Five ways that life science companies can build tech talent

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The pace and urgency of digital transformations in life sciences have increased rapidly in the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced life science organizations to rethink their commercial models. The most obvious effect has been the shift to digital channels for interactions between healthcare providers and patients as face-to-face contact became more problematic. In addition, the pandemic has created supply chain uncertainties that made data-driven operations and planning more critical. And clinical trials have necessarily become increasingly decentralized, virtual, and customer centric.

These changes have dramatically raised the profile and importance of technology in the industry. Accordingly, there is a new sense of urgency in hiring and retaining the talent required by these changes.

Life science organizations should have little difficulty attracting and retaining tech talent. The salaries that they offer are typically higher than those in other industries. The work—improving health and the quality of life—is compelling, as is the industry’s core mission to innovate.

Despite this, most life science organizations struggle to find and hire the needed talent—including full-stack engineers, cloud architects, and site reliability engineers—to scale and sustain their digital transformations. Several macrotrends are responsible for this difficulty:

  • Digital tech is an increasingly critical enabler of scientific breakthroughs. The technology is vital for remote clinical trials, biomarker identification, and digital therapeutics.
  • Tech capabilities are rapidly evolving. As the pace of tech innovation accelerates, the roles and skills needed to enable differentiating tech solutions, products, and services are quickly changing. Organizations with traditional approaches to hiring, upskilling, and reskilling are struggling to keep up, as they often fail to identify the talent they need or fully understand their expectations and requirements.
  • The Great Resignation is real. Many employees are leaving their jobs, largely because of a misalignment between what they seek and what employers provide. This has widened the talent demand and supply gap.
  • The competition for tech talent is industry—and increasingly, location—agnostic. While for many critical roles, life science organizations compete only with one another, every industry is fishing in the same pool for tech talent. Much of the work can be performed remotely, which has eliminated regional advantages and made competition fiercer.

While for many critical roles, life science organizations compete only with one another, every industry is fishing in the same pool for tech talent.

Building tech talent with life sciences’ unique strengths

Based on our experience in helping life science organizations with tech talent transformations, we believe the industry can find the right talent by leveraging its unique strengths. Some life science organizations today are already succeeding by radically transforming their organizational structures, operating models, and HR processes.

We have learned from those leading organizations that it’s important to engage with tech talent across the entire hire-to-retire life cycle. Based on our observations of their successes, we have identified five actions that CEOs, chief information officers, chief HR officers, and functional leaders in life science organizations can take to build tech talent.

1. Establish skill-based, strategic workforce planning

The skill sets that life science companies needed three years ago are different from the ones that they need today. Many companies are moving away from traditional tech delivery models (with throngs of project and relationship managers) toward more agile models (with product roles, designers, and internal engineers). New, cloud-based architecture requires different engineering skills from before. And as innovative, open-source tools and languages are adopted, updated skill sets are needed.

Strategic workforce planning allows organizations to take a proactive approach to refreshing their tech talent bench. Many life science organizations have been reactive, plugging talent gaps as they emerge by outsourcing to vendors, which is often unsustainably expensive. Plus, tech talent is increasingly a strategic differentiator. Digital business advantages can’t be achieved by outsourcing to vendors, which historically have struggled to provide innovation.

A strategic approach requires aligning talent planning with a tech–business road map. For instance, comparing a company’s tech talent with what will be needed for its projected product pipeline allows the company to hire, upskill, reskill, and partner in a more targeted manner.

One global pharmaceutical company based in the United States recently implemented a skill-based approach to tech workforce planning as part of a broader shift to product management and greater agility. It upskilled legacy project managers into scrum masters, determined the redeployment needs of its automation teams, and developed hiring goals for new product owner roles. The outcome was an optimal design of 20 pilot squads comprising 150 cross-functional members with clear, skill-driven roles. Furthermore, the company’s IT organization gained new insight into its labor costs, allowing it to invest more in a new product-centric model.

2. Have an authentic, digitally focused value proposition

Our research has shown that having a clear employee value proposition (EVP) can make a company more attractive to potential employees. Life science organizations, along with emphasizing their commitment to patient outcomes, have largely focused their value proposition on employees in R&D and commercialization—that is, those who traditionally returned the greatest benefit to the business. However, we believe that to compete successfully for tech workers, life science organizations can do better with a digital-specific EVP (see sidebar “How to differentiate your life science company’s digital brand through an employee value proposition”).

One European pharma company established a digital center of excellence. It took its vision for the new unit to market, publicly communicating the center’s strategic importance and demonstrating to applicants its place at the organizational and geographic hearts of the company. The company’s website for tech applicants shows the core tech products that it is developing, with success metrics that are similar to those for its traditional products. The company also quotes healthcare providers and business stakeholders who attest to the impact of its digital products. For a tech solution related to neurodegenerative disease, for example, it describes how the tech can help patients, establishing a direct link between tech innovation and better healthcare. These EVP improvements have enabled the company to choose the best candidates from a large pool of applicants and quickly scale up its digital center of excellence.

What also excites and attracts tech talent is the technology that a company uses. Organizations can identify the most appealing technology by analyzing online job boards and monitoring employee reviews. Additionally, it’s crucial to represent the organization accurately. Otherwise, companies risk attrition when new hires realize that the EVP (a de facto social contract) doesn’t align with reality. Organizations should be honest in setting expectations, whether the company is ramping up its technology or is well along in a large-scale digital transformation. It is also critical to communicate how the current state will benefit the tech workforce. For example, joining at the start of a life science organization’s digital journey provides opportunities to see projects through from beginning to end, something typically reserved for more senior personnel in more technologically mature organizations.

3. Take a candidate-centric approach to hiring

People live in a consciously facilitated, frictionless, experience-based world, from ordering coffee to paying a friend on a digital payment app to standing in line at Disney World. A job seeker shouldn’t experience finding their next job or role as painful or complicated.

Like any other customer experience, the hiring process can benefit from design thinking—a problem-solving approach that prioritizes consumer needs in improving products and services. Companies can improve their design thinking by defining the current process from the vantage points of new hires, hiring managers, recruiters, and online reviewers to find out what works well and what doesn’t. Once a company has established the baseline, it can convene stakeholders to design an optimal hiring experience.

One approach is to build out personas of internal and external candidates—who they are, what motivates them, and what their career aspirations are. A company then creates an efficient process that removes burdensome steps by streamlining how candidates are screened and assessed for technical and behavioral skills (online skill assessment tools can accelerate this process).

This can provide a competitive advantage when candidates compare their experiences in various hiring organizations (see sidebar “The hiring journey: Where will you create moments of delight for a candidate?”).

One inspiration that the life science industry can draw from is how it has adopted new customer engagement models and improved patient and healthcare provider experiences in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many life science organizations have all the capabilities needed to create compelling journeys and experiences but haven’t yet directed them toward hiring tech talent.

Many life science organizations have all the capabilities needed to create compelling journeys and experiences but haven’t yet directed them toward hiring tech talent.

One Japan-based pharma company used journey mapping to reinvent its talent onboarding. It established a consistent set of metrics to track the efficacy of the new process, the quality of the hires, and the effectiveness of the hiring manager and teams. The resulting data enabled the organization to make step-change improvements.

4. Embrace agile ways of working

Tech staff today expect to participate in small, nimble teams within the framework of a flexible and agile organizational model. Such approaches are becoming more common for life sciences R&D teams, such as bench scientists and clinical trial leads.

For tech talent, that model means minimizing command-and-control processes and allowing team leaders to focus on encouraging their teams, providing guidance on interpreting road maps, and enabling the path forward—in other words, embracing agile ways of working on the day-to-day level. Teams self-select their focuses, test and release products iteratively, and refine their working models and interactions with each sprint. This often translates to tighter integration among tech teams, the business, and customers, allowing tech talent to contribute to an organization’s health- and patient-centric mission rather than work on abstract tech requirements handed to them at arm’s length.

For example, Johnson & Johnson champions an operating model that enables high-performing, cross-functional, autonomous teams to work continuously on specific products. The results have included improved employee satisfaction, a reduced cost to the business for delivery, increased speed, and a reduction in non-value-added work.

5. Build growth-oriented career ladders

Career development is best designed with tech talent in mind. We know that growth and leadership opportunities are top considerations for nearly 53 percent of tech talent. But 70 percent aren’t interested in pursuing management responsibilities,1 or are at least unsure whether they would like to do so. Few life science organizations today support advancement in seniority, accountability, and salary for those who would rather grow their technical skills than pursue management positions.

A flexible career ladder gives more junior staff opportunities to learn their crafts and apply them to a variety of life science use cases. For instance, data scientists could map geographic trends on behavioral-healthcare spending to improve the delivery of unmet patient needs, then rotate to a product-focused role to generate insights into healthcare provider engagement. People can decide whether they want to double down on their skill development or join the next generation of digital leaders as people managers.

Once such a framework is in place, it can be supported with performance-focused metrics that describe success for every role and growth-oriented milestones that support talent development. Offering learning programs can be a differentiator in achieving organizational hiring and retention goals.

The tech talent imperative

The life science industry has a value proposition that can help it build tech talent at scale, but realizing its potential will require new approaches. Organizations that are serious about strengthening their tech talent foundations should make tech talent a top five agenda item for their executive teams and boards. This could create an urgent mandate for an organization to take the steps necessary to create a strong and durable tech talent capability: planning for needs while identifying gaps, defining a digital employee value proposition, reimagining hiring journeys, embracing agile ways of working, and creating new, tech-talent-centric career models.

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