Brain Rein

As AstraZeneca and Baxter have discovered, knowledge management technologies can harness a company’s collective (and global) intellect

By Doug Bartholomew, Contributing Editor

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The ongoing shift from a paper world to an electronic world has been both a blessing and a curse for the pharmaceutical industry. On the one hand, the Internet has made available a vast trove of external information and research data that, in the past, had been difficult to tap. A significant downside, though, is that there is a lot more data to be found, stored and maintained. Enter the relatively new discipline of knowledge management, spawned over the last decade largely by the advent of new technologies as well as the evolution of the Internet.

Knowledge management is a process whereby companies identify, store, share and reuse their own data, external information and—most important—the business knowledge and experience of employees. “Knowledge management is not just about the technology, but also about implementing new business processes,” says Jason Swift, director of scientific information services at AstraZeneca R&D (Chesire, U.K.). “We define knowledge management as a company’s ability to benefit from the experience and expertise of its people,” says Jim Murphy, knowledge management analyst at AMR Research, an IT research firm in Boston. “It’s a way for companies to retain this information, document it and transfer it to somebody else.”

Boomer Brain Drain

For sure, knowledge management is a thriving business. Corporations have invested billions of dollars establishing processes and implementing technologies that enable them to leverage corporate information while avoiding its loss. An obvious danger, of course, is that key professional and technical staff may retire or leave for greener pastures, taking with them the knowledge and business information stored in their brains.

There is also the impending concern of baby boomers retiring and taking their expertise with them. In a 2005 survey by recruitment firm Robert Half International, 55 percent of executives polled said their companies were concerned about losing key staff to retirement in the next five to 10 years. In addition, 78 percent reported that their companies were taking steps to mitigate the effect of the loss of these employees. Some companies forestall the problem by retaining would-be retirees as consultants or part-timers.

According to a recent study by AARP, more than 60 percent of U.S. companies are currently bringing back retired workers as consultants or contract workers. A more permanent solution is to invest in technology that fosters and helps automate the knowledge management process. U.S.-based companies will spend an average of $1,224 per employee—or about $5 million per company— on knowledge management software in 2008, AMR predicts. This year, total corporate spending on knowledge management systems, consulting services and internal support is expected to be about $85 billion.

The pharmaceutical industry has the potential to be among the hardest hit by the boomer brain drain. The risk of intellectual capital loss is greatest in enterprises whose success depends heavily on specialized knowledge—a capsule description of the pharmaceutical business.

AstraZeneca Weans Off Paper

For that reason, most pharmaceutical firms are using a variety of technologies and processes to retain and transfer knowledge from their R&D and manufacturing professionals. Typically, a good knowledge management approach includes document management systems and collaborative online work spaces—in effect, networked systems— that foster the sharing of ideas, experience and knowledge among colleagues. At AstraZeneca, for example, the backbone for sharing of scientific data and other R&D information is the company’s internally developed IBIS, or international biology information system.

“We use this to support the interaction and sharing of information by scientists throughout the company,” says Swift, who has a PhD in computational molecular biology. As the lead manager responsible for integration and delivery of external content and internal scientific data for decision making, Swift’s role spans the worlds of both business and technology.

AstraZeneca’s IBIS platform includes multiple repositories of data that scientists and researchers access via online portals dedicated to the company’s four key areas of primary research: oncology, respiratory diseases, central nervous system disorders and cardiovascular. The system also supports the capture of chemistry knowledge. AstraZeneca chemists are being weaned off paper journals in favor of electronic laboratory notebooks in which they enter information so that it can be captured and archived for future use, Swift says.

Effecting this kind of cultural change, he adds, “is part technology change and part business process change. This has been ongoing for a few years now.” Adhering to consistent processes and ways of structuring data is also essential to making a knowledge management program effective. This can pose a special challenge, especially when many knowledge management systems today are asked to embrace both internal and external data.

At AstraZeneca, internally created scientific data is based on the company’s measurements and terminology. But data sourced from outside the company must be put in a format compatible with internal information. AstraZeneca is currently reevaluating its outside knowledge management software vendors, Swift notes.

Baxter’s Global Portal

A chief goal of most knowledge management systems is to record exactly how a scientist or researcher does his or her job for future reference, as well as to enable teamwork on projects involving several professionals at once. Most often, a large pharmaceutical company will create a global network to serve as the basis for information recording, sharing, archiving and reuse.

Baxter International, Inc. (Deerfield, Ill.) recently launched a global information platform (GIP) to provide employees with “a tool to gather and share their work, competitive intelligence and market research,” says Andrew Banas, director of information architecture. “The GIP is the main information sharing and delivery mechanism at Baxter,” he explains. “Our teams across the globe have used this platform for more than 50 major projects so far.”

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