GSK's CDTO on becoming fully virtualised

British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline produces a number of well-known brands via its consumer healthcare division, such as Aquafresh, Night Nurse and Nicorette - as well as drinks such as Horlicks. 

It is also one of the world’s largest vaccine maker and in April partnered with French drug maker Sanofi to work on a treatment for Covid-19. The pair are now poised to start testing their protein-based  vaccine on humans.

During the last six months the multinational has turned to technology to keep its many plates spinning - including consumer operations and developing life-saving research and testing. That has been more crucial than ever, particularly given some 100,000 colleagues have had to oversee operations working from home.

It has been “a massive, massive challenge,” Karenann Terrell, GSK’s chief digital technology officer, told delegates at the Virtual AI Summit, during London Tech Week. “It has been an extraordinary challenge in innovation and technical support.”

Technology has been key in enabling partnerships with the likes of Sanofi, which has traditionally been a competitor of GSK. “Never being able to meet those collaborators face-to-face is something our collaboration technology has helped with to safely and securely share information as we develop new capabilities.”

That environment has required its tech teams to move faster than usual, making "very quick decisions using things in our pipeline, being piloted or deployed but not yet to scale - and just [getting] them to scale.”

Stepping up

Recruiting technology talent during the lockdown has been “the oddest experience... I have actually hired and seated two leaders of my own leadership team, my direct reports. One has come from GE to lead all the supply chain and manufacturing technology - and no one has ever met her! 

“Just trusting your instincts in order to meet and hire people in this completely virtual environment is something I would have never said I felt comfortable with before this. And yet here we are, we have new players coming in and on-boarding them virtually. I think that is a brand new way of working that is going to change and how we access the very best talent.”

Another surprise has been the way strategic technology partners have responded at speed. “There have been examples of company CEOs in technology who have called me and said 'what do you need? How can we put our best people at your disposal? How can we make sure you are able to move at speed.' It really is a wonderful fruit of the strategic partnerships we have built across the board... I’ll be really wanting to lock that in as a way of working going forward.”
The speed at which it has been able to move at scale within the commercial and supply chain organisations “means we are completely digital beings within our work environment. And we will never go back to thinking we need to move slow on those types of changes again, I think.”

And technology will continue to power business and industries in the coming months. “I think that is something we should all be really focused on, technical talent and partners have been heroic in this time of Covid-19.”

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