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Pharma Must Move Beyond Cooperation to True Collaboration


Mike Straw argues that many pharmaceutical companies are mistaking simple cooperation for collaboration.

Mike Straw argues that many pharmaceutical companies are mistaking simple cooperation for collaboration

We hear a lot about the need for pharma companies to collaborate.  Partnerships, drug development, open platforms, clinical trials – all of these are key to success in the pharmaceutical industry.

But I believe that, while pharmacos appreciate the need to work together and collaborate and have a number of success stories, still in the main organizations are misdirecting their efforts into co-operation and co-ordination. These are quite different things. Collaboration can lead to real innovation and change, coordination and cooperation just lead to more of the same thing.

That said, there have been some good examples of collaboration in the sector.  It is key to new drug development and successful clinical trials.  Eli Lilly, Proctor and Gamble and others, for instance, have made a great success of using the Innocentive website over the last decade to ‘crowdsource’ solutions – putting ego aside to collaborate with others – while AstraZeneca is successfully collaborating with Cancer Research UK and finding real breakthroughs, to name just a few.

Moreover, in a sector that has seen a proliferation of M&A activity, large players acquiring smaller ones are having to learn how to collaborate with their new offshoots in order to make the deal deliver on its promises.  And, with cost pressures greater than ever before on public services around the world, pharma’s are having to collaborate with health services and research associations to find new ways of delivering within the market constraints.

Nevertheless, I believe that there’s much further for the industry to go.  Many of the collaborations that we see are actually more akin to simple cooperation.

Coordination and cooperation are good things – but they are not game-changers.  To take things to new levels, organizations need to find ways of genuinely collaborating.

So what are the differences?

Cooperation is about coordinating processes to obtain specific outcomes.  Hierarchies often still exist, and ego is still in play. At the same time though, opinions are watered down in order to avoid conflict as we strive for harmony.  It’s a negotiation and a suppression of tensions – this is natural human behaviour but the costs are large (no one by design wants to have conflict and contention with one another; our basic human desire is to avoid this, not thrive in it!)

Collaboration, however, is something much stronger and more powerful. Rather than process, it encompasses relationships and interaction. It is not so much about working together as working on a common purpose in a way that produces more than we could have produced individually. It has more to do with dialogue and opening up problems than simply getting to answers and conclusions. It’s also about sharing learnings and not being afraid of failure.

Crucially, collaboration is not about always just agreeing with each other.  There is a place for conflict and contention.  However, things must not be taken personally.  It’s about having strong opinions, lightly held. Being prepared to argue a point and then accept whatever the outcome of the debate is, without resenting or brooding on it.

Think about any great sports team. The Mercedes Formula One team are a great example, where Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were locked into a fierce rivalry all of last season.  As individuals they clashed with one another but ultimately everyone around them was working together for the greater good – to be the winning team.

So collaboration is definitely not a ‘soft’ option for those that can’t hack it by themselves.  It’s actually the harder thing to do – to set ego aside and bring many minds together, working for a mutually beneficial outcome. That’s why it’s hard for companies to do.  The old hierarchies and pecking orders are deeply ingrained.  To let go of that and open up to others and their ideas doesn’t come naturally.

It needs to, though. The world has changed. Technology and social media have revolutionised how we act and behave.  Ideas are crowdsourced, projects are crowdfunded – it’s all about people connecting and sharing in an ‘open source’ environment. 

The traditional culture in pharma is that you keep your research and challenges to yourself, hoping to make the next big breakthrough (although this is opening up in some areas, but the desire to stay in control still remains).  Organizations are fiercely protective of their own science.  Where they do cooperate, it is often still at arm’s length.

I believe this needs to change.  Your organisation may be cooperating and coordinating with others – but are you going to be able to create something new?  In an industry facing multiple challenges, everyone is desperate for that leap that will deliver the next big thing.  But in our rapidly-evolving modern world with its new technologies and economic uncertainties, no organisation can do everything on its own anymore.  Looking at the tech sector, for example, even the mighty – and hugely profitable – Apple is entering into collaborations with others such as IBM.

When two giants of the tech sector (and deep historical rivals) start to collaborate, you know it’s worth looking at in other industries too.

Collaboration may not be easy or always come naturally, but I believe that it’s the pharma’s with the courage to collaborate who will be the most successful in the future.  Others may struggle to survive.

 Mike Straw is CEO of Achieve Breakthrough, an award-winning consultancy that has worked with a number of pharmaceutical companies including Novartis, Roche and AstraZeneca.





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