Learning to go digital: more may not be better - Impatient Health
Back to: Our Thinking

Learning to go digital: more may not be better

July 6, 2022

Impatient Health

Remember that Khloe Kardashian tweet that put tiny Biohaven’s migraine drug on the map in 2020? It culminated in Pfizer’s $11.6 billion Biohaven buyout last month. 

Digital channels gifted smaller drug companies a cost-effective marketing tool, and Covid-19 tied a bow around it. Big Pharma like the look of the package, but most are still figuring out what to do with it. Digital marketing – and digital ‘just-about-every-other-business-function’, remains patchy across pharma. Chief Digital Officers have come and gone, but nobody knows what a “digital pharma company” looks like – even though they all want to be one. 

Most attention is on the shiniest prizes: AI-powered drug discovery, de-centralised trials. Both are compelling (if embryonic) digital innovations that may up-end R&D economics. Yet they’re most likely to flourish in organisations that are also laying digital pipework across the board – including in training and developing their people.

Learning and development isn’t sexy, but it could be the most important near-term application of digital. Rapid, tech-driven change across all domains has turned continuous learning into a competitive advantage.

When asked, pharma leaders all say they want to embrace “omnichannel education” – the buzzword for mixing in-person and digital training. They all want better-integrated, more accessible staff training systems that offer a menu of learning approaches to suit individual needs. They want easy, accurate ways to measure how well their staff are learning, and whether that learning results in happier customers. They want a user-friendly dashboard that captures employees’ performance – including who has skipped their compliance training.

Some of this wish-list will be granted through better data infrastructure. Smarter learning management systems should integrate employee records, training and performance – and link to other enterprise-wide software. Few companies, health systems or governments (exceptions – Singapore, Estonia) have achieved robust, inter-operable data systems. Pharma, like most other organisations, would benefit from improved access to the right kinds of data and clearer quantifiable links between inputs (training) and outputs (performance).

But no one knows the ideal mix of real and online learning – or if there even is one. Digital’s role in education is not in dispute (especially during pandemics). But beyond that, more may not be better. Ask any over-Zoomed student or exec. Pharma execs say they want to ‘solve’ digital coaching. Maybe coaching should remain time-consuming. That may be its value.

Similarly, compliance training is boring-but-important because compliance is. Gamifying it sends the wrong message. 

For all pharma’s digital aspirations, the human element remains critical. Field forces must engage and communicate with time-pressed customers and adapt to providers’ changing needs. Scientists must collaborate and innovate with a broadening range of experts. Their training should reflect that. Digital can’t (yet) replace real world experience, even for the most bullish AR proponents. How would you feel if your airline pilot had trained exclusively online?

No one is arguing that pharma, already a laggard, should slow it digital journey. But it might pause to consider that not everything that can go digital should go digital, certainly not all the time. If digital coaching is tough, maybe it’s because many of us prefer real teachers, and digital should be a last resort.

Khloe Kardashian’s migraine tweet was digital, but it worked because she and (some of) her 200 million followers are humans with headaches. 

You may also like: