'Well, I'm at this company and I'd really like to start a program here.' In the past year we've had to turn down 15 companies. I don't like to do that, but we're not out to set record numbers, now we want to make sure that we're focused on quality."