The Sharpest Tool in the Pharmaceutical Industry's Toolkit? Learning Agility

In brief:

  • For the medical affairs function of pharmaceutical companies, learning agility plays an integral role.
  • By investing in learning agility, medical affairs teams will be best equipped to lead their companies through periods of rapid transformation.
  • Leaders can embody this critical competency and develop it within their teams by designing specialized leadership programs, recognizing the right skills and behaviors, and championing it in employee interactions.

I was honored to join a Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS) panel with some of my long-time friends from Takeda and Syneos Health. The topic? One of the essential skills in the pharmaceutical industry’s toolkit: learning agility. Today, I’m sharing some of the highlights from the conversation, focusing on takeaways you can apply to strategic workforce planning.

Syneos Health defines learning agility as the “ability to cope with change and uncertainty, by adapting previous lessons learned.” While the skill isn’t new, recent discussions about the future of work have pushed it to the top of the talent development priority list, alongside complementary skills such as resiliency, agile ways of working, and innovation.

For the medical affairs function of pharmaceutical companies, learning agility plays an especially integral role.

Why? Well, for one, the function’s remit has shifted dramatically. It no longer plays a scientific support role; today, it’s the strategic “third pillar”—an advisor and business partner to clinical development and commercial colleagues. By investing in individual and organizational learning agility, medical affairs teams will be best equipped to lead their companies through periods of rapid transformation, exemplified by several recent scenarios:

  • Virtual dynamics reshaped field medical relationships in the past year, calling for experimentation with new technologies and methods of engagement. Employees must be comfortable navigating ambiguity and uncertainty as healthcare provider (HCP) and key opinion leader (KOL) relationships, content, technology, and other needs change.
  • Digital enablement powers omnichannel engagement—smoothing ways of working and meeting stakeholder demands for data-driven insights. Perhaps more importantly, it pulls those insights into feedback loops that enact change and enable action.
  • Empathy, not just bedside manner, is required for a deeper, more authentic understanding of patient journeys. Only with perspective on patient needs, fears, and motivations can medical affairs teams embed patient centricity into the heart of their business objectives. Science communicated purely through numbers, mechanisms of action, and medical jargon will surely miss the mark in the eyes of patients and caregivers. Today, it must be communicated with heart and soul.
  • Medical affairs must learn to work with a broader and more diverse ecosystem of stakeholders—both internal and external—from payers to patient advocacy groups to C-suite board rooms. A wider network naturally creates more complexity for employees to navigate, involving regulatory factors, privacy constraints, organizational politics, and more.
  • Amid a growing number of rare diseases and complexity in drug launches, science can’t be pulled off the shelf. Medical affairs professionals must build acumen in cross-functional collaboration and decision-making to bring innovations to life and get them into the hands of patients.

Getting started: Tips for leaders and their teams

Learning agility begins at the top. How can leaders embody this critical competency and develop it within their teams?

Design specialized programs for leadership: Focus on the skills necessary for the diverse needs of the future—universal competencies that help medical affairs leaders make sense of, adapt, and strategize in the changing (and often ambiguous) world around them. In designing your program, consider the following competencies recommended specifically for medical affairs leaders by Pharmaceutical Medicine:

  • Leading communications and behavioral change
  • Leading the business and outside partners
  • Developing future leaders by role modeling a growth and continuous-learning mindset
  • Producing real-world evidence from insights
  • Performing analytics and data science
  • Finding opportunities for creativity and innovation with digital capabilities
  • Conducting competitive research on other players in the scientific community

Learning agility is a foundational, umbrella competency that underpins all of these skills and their critical success factors.

Recognize the right skills and behaviors: Medical affairs professionals have historically been promoted and rewarded for their academic and scientific achievements. After all, the role is rooted in science- and medicine-based subject matter expertise. As a result, recognition for learning agility, agile ways of working, emotional intelligence, and people leadership have taken a backseat to scientific accolades. Consider how the needs of the medical affairs business have changed over the years. The science and medicine will always be a calling card for medical affairs, but the true differentiator will be learning agility. With learning agility, medical affairs professionals can pivot and adapt to whatever the patient and pipeline need because they have the tools to learn, unlearn, and negotiate in times of uncertainty, ambiguity, change, and chaos.

Prepare leaders to champion learning agility day-to-day: We also discussed a few tangible areas where leaders can incorporate learning agility to unleash the power of their team members. These include:

  • Staff agile learners on strategic initiatives: Agile learners are among the most vital contributors to high-stakes, high-value programs and initiatives. This skill allows them to navigate ambiguous, complex circumstances with ease, powered by an ability to synthesize, learn, and adapt. Another plus: assigning stretch projects to employees helps them strengthen their muscles for learning agility.
  • Embed learning agility in hiring practices: Agile learners typically possess many soft skills—including emotional intelligence and resiliency—associated with high-performing employees. By prioritizing learning agility in your hiring practices, you're more likely to source top-performing talent.
  • Empower employees: Employees with learning agility are highly perceptive: they intuitively understand their strengths and use them to increase their impact. Conversely, they also recognize areas where they have room to grow and seek opportunities for continued development. The right learning and development activities can help employees zero in on these growth opportunities.

With all the disruption of the past year, the pharmaceutical industry’s future strategic course is sure to bring many twists and turns. Despite the unknowable future, one thing is certain: learning agility is an indispensable tool that can help medical affairs leaders answer the call to become more adaptive, strategic business partners.