How GSK sees a combined tech leadership role as a formula for end-to-end digitization
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How GSK sees a combined tech leadership role as a formula for end-to-end digitization

Sooraj Shah — November 2019

Karenann Terrell, Chief Digital and Technology Officer at global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline on why companies that are serious about digital transformation need a technologist leading both the IT and digital roles.
When global pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) decided to appoint a Chief Digital and Technology Officer (CDTO), the company turned to a hugely experienced IT leader in Karenann Terrell. An electrical engineer by training, Terrell previously served as CIO of the world’s largest company, Walmart, at medical device giant Baxter International and at DaimlerChrysler, where she was also director of Chrysler’s e-business.

The decision to broaden the scope of the technology leader’s role had come after a major rethink of company strategy — much of which had a digital underpinning — by GSK’s Chief Executive Officer Emma Walmsley.  

“What GSK really laid out with its Innovation, Performance and Trust agenda [launched by Walmsley in 2017 when she took over as CEO] was the need to make some fundamental changes to how we interact with customers — doctors, who we sell to on the prescription medicines side, and the consumers of our healthcare products [including Sensodyne toothpaste, Tums antacids and Panadol for pain relief],” she outlined to I-CIO at The Economist Innovation Summit in London. This entails nothing less than digitally transforming the consumer-facing side of the business as well as its drug discovery capabilities.


The creation of the CDTO position — rather than appoint both a CIO and chief digital officer (CDO), to run digital innovation — was seen as an approach that would best serve the company’s digitally enabled business ambitions, she said. “Often within companies, you see a CIO and CDO running two distinct organizations that rarely meet unless the CEO brings them together. What our CEO wanted was someone at the table who understood the opportunity and implications of digitization and consumerization, and the need for us to move and scale fast,” she said.

Hence her dual remit. As well as being responsible for developing GSK’s digital, data and analytics strategy as CIO, she oversees all IT infrastructure, back office IT, business applications and services, security and application development for commercial R&D and supply chain. Alongside all of that is her digital role that covers digital transformation and all the digital elements of much of GSK’s consumer and pharmaceutical businesses, where sales totalled £30.8 billion ($39.6bn) in 2018. And as a member of GSK’s Corporate Executive Team, she has “the scope to think radically about how [to] exploit the latest opportunities and ultimately improve our business performance,” according to Walmsley.

For Terrell, the roles are naturally complementary: indeed, companies that are serious about digital transformation need a technologist leading the digital side of things. “CIOs are often cited as being pragmatic and disciplined — but also sometimes a bit unimaginative. On the other hand, CDOs are seen as people that think outside of the box, that are going to disrupt the business model,” she said. So if you have those two voices in disharmony, ultimately, there’s going to be mistakes.”
Favoring cloud
Terrell said that in recent years GSK has evolved into a more technology-led company — and particularly a cloud-oriented one.

“You have to be in the cloud in order to [support] a digital ecosystem of partners. We’re already progressing at speed and applying cloud-based thinking horizontally, while driving analytics capabilities and rethinking how we interface with our customers,” she said. The speed at which the business is changing is directly related to that fact that “technology is being used as an opportunity to change the business model, allowing us to say ‘let’s go,’” she said.

A case in point involves building big data pipelines that are able to feed machine-learning and AI capabilities in both the drug discovery and development sides of the business. “With something like that, you don’t say, ‘Let’s see what we can do with our client-server environment.’ You say, ‘The only way to do that and process at scale and speed is cloud,’” Terrell said.

Turning that data flow into valuable insight requires clean data and an army of data scientists, and ideally ones with expertise in both analytics and big pharma. “What you need are people that understand the domain and the data, with the ability to speak the language [of business users] while rapidly creating [new] models. They are a rare breed,” she said.

To ensure they can deliver value, the IT group needs to support their activities with solid data. “Data scientists need pipelines of clean data and we’ve been working a great deal on how to provide end-to-end data — that [spans] data from the NHS all the way to patient recovery data,” Terrell explained.


Insight into the extended supply chain

Sophisticated data analytics are also being applied to GSK’s complex supply chain, with a view to making it as seamless as possible.

That will help eliminate excess inventory, she said, but her team is aiming to provide actionable insight right across both the company’s own supply chain and the wider supply chain of its suppliers and partners. “The end-to-end view [we want] is all the way from raw goods to patients, wholesalers and, eventually, into pharmacies,” she said.

But when might such goals be realized?

In some areas, such as immuno-oncology drugs, where there’s a need for control over data all the way from the raw materials to the patient, that already exists. On the pharmacy and consumer healthcare side, the level of visibility currently extends to finished goods that are ready for retail.
Genetics shift

But the ambitions for insight stretch further — right down to the patient’s DNA. Last year, GSK invested $300 million in 23andMe, the Silicon Valley-based genetics start-up that offers individuals an analysis of their DNA to profile their ancestry and propensity to develop certain genetically determined health conditions.


Led by GSK’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr Hal Barron, who works closely with Terrell, the goal of the 23andMe project is to discover novel drug targets driving disease progression and develop therapies for serious unmet medical needs based on those discoveries. “Millions of people have already said that if there is a disease matched genetically to them then they want to be notified, and so we’re a partner with 23andMe in trying to determine whether there is a medicine and disease match,” said Terrell. Armed with such information, it is hoped that GSK will be able to develop drugs faster using a base of people who have actively volunteered to be  involved in clinical trials.

Such collaborations show a shift in GSK’s R&D approach to be one focused on genetically validated targets powered by new technology to improve the productivity of discovery and development of potential assets.

First published November 2019
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