Another Day at Light Speed ASAP Roundtable Examines Changes Facing the Profession

Program Executive Summary,

Posted By Jon Lavietes and Michael Burke, Friday, March 5, 2021
Updated: Monday, March 8, 2021

To borrow from the old ’80s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, alliance work moves pretty fast, and if professionals don’t stop and look around once in a while, they might miss trends taking place outside of their view that can impact their jobs.

Learning from and comparing notes with fellow alliance managers is one of ASAP’s core value propositions, and to that end, ASAP recently kicked off a new series of roundtables that convened alliance managers and consultants from companies of all sizes across a variety of industries to discuss the “Changes Facing the Profession” brought about by our pandemic-constrained reality.

Attendees of all levels—people with experience ranging from months to decades in the collaboration field—were broken into two smaller groups to wax on how COVID-19, corporate social responsibility, data privacy, climate change, customer transformations, and dramatic shifts in their industries are impacting their day-to-day lives.

We Read the News Today, Oh Boy: Once the Dust Settles, “Something Else Big Happens”

In her role as moderator, Jan Twombly, CSAP, president of The Rhythm of Business, kicked off one of the group discussions by asking participants which, out of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, is affecting their daily affairs more dramatically. As the pandemic has exposed gray areas in agreements, ambiguity has reared its head in the form of questions and disputes around existing contracts. Volatility has manifested itself as priorities seem to shift constantly due to COVID-19 and changes in company finances, partners’ situations, or customer/stakeholder requirements, among many other elements.

“Once the dust settles, it seems something else big happens,” remarked one participant, referring to hiring freezes, changes in team dynamics, and market changes that have unsettled processes over the course of the past year.

And while there’s uncertainty around investments in relationships and changing partnership models, the resulting complexity is the least of some alliance managers’ worries.

“It’s another day in the life—alliance managers are used to complexity,” said one pharmaceutical industry executive.

Pharma and IT Cultures Continue to Blend

How are things changing at organizations specifically? The second breakout group, led by Kevin Little, CSAP, senior partnership director at Novo Nordisk, tackled how alliance functions are moving with their organizations—or not—as they respond to change.

Some have seen partners emerge in the SaaS realm with the express purpose of bringing a hyperfocus on driving adoption and retention—“people who live with the customer,” as one participant put it, citing Intuit as an example of a company that effectively leverages this emerging adoption/retention channel.

Meanwhile, the meteoric rise of collaborations between pharma and IT has continued, as has the proliferation of sustainability partnerships. Interestingly, one biopharma alliance manager insisted that coopetition is no longer exclusively the domain of tech partnerships—COVID-19 alliances have brought competitors together, as evidenced by the recent announcement that Merck will help produce Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine (which follows Novartis and Sanofi jumping in to assist with production of the Pfizer vaccine).

Is This Seat Taken? Alliance and Strategy Teams Should Sit Together

This same group was asked what other trends and challenges they are seeing and what implications these developments have for alliances.

The role the alliance practice is playing—or not playing—in forming and executing company strategy dominated the discussion. The consensus was that companies are best served when all relevant stakeholders—alliance management, business development, innovation, sales, marketing, etc.—formulate company strategy together, “sitting side by side,” as one participant put it, metaphorically or otherwise.

When this is not done, companies run the risk of ending up with competing strategies at work within their own organizations. Unfortunately, the alliance function often isn’t included in strategic groups, as many lamented—so strategy and business development people consummate the deals, then lob them over the fence to alliance management to execute.

Trying to Get a Nut, or Just Plain Nuts?

Perhaps the best line came in the first group’s discussion about behavioral quirks in their partners that have arisen in the pandemic. A veteran alliance manager likened the fits and starts that have characterized many collaborations during these volatile times to “two squirrels on the dance floor” that “move spastically, then stop.”

“We are either moving at light speed or we’re frozen in time,” he noted.

Although it’s easy to get caught up in doom-and-gloom outlooks, given the limits on our social and professional lives, attendees noted several reasons for optimism. Despite society’s lack of mobility, many people were finding new job opportunities that might not have been available prior to the normalization of remote work. Others have taken the opportunity to reevaluate business objectives and experiment with new techniques, partnerships, and governance models. One person recounted how her organization has finally seen the light and appreciated the value of alliance management.

“Now people realize that we are the eyes and ears of the organization,” she said.