I recently attended a global pharma outsourcing and procurement summit in Berlin, where I participated in some very interesting conversations with like-minded professionals from the industry on the latest trends, showcased with thought leadership and practical case studies. Listening to one case study and presentation on implementing a hybrid supply chain model to reduce cost and improve delivery performance, the speaker – an executive director from a well-known computer manufacturing supplier – was introducing the audience to the key element in his presentation, namely his company’s "ability to combine in-house and outsourced manufacturing to deliver a competitive advantage, based on the transparent real-time sharing of information". It made me think: wouldn’t this be relevant, useful and applicable to the pharmaceutical industry? I’ve seen many examples of real-time IT solutions providing a base for discussion, but what underpins any solution is still fundamentally the relationship.

Constant evolution

Relationships between pharmaceutical companies and their contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs) continue to undergo frequent and continuous changes. I remember reading an article a while ago regarding the outsourcing of manufacturing; the theme of the piece was change being the only constant, which still holds true today in the second half of 2014.

From my understanding, what I have seen during my experience across other industries outside and in addition to pharmaceuticals – the food, tobacco, automotive and aviation industries, for example – is that these sectors’ supply chains are seamlessly integrated in a drive for reliability and quality improvements, to achieve competitive advantage, as well as improving the underlying value and cost drivers that are still paramount, and a hotbed of discussion today.

So what can I share with you with regard to successful collaborations, and the ability to access shared information with a common goal to reduce and mitigate risk in order to drive productivity and provide a balanced governance model, that is readily accepted by all the key stakeholders involved?

I guess I should start with the recent changes and the standards laid down by the European Commission, and its revision of GMP guidelines. Most of you will agree they have raised the bar for external providers to put in place stricter management principles for sponsor companies. As a result, the requirements for sponsors to continuously review outsourced activities, and audit their CMO providers and vendors, places strong emphasis on making sure the right IT solutions are in place in order to promote a fruitful and successful partnership. These solutions provide an open platform, with the right detail and information in order to ensure alignment to achieve success.

"It is critical to ensure commitment on both sides of the relationship, with the following mantra: common people, common process, common technology."

I’m not going to talk about the various structures or technological solutions that can be applicable, as I personally believe that the complexity, cultural and strategic direction of each organisation and its ‘partnerships department’ is not only vastly different, but those drivers and objectives are also different. I’m not talking about the fundamentals, but to imply that there might be a ‘silver bullet’ for a technological model that you can plug and play in every organisation in order to achieve and leverage competitive advantage. This would be the elixir that all organisations crave. The common denominator here is patient centricity, then to build on the fact that most of the industry is looking for avenues to capitalise upon the innovation that sits within the partnerships and those strategic relationships, without reinventing the wheel with technologies or processes. Bearing in mind that there is always a lot of give-and-take between the parties, therefore it is critical to ensure commitment on both sides of the relationship, with the following mantra: common people, common process, common technology.

Refine, review, revise

The common model has traditionally been based on routine communication, using the ‘relationship tool box’ that is shared (and ideally agreed) between the partners. So what do you need to help you achieve this? Some organisations have chosen internet portals or collaboration spaces, or invested in dedicated servers with sophisticated shared file management systems. Ultimately, the goal is to have a transparent IT solution that can be managed by multiple teams across multiple locations; in most cases these provide a baseline for managing KPIs, reducing risk, and enabling the management and governance of the sponsor-CMO relationship.

From a strategic perspective, the enabler must come from top management with a vision and direction regarding the goals for the strategic partnership; some organisations set up a partnership office or establish an account management role. Where project-related, contractual and financial issues are resolved at a high level, I have also seen through the use of lean Sigma tools, like ‘voice of the customer’, organisations trying to champion the alignment that is necessary to promote meaningful outcomes.

Before adopting the IT solution you have to establish what it is that you wish to achieve: multiservice or traditional functional level service. Once you have defined the process and mechanisms for your collaboration, this will then help you understand the type of challenges that lie ahead. In terms of the team building and change management, the human element will always prove to be challenging for both organisations as you mobilise and move people towards a common way of working and thinking.

And once you’re in the solution it’s always good to view the data periodically so that you continually calibrate and communicate expectations on both sides. The traditional cliché of the marriage partnership comes to mind; moving from a courting phase to a honeymoon period and then into fully established marital bliss, before moving into the golden years. I have found that every journey has common parallels and themes, nevertheless there are always unique stories and experiences with every relationship no matter how small or large the IT solution investment.

Tailor-make it

So what is the message with regard to providing a common data platform providing a single view of process data? Well it boils down to this: is your IT solution encouraging a one-dimensional platform? Does it allow the effective communication to the different personalities ensuring that it is a beneficial medium improving the key performance indicators in addition to helping the audience understand what are the critical fires and where to engage in the short, medium and long term. Remembering that it’s not always ‘one size fits all’ will provide a leveraged solution for your organisation, but a more bespoke platform.