Brain Rein

Aug. 6, 2008
As AstraZeneca and Baxter have discovered, knowledge management technologies can harness a company’s collective (and global) intellect

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.”

The GIP platform includes portals for information sharing, enterprise search functionality, business intelligence capabilities including dashboard-type presentations and other reporting tools, and extract, transform, and load (ETL) capability for moving information from original to target sources. In the R&D area, Baxter is using the GIP as the foundation on which to create an information portal enabling its researchers to save their work in either personal or team knowledge repositories, and make that work available to other researchers throughout the company.

“In essence,” Banas says, “knowledge management allows us to tap the unique expertise that may exist in one part of the Baxter world and leverage that across businesses and regions.” These kinds of knowledge-recording and informationsharing platforms are especially common in the pharmaceutical business because R&D prowess and specialized scientific data comprise the industry’s lifeblood.

“Knowledge management is frequently used in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in the R&D part of the organization,” observes AMR’s Murphy. “We see these ‘expertise networks’ as a sort of Facebook for the enterprise,” Murphy adds. An R&D team leader in Europe, for example, can search his firm’s knowledge management database to see exactly which researchers around the globe are experienced in creating drugs for respiratory ailments. “This is a way to identify people who might know about a particular topic,” Murphy points out. “These expertise networks are a way to extend the corporate directory to include what these people know.”

Murphy says some companies have taken to adapting existing technologies to serve the purpose of supporting their knowledge management processes. A good example of this, he says, is Microsoft Corp.’s SharePoint technology, an information-sharing platform that can be used to foster teamwork within a company. Its MySite feature provides a Facebook-like online community, Murphy explains.

The growing use of SharePoint as a platform to perform critical knowledge management tasks has been a boon to the Microsoft program, which originally launched several years ago as a content management system, with limited initial success. “Today, SharePoint is the fastest selling product in Microsoft’s history,” Murphy says. “Microsoft attributes $800 million in sales to it, and they have 100 million users on it already.”

Murphy points to the fast-growing trend of companies taking advantage of software-as-a-service, rather than making an outright purchase of a software package, for knowledge management. This shift coincides with Microsoft’s offering of SharePoint as an online Microsofthosted product—one of only two enterprise products the software giant offers this way, the other being Microsoft Exchange.

The Wiki Aproach

In its most recent knowledge management survey, AMR found that many of the core capabilities of knowledge management have become commoditized. In addition, the open source software movement has made easily available such information delivery mechanisms as wikis and social networking. “Numerous companies count open source wiki among their important KM providers,” Murphy adds. Some companies, too, are finding ways to leverage the new Web 2.0 technologies to perform knowledge management tasks.

“We are seeing companies taking a Wiki approach, getting people to contribute their knowledge (to a repository), or by using blogs,” Murphy says. Many other firms continue to slog on without a real knowledge management platform—in effect, using an older system to perform that task. As analyst Murphy puts it, “What these people have come to realize is that Microsoft Outlook has become their de facto knowledge management platform.” Unfortunately, relying on a system that wasn’t designed for knowledge management is a mistake, Murphy believes.

“E-mail is regarded as a problem for knowledge management, not a solution,” he says. “The reasons are that, for one thing, it’s very hard to get at the information that is stored in an employee’s personal folders, and for another, people often keep multiple versions of the truth in their e-mails.” Nor is Microsoft alone as a vendor offering knowledge management technology.

Enterprise software giants SAP and Oracle Corp. have built knowledge management technologies into their applications. Oracle created a collaboration suite designed to interface with its enterprise applications, Murphy says, while SAP has included a knowledge management component as part of its portal platform for some time. In the final analysis, effective knowledge management requires establishing processes to capture, archive and share the company’s individual and collective knowledge.

“Today the application of technology is only 20 percent of the problem, the rest being a people and training issue,” Murphy asserts. “You can’t automate knowledge management completely. There’s no standard process. The failure of some knowledge management efforts has been due to overconfidence in the technology and companies then giving up on it when it didn’t succeed the way they expected. A lot of people have met with frustration when they’ve gone to implement knowledge management.” In fact, some critics of knowledge management technology claim it falls short of providing true knowledge transfer.

Some recommend that pharmaceutical manufacturers would be wiser to have younger, less experienced researchers work alongside veteran R&D types to learn not only basic facts, but also to understand scientific and diagnostic methods that may not appear in any electronic database.

Given this criticism, as well as a certain disenchantment with the technology in recent years, Murphy believes a certain level of cynicism about the term “knowledge management” has set in. “In the end, the highest order of knowledge management is collaboration,” he asserts. “The goal is to enable people to work toward common goals, and knowledge management should ultimately contribute to that.”

About the Author

Doug Bartholomew | Contributing Editor