Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Social Business Use Cases for the Pharmaceutical Industry

by Daniel Siddle

The fundamentals of social business design can be applied to many different sectors and to many different business processes.  Whilst, by definition, those fundamentals remain constant, or at least relatively stable, the application of them can vary widely.  What follows are just three quick, high-level, examples of how the pharmaceutical industry could use social business design to its advantage.  For these brief use cases I’ve intentionally stepped away from the usual subject of conversation, that of social media marketing for pharma, and moved back behind the firewall.

Of course everything below is open for discussion, commenting, re-interpretation addition and/or questioning.  The number of use cases I had in mind as I drafted this were just too many to get down in a single blog post.  Hopefully though, through the discussion, more use cases and examples will come to light.

For now though…

Current Awareness

Most organisations try to keep abreast of the latest news and developments in their sector and it is especially pertinent to do so in the pharmaceutical industry, traditionally one of the most knowledge-hungry industries.  The appetite for data, information and knowledge in the industry comes as no surprise when you consider the vast sums of money involved.  Getting a $1bn drug to market just 1 month earlier means an extra $83m in revenue.  Factor in the advantage of being first-to-market or first-in-class and the timeliness of information retrieval and digestion comes sharply into focus.

When it comes to information flow, currently, RSS is king.  Whether it’s the library receiving and passing on competitor analysis, the in-house lawyer keeping up with the latest precedents or the researcher staying up-to-date with peer reviewed publications.  RSS offers a way to pipe information between individuals, groups and departments in a much less intrusive manner than emails.

Using a single example to extol the virtues of RSS will undoubtedly lead to RSS being undersold, but for this post I’m going to focus on re-purposing the platform discussed in Robin’s post.
Below is a simple flow diagram explaining how the Climate Pulse site aggregates content from across the web.  In this example content is pulled from sources such as blogs, Flickr, Twitter etc.  The important thing is that, whatever the source, there is a way of pulling information from it and into the platform, either by way of RSS or an API.


Step by step, here’s how the example above could apply to a research situation within pharma:

  1. Find, Monitor and Aggregate – The sources included for aggregation would be systems such as internal document management systems, peer-reviewed journals, research data repositories and electronic laboratory notebooks.
  2. Curate and Editorialise – The curation step could be used to highlight results for lead chemical compounds or series, knock-out false positives, highlight particularly important articles and organise competitor analysis.
  3. Display and Participation – The display of information would serve as a project dashboard, available to all project members.  It would act as a jumping off point, from which colleagues could enter the sources of information directly.  It would also allow for commenting from the producers of data as well as therapeutic area leads.
  4. Output – Since the platform can be built to be open the output can either be directed to groups or individuals or the audience can decide how to digest it. For instance the information for several projects can be aggregated into a therapeutic area view.  Alternatively the output can be pushed back into the data generating areas of the company as a prioritised to-do list.  And, if you are brave and prepared to challenge some pharmaceutical industry paradigms, you could even bridge the firewall and publish some information direct the external scientific world.
  5. Disparate Participation – Widgets can be built which take information from and push information to the central information display allowing disparate groups to focus on the information in a manner most suitable to them.

Expertise Location

Most companies attempt to maintain a directory of all employees.  These directories are usually limited to a simple headshot, contact details, which department the colleague is in and other basic information.  At most they include a very simple “biography” entry and maybe an “expertise” section.

Inevitably, as the company changes structure and adapts to external stimuli, people move departments and change the focus of their professional specialism.  Classic corporate directories do not capture this well due to their inherent static nature.  Since social business technology is built around dynamic core principles they are much better suited to reflect the fluid structure of most modern companies.

Most, if not all of the leading social business platforms can:

  • be linked in to Active Directory to produce an automated organisation chart;
  • provide customisable profile pages that enable people to quickly and easily describe themselves through biography entries;
  • provide an aggregation of a person’s activities throughout the system;
  • use a person’s activity to suggest connections to similar people;
  • index a person’s activities to use during searches for expertise;
  • include some form of unstructured expertise discovery.

At a very basic level, the use of these, more social, profiles provides colleagues with a corporate directory.  On top of that, in an industry that thrives when cross-discipline teams work well together, these profiles supplement already existing knowledge networks by making use of the metadata involved in every comment, blog post, discussion, vote, poll answer and uploaded document.  This provides a dynamic and searchable database of colleagues, which can be used to discover a single expert in a company of thousands, which is something of a regular occurrence in pharma.

Collaborative Document Writing

People need easy and accessible ways to work together to turn information into actionable insight.  Very few knowledge-based industries escape from this fact, especially pharma.  The number and sheer volume of collaboratively authored documents in the pharmaceutical industry is phenomenal; from the research presentations to SOPs; from journal publications to regulatory submissions.

There are plenty of images and videos explaining the problems associated with the current workflows used to produce collaboratively authored documents .  My current favourite is an advert for IBM Connections showing how email proliferates when only a few people are involved (3mins 35secs).

Now transfer the workflow demonstrated in the video to something more akin to a research publication, something which is exponentially more complicated than a client pitch.  Checking facts, collating data, having each team member add their section takes many more emails than shown in the video.

This is where wiki-like functionality comes to the forefront.  This allows people to concurrently edit documents, comment on documents, version control their documents and publish them in a variety of formats.  Most enterprise wikis also allow for file attachments enabling authors to collect all the supporting documents in a single space and once a simple workflow is overlaid the wiki becomes a fantastic way to author, review and approve a document for publication.

For those who shy away from wikis, due to workflow, security or mark-up language concerns, with the release of Jive SBS4.0 we’ve seen a blurring between traditional office documents and a more wiki-like approach with their inline commenting.  For those instances where the source document has to be very tightly controlled this functionality enables a social layer to sit across the document.

Hopefully those three examples will be enough to start a discussion on how Social Business Design can be used behind the firewall of pharmaceutical companies.  There are definitely more exciting and challenging discussions to be had:

  • how self-publication will alter the nature of scientific journals and the peer-review process
  • the use of APIs and open data standards behind the firewall to aid cross-discipline sciences such as PKPD;
  • crowd-sourcing the interpretation of complex data;
  • publishing research data outside of the firewall;
  • driving clinical trial recruitment for rare diseases through the use of social media;
  • how the interaction of pharma companies with their audience is regulated by agencies such as the FDA (a very pertinent question following the FDA hearings on Social Media);

to name just a few, but I’ll save those for future posts.


4 Responses to Social Business Use Cases for the Pharmaceutical Industry

  1. By James Harr on November 17, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Nice article Sid. I re-tweeted it inside the firewall so some of my global colleagues will view it as well. I especially like the section on collaborative document creation with the social layer on top. The ideal state being where the document would be in some platform neutral format that could be interpreted by a native app or written to PDF for final approval if necessary. This would enable auditable collaboration like a wiki, but with more flexible formatting like MSWord. Keep up the good work.

  2. By Tim Bull on November 17, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Hi Daniel,
    Interesting article. I think with Expertise Location you’re spot on in terms of the need, but in my experience, there is a layer still missing. The reality in large organisations is that they probably have the platform (Lotus Connections for example) along with other document repositories and possibly separate wiki and other products.
    So, while Lotus Connections can assist with the expertise location problem, it still has some issues that aren’t solved in this generation:
    1. It relies on users to tag profiles to be useful.
    2. It relies on users to update their profiles – I’ve heard figures of less than 40% of profiles are even updated in some organisations and of these, even fewer maintained as people migrate around the organisations.
    3. While there are more dynamic hierarchies available in these tools, they are typically still single tree faceted. I’ve just left PwC after 15 years and I had about 4 bosses depending on role and what I was doing.
    4. Lotus Connections does link your content together, but it’s still not that useful – I have to read all your blog posts etc. to work out what kind of expert you are.
    5. Even though knowledge is more open in a tool like Lotus Connections, the silos aren’t broken down – some people still use a separate Wiki, some people never blog, some use e-mail etc.
    The next generation in tools is around automated expertise location, mining the rich knowledge across systems including legacy systems like e-mail, structured content repositories AND the E2.0 systems like Lotus Connections, Sharepoint and Jive.
    We are currently building such a system here at at the moment (there’s a video there which helps summarise the problem from a professional services perspective), so I’m always excited to see people talking about the need!
    If you’re interested, would love to talk with you about what we are doing – we are Melbourne, Australia based and have a good relationship with HeadShift in AU already.

  3. By Daniel Siddle on November 18, 2009 at 7:31 am

    @James Some of the newer tech that we are seeing coming through is getting pretty close to an ideal state for document management. I think at the moment people may struggle with some of the more complex document approval workflows (several review stages with multiple reviewers at each stage) but with those cases it would be valid to argue that it’s the process that is broken rather than the tech.

  4. By Daniel Siddle on November 18, 2009 at 7:59 am

    From where most people are now (centrally maintained corporate directories) most things are a step forward. Having something like MediaWiki that allows you to see the revision history of the page and who has made the most appropriate edits at least supplements those corporate directories but, I agree with you, it’s far from perfect.
    For those who use best-of-breed solutions, rather than platforms, they definitely have a disjointed experience when it comes to finding people. Just jooking at the basic components it is likely that they’ll have several profiles in several systems (one in the blogging system, one in the wiki etc).
    For those using platforms like Connections or Jive SBS the outlook is a little better for expertise location. At a minimum it is much easier to find expertise in context. For example, if you have a community based around a specific topic it is relatively easy to see the top participants for that community.
    The reality though, as you say, is that everything that defines an individual as an “expert” is not contained in a single platform.
    Heading back into the pharma example, for the research community one important aspect of “expert” definition is what peer-reviewed journals you have published, which journals they are published in, how many times they have been cited, etc etc. You then have the problem of pulling information back across the firewall to feed into whatever expertise location system you’re using.
    I have a picture in my mind that incorporates everything from content and content reception, both inside and outside the firewall, to personal recommendations and prestigious awards. I think with expertise location we are definitely advancing but, like you, I think we are far from ideal.