Pfizer’s Digital Strategy and Transformation

July 20, 2021

July 20, 2021 | TRENDS FROM THE TRENCHES—Bill Leister has spent more than 20 years in healthcare-related roles—mostly reference laboratory services—but in 2018 he joined Pfizer as a Senior Vice President first to help mature and advance Pfizer’s analytic capabilities, and later to bring data and insights assets together holistically. 

Now Senior Vice President of Advanced Analytics and Data Platforms & Learning and Development, Leister leads Pfizer’s analytics and data platforms group, supporting core functional towers, Worldwide Research, Development, and Medical (WRDM), Global Product Development (GPD), Pfizer Global Supply (PGS), and commercial colleagues.

Leister recently sat down with Stan Gloss, founding partner at BioTeam, to discuss Pfizer’s digital vision. Bio-IT World was invited to listen in.

Editor’s Note: Trends from the Trenches is a regular column from the BioTeam, offering a peek behind the curtain of some of their most interesting case studies and projects at the intersection of science and technology.


Stan Gloss: How would you describe Pfizer’s mission?
Bill Leister:
Our CEO Albert Bourla defined Pfizer’s mission as driving breakthroughs that change patients’ life. As part of that mission, we’re undertaking a business transformation to become a leaner, more science-driven and patient-focused organization. Digital plays a part in almost every aspect of how we’re going to achieve that transformation. But ultimately, our objective and how we’ll measure that success, is our ability to deliver 25 drug breakthroughs by 2025.

How is Pfizer planning to achieve its digital mission? We have created 3 bold moves in support of Pfizer’s purpose driven blueprint , one of which is to win the digital race in pharma. When we talk about winning the digital race in pharma, our focus is on: (1) applying digital technologies to help speed up discovery and development of medicines and vaccines, (2) to enhance the patient and customer experience, and ultimately through that enhancement, we hope we can improve outcomes, and (3) to make our work faster and easier through the application of automation. 

What is Pfizer’s Digital Companion strategy?
Digital Companion is part of our transformation and digital strategy. It provides solutions and tools over digital channels to help providers and patients in a variety of ways. Companions can help educate, improve compliance or appropriate adherence to therapy, and we do hope that they ultimately improve the outcomes for patients. Our goal is for every new breakthrough that we deliver to market, we have supporting digital companions that will help with engagement and, ultimately, help better inform the patients or assist patients with communications with the healthcare providers.

When companies try to execute a digital strategy, especially in larger, very larger, established companies, there tends to be a lot of people stuck in old ways of doing things. Pfizer has been around for over 100 years. How is the company driving business transformation?

The key to any transformation effort—regardless of the organization—is change management. We cannot under-value or under-appreciate that we've got to bring all of our colleagues on the journey, if we are going to be successful in driving transformative efforts. Resistance to change is a natural part of the transformation process—it can be difficult and uncomfortable for people to adapt to a new way of doing things. The best way to get people to come on the journey is to share the vision for the future: What does the future look like? Why we need to change? How will it benefit the company, our customers, and each of us? I have found that most people have the capacity for change if you keep them engaged throughout the process, get their feedback, and provide support along the way. As people start to see tangible outcomes during the transition, they often become the biggest proponents of a new way of working.

What are Pfizer’s strategic themes as part of your digital strategy and transformation work?

The first is scaling new ways of working, so working smarter and faster with agile processes, simplifying what we call our mega processes and transforming how we learn and develop talent within the organization, as well as scaling our data foundation and insight capabilities to drive better performance action results in our decision-making process. 

The second key theme that we’re focused on is powering the core, driving the digitization of drug discovery and development, deepening patient and healthcare provider engagement through things like our digital companions, driving manufacturing and supply chain excellence, and leveraging real world data and real-world evidence in our R&D pipeline.

The final pillar or theme in our strategy is about transforming the business. Such as virtual clinical trials, virtual core go-to market model, as well as engaging patients longitudinally, to drive improved outcomes.

In all three of these towers, we have supporting change management initiatives that are driving education sessions, Q&A, helping colleagues understand the benefits we hope to achieve.  

What kinds of things is Pfizer doing to ensure that its staff are bought into the changes? The first thing is to ensure that we’re engaging colleagues throughout the process. When you look at any transformation effort, you will see both team members who are change averse, and those that are eager to jump in, concerned that they will be left behind. 

For those that are change averse, we have introduced mini roadshows, where we’re focused on presenting the vision of the future: What does it look like? Why do we need the change? How will it benefit the company, patients and each of us? But for those who are change advocates, we ensure that they have avenues through lunch-and-learns, Agile sprint retrospectives, and ideation sessions with team members on projects and work streams where they can not only bring input but have the opportunity to become a part of those programs. Addressing the concerns of the change-averse as well as the change-nimble, sharing success stories and celebrating incremental wins along the way is key to making the transformation successful.

Why is Pfizer using digital technologies to drive business transformation?
Pfizer has been going through a transformation to become a leaner, more science-driven and patient-focused organization. In 2019, Pfizer embarked on a digital transformation—leveraging new ways of working and harnessing novel digital, data, and technology solutions to enhance every aspect of our business from speeding up the discovery and development of medicines and vaccines to how we enhance patient and customer experiences to improve health outcomes, and how we make our work faster and easier through automation. We believe the pandemic accelerated digital adoption by five years and that the new ways of working are here to stay. 

What is the biggest barrier to achieving your business transformation goals? We have the technology today to achieve our business transformation goals; technology is seldom a limitation. The bigger challenge is bringing all our staff on our transformational journey. We must ensure that colleagues have the opportunity to be a part of the process, connect with it and take accountability and responsibility for the outcomes. 

What role does Pfizer’s infrastructure and data play in your data ecosystem? Our infrastructure and data are the foundation of our data ecosystem. Almost every part of our business transformation is designed to use digital technologies as a growth drivers and value creators for the business. 

Did cloud computing play a role in Pfizer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Pfizer was an early adopter of cloud technology in the area of scientific research because it provided access to a previously unattainable level of computing power. It has enabled our chemists to easily and quickly search and analyze both internal and external compound collections that exceed a billion molecules in just hours rather than weeks. Over the past 5 years, we have shifted the majority of our global infrastructure to a hybrid-cloud. This investment in cloud played a key role enabling Pfizer to move at the speed required in our response to the COVID 19 pandemic.

Pfizer operates in a highly-regulated industry with stringent compliance requirements, and that has played heavily into how we have adopted cloud. We have had to be particularly thoughtful about how to evolve our security and operational controls to ensure the appropriate level of protection without negatively impacting the principal benefits of cloud, namely flexibility and speed. We have reached a point through automation and policy-based management where we feel that our modern cloud deployments are every bit as secure, if not more so, than our traditional datacenter-based environments.

Does Pfizer still maintain on-premises (local) computing resources? Are you leveraging a hybrid compute model? Pfizer does maintain a significant internal high-performance compute environment. We’re actively in the process of looking at ways to drive scale and growth through a cloud hybrid model, allowing us to leverage those investments that we made in high-performance compute internally, but to give us that flex capacity to drive computational value at levels previously unseen and aggressively rotate towards modern, native cloud-based application development. The benefits obtained in speed-to-market, agility, and digital-based user experiences are significant, and would have been exceedingly difficult to achieve with traditional infrastructures including private (hybrid) clouds. The realization that cloud technology is more than just an infrastructure cost-arbitrage play has caused an inflection within Pfizer. Increasingly, our partners across the organization recognize cloud is not just an efficiency play, but is fundamentally changing how we do business, and that has generated great interest and excitement… and a lot of gratification for the Digital division. 

How is Pfizer using data to drive your business transformation? Data is a personal passion of mine because of the potential data has to power scientific breakthroughs and to transform healthcare. As Pfizer transforms to a leaner more science-driven and patient-focused organization, digital and data are foundational to support emerging trends such as virtual clinical trials, virtual core go-to-market model, a Digital Companion platform to engage patients longitudinally and drive improved patient outcomes, next gen diagnostics and wearables, and AI-powered prediction to support safety, early drug discovery and development programs. We are pivoting our data and analytic capabilities from data lakes and bespoke analytic solutions to an integrated enterprise data and analytic platform approach.

How important is metadata tagging to managing your data? To be successful in our Analytic Platform program, we must focus on metadata management. It is the metadata that lends quality and richness to our data. It also fuels our ability to link our data to other assets that exist in the enterprise. Without strong metadata and metadata management processes we will miss out on opportunities surface data assets to support study and research efforts and create the risk of leveraging data for analytic purposes without fully understanding the context of the dataset applied. 

What cultural changes is your CEO trying to drive? The number one change is to focus on impact and outcomes versus activity. So, we will measure ourselves based on the impact and outcomes that we're able to create.

Where is Pfizer in the process of FAIRifying your data? We've set a goal that 100% of our data is FAIR by 2025. Due to the volume and diversity of our data assets this is an aggressive goal. We are making progress against this goal as part of our analytic platform program, and we are off to a strong start as we have connected data or loaded data into the analytic platform we are ensuring it meets FAIR principles. A key to our success will be working with our colleagues at the bench, where data is created, to ensure that as it starts flowing through the lab notebook, and from there into our enterprise analytic platform, it includes complete and well-described metadata. 

How is Pfizer transforming data to a company asset? Data becomes an asset when we democratize it, meaning bringing transparency and visibility to those assets. As we democratize our data, we must ensure that those who are looking to use the data understand the context of the assets that they're working with. We have to be mindful of the collaboration required between data consumers and data creators and enable them to seamlessly connect through our analytic platform. We’re introducing enhanced discovery capabilities, toolkits to create reusable data ‘products’, virtual collaboration tools and a digital data marketplace to connect subject matter experts and stakeholders to maximize the value and impact our data. 

How do you see AI/ML impacting Pfizer’s digital discovery efforts? It’s essential. We’re seeing the expansion of the adoption of AI and ML capabilities across every aspect of how Pfizer does business. We’re leveraging AI and ML to create speed and accuracy in our decision-making process at every level: how we respond to safety events, or how we're approaching engagement, and site selection in our trials, we are starting to leverage AI in molecule screening and design, all the way through to how we run our logistics and manufacturing processes. There’s not an aspect of our business that will not be expanding its use and adoption of AI and ML. 

How has this pandemic response changed Pfizer? How will it impact your future discovery efforts? The situation that we have dealt with over the last 18 months has really challenged that status quo. In fact, it has blown that status quo out of the water. The success of our pandemic response has given us an opportunity to drive some meaningful improvements, to take what we did over the last year, and look at how we apply those learnings in scale to drive the future of Pfizer, to drive 25 breakthroughs, and get those in the hands of our patients by 2025.

How did seeing your CEO speak with the president of the United State at the G7 summit make you feel about Pfizer’s contribution to the pandemic? Proud. I will tell you that the last 18 months have been the most challenging in my professional career. Over 90,000+ Pfizer employees rallied together to focus on one purpose. It was 24/7 operations for all of us, without question. But while I say it was one of the most challenging, it was also a year that I look back on with the greatest amount of pride in my professional journey. I think I speak for all Pfizer colleagues that look back on what we were able to accomplish and achieve as an organization, and we all take great pride in it because it took all of us, committed to a single purpose, to get there.