Future in Flux: Intel for the Life Sciences Executive

In brief:

  • As COVID-19 continues to keep the world on notice, the life sciences industry finds itself at a turning point.
  • Our December 2021 study probed trends and transformation outlook for the life sciences industry this year and uncovered two critical opportunities: securing the right talent and enabling employees to drive operational excellence.
  • To capture these opportunities, life sciences leaders can consider:
    1. Managing the workforce in an adaptive fashion.
    2. Shifting organizational behaviors to improve operational effectiveness.
    3. Re-orienting the operating model to harness omni-channel capabilities.

In December 2021, North Highland surveyed more than 500 business leaders across industries, exploring their thoughts on the trends and challenges expected in 2022. While each industry had specific focuses, one takeaway was consistent across the board: The future is very much in flux, and business leaders must learn to be flexible. This blog series explores the insights from the study, offering the advice you need to capitalize on the trends and build agility for a fast-paced, quickly changing future. 

Life Sciences reimagines its operations in a changing world of work

Over the last two years, the life sciences industry has found itself thrust into the spotlight. Whether raised on a pedestal one day or under intense scrutiny the next, the industry certainly captured the attention of the broader public throughout the pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to keep the world on notice, the industry finds itself at a turning point. Advances in research and development (R&D), disruptive technologies, and new clinical practices create opportunities for patient outcomes, clinician engagement, and shareholder value to intersect. Where industry leaders proceed from here will shape the pandemic’s trajectory and, more broadly, patient quality of life across the globe.

If the life sciences industry takes smart steps forward, it’s poised for substantial growth. Worldwide prescription drug sales are forecast to grow at an annualized rate of 6.4 percent between 2021 and 2026, topping over $1.4 trillion annually. It’s a high-stakes and high-potential environment, and our survey of life sciences leaders reveals that they are turning to their people and how they work together to keep moving forward. Our December 2021 study probed trends and transformation outlook for the life sciences industry this year and uncovered two critical opportunities: securing the right talent and enabling employees to drive operational excellence.

Securing the right talent

The pursuit of patient outcomes (and business performance) starts from within, specifically making the most of a key asset: an organization’s people. Among all the transformation strategic objectives life sciences leaders are focusing on in 2022, optimizing talent (attraction, development, and retention) tops the list, and was cited by 43 percent of respondents. External challenges and opportunities in the talent market may partially explain this trend; specifically, hybrid work affords access to an expanded talent pool. Fifty-seven percent of the life sciences leaders we polled are looking to address the evolving talent pool within their transformation strategies.

Leaders also attribute the urgency around talent to the constantly changing nature of transformation strategies. Nearly every respondent (97 percent) agrees or strongly agrees that talent and skill needs are fluid—and a fundamental asset—throughout the course of their transformation. Skills play a key role in helping life sciences organizations adapt alongside advances in digital technology. Upskilling and/or reskilling programs are tied for the most important non-technology factor in improving digital maturity, according to 55 percent of the respondents in our survey. Armed with the right talent, life sciences leaders are equally committed to maximizing the potential of their people by equipping them to work best with the processes and technologies impacting their daily work. 


Manage your workforce adaptively. To craft a transformation strategy that sources and retains top talent, life sciences leaders should approach workforce needs in an adaptive fashion. With technology and its related skill needs always changing, the ability to secure new talent and expertise just in time is a must-have. While 93 percent of those surveyed have a dedicated workforce sourcing strategy today, consider the following approach to make it more adaptive:

  • Inventory your current skill set today. Are there skills missing amongst the team that would allow you to better utilize insights and investment in new digital tools?
  • Whether you work in R&D, commercial operations, finance, or any other function, partner with HR to identify the new roles, reskilling programs, and talent acquisition strategies needed to best secure the talent to capitalize on those tools.
  • Consider how you might deploy an adaptive mix of workforce constructs, including a mix of full-time, part-time, contract labor, vendors, Managed Services, and more, to maximize the value of workforce investments.

Enabling employees to drive operational excellence

Once the right team is built, life sciences leaders are intent on equipping them to work in ways that drive operational efficiency and effectiveness. Patient marketing, healthcare professionals (HCP) marketing, and sales functions are often siloed with disconnected priorities, data, and processes. Legacy silos and inefficiencies stand in the way of seamless experiences and the ability to realize the value of omni-channel capabilities that the industry envisions for its future. The result is disjointed (and frustrating) experiences for patients, providers, and caregivers alike. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that ineffective organizational structures are the top internal catalyst for transformation strategy among 42 percent of leaders we surveyed. Respondents also pointed to a need for greater integration across systems and infrastructure as the most important internal obstacle they are seeking to address through transformation efforts this year.

With integrated systems and improved structures, life sciences leaders can enhance experiences, improve speed to market, and create process efficiency. On the journey toward operational improvement, industry players must be ready to rethink how their people engage with processes, technologies, and each other by focusing on:

  • Ways of working: Forty percent of those we surveyed in life sciences (10 points above the all-industry average), employ agile development methodologies in the delivery of their transformation. To make agile practices work optimally, industry leaders are also focused on cross-boundary, multi-disciplinary teams—nearly all (98 percent) of those we surveyed consider cross-functional teaming to be an objective of their sourcing strategies.
  • Data: Data is a core asset in life sciences. Yet rewiring the business and equipping employees to use it fully often falls to the back burner. For example, promotional data flows into the business from a variety of sources. Because of current organizational and operational patterns, it’s tough for employees to identify, integrate, and apply data for meaningful insight, revenue attribution, and strategic decision-making. Only 12 percent of those we surveyed reported using analytics in the design and delivery of their transformation strategies.
  • Digital: Data’s close counterpart, digital, is another requisite for performance, according to our research: Technology capabilities rank as the top factor improving life sciences organizations’ speed to market (42 percent of those we surveyed).


Empower employees to boost operational excellence by focusing on two key areas:

  • Shift organizational behaviors to improve operational effectiveness. Enhancing patient outcomes, reimagining methods for R&D and innovation, and harnessing new data sources and digital technologies all sound good on paper. But to extract their potential, you’ll need to equip your people to work in a more flexible, iterative fashion. Agile ways of working are key to operational effectiveness. Moving toward agility requires cross-functional engagement and alignment, rather than individual silos. Establishing a Transformation Value Office (TVO) can be a game changer here. While our research shows that 93 percent of life sciences companies have dedicated structures to govern their transformation today, the TVO is built differently. It’s designed to manage key milestones with adaptability and behavior change principles at the core, constantly grooming initiative value streams and instilling cross-functional ways of working long term.
  • Reorient your operating model to capture omni-channel capabilities. As we’ve explored, legacy operational and organizational structures are a driving force behind the industry’s transformation agenda. Creating and delivering seamless omni-channel experiences introduce new questions:
    • How will your company communicate with patients, HCPs, and others, including the channels and language they use to engage them?
    • How will data (demographic, purchase, engagement, and operational) be used to simplify, predict, and make patient and HCP interactions more personal?
    • How will your company engage clinical trial participants, gather feedback, monitor progress, and respond within your operating model?

These questions cannot be answered by a single function. They pose implications for your business end to end. Look across your operating model and organizational strategy, including people, processes, governance, structures, data, analytics, and technology. Consider operating model changes by first piloting them within your organizational structure (i.e., the guardrails that formally align the workforce and its collective responsibilities to your transformation). Treat it as an opportunity to experiment as different parts of your business come together to align on a vision for an omni-channel future.

Current trends in life sciences transformation and operations point to an entirely new world of work that has arrived perhaps more quickly than anticipated. Yet, the curiosity and drive to better the world ingrained in the life sciences industry can help leaders flex and grow during yet another year of uncertainty. That spirit of innovation will keep the industry moving ahead.