The Collaborative Operating System

Posted By: Michael Burke BioPharma Conference, Member Resources,

The 2023 ASAP BioPharma Conference began today with CA-AM and CSAP certification exam prep workshops, a workshop on conflict management—and the invitation-only Leadership Forum, which this year was a bit more homegrown than usual: that is, of, by, and for the assembled biopharma alliance leaders. And it was well received!

To start with, the topic of the emerging alliance operations manager role was batted around—as we’ll do in an upcoming article in the Q4 issue of Strategic Alliance Quarterly (coming soon!). Moderator Jan Twombly, CSAP, principal of The Rhythm of Business, teed it up, with fireside chat participants Suzanne Collins—herself head of alliance and business operations at Takeda—and Louis Rinfret, PhD, founder of alliance software purveyor allianceboard.

We’ve often focused—and will continue to do so—on the need for alliance managers to keep their eyes on the strategic prize of alliance success and value creation. But how are they supposed to do that effectively when they’re stuck in the mud of everyday tasks and maintenance, trying to keep up with databases, calendars, milestones, and other processes and systems?

The answer may not be to increase alliance management headcount or to hire an admin so much as to bring on an alliance operations manager—common in tech, as Twombly noted, not so much in biopharma. Of the 30 or so people in the room at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, only three said they had such a role. But after the ensuing discussion, everyone may want one.

Making Alliance Managers’ Lives Nicer One Business Outcome at a Time

Of course it’s not a panacea, but it can certainly help: to standardize processes, templates, and metrics; to keep track of milestone payments in or out; to ensure consistency of operations; and to install and maintain—and train folks on—needed software. Among other things.

Rinfret made the point that this should be sold to possibly skeptical senior management as being about efficiencies and “delivering business outcomes, not just making the life of the alliance manager nicer.” But wouldn’t it be nice to save money, headcount, and other resources while freeing up alliance managers to do what they’re supposed to do—manage alliances? Rinfret further noted that alliance professionals tend to be “actually pretty modest about our value,” which ought to change immediately—and the emerging role should be described in terms of the benefits it might bring across functions in organizations, which should help overcome the resistance people put up based on the “significant fear of doing anything different from what you’re doing,” as one participant put it.

Twombly said that just as many alliances are unique, at many organizations, “if you’ve seen one alliance manager, you’ve seen one alliance manager.” They’re working on different types of alliances, in different therapeutic areas, in R&D versus commercial or vice versa, and working in different ways. The key to greater efficiency might be to have the operations manager work across functions and across therapeutic areas—or to embed various people within these areas or business units to keep things consistent in each group. Depending on how it’s done, either method might help drive the “one-team approach,” as Collins termed it.

Let’s Get Collaborative

The second topic that made the rounds at Leadership Forum today was collaborative competency, with Adam Kornetsky, principal at Vantage Partners, moderating, along with his fireside chat companions Aida Bendt, CA-AM, senior director and head of alliance management for oncology R&D at AstraZeneca, and Chris Black, CA-AM, head of corporate alliance management and integration at Merck.

One participant noted that we’re moving (or should be) from the mere development of an alliance management function to building an organizational partnering capability. But what does this mean?

Better ways of working with partners, certainly, but also better ways of training and onboarding alliance team members and governance members, educating the organization about alliance management and how it’s bringing value, and sharing information back and forth not only among actual alliance professionals, but with everyone in an organization who touches the partnership in some way. And in many companies, that’s a lot of people!

Black stressed that while even the best corporate strategies may last eight years at most, “these partnerships are in decades,” and thus alliance managers are “the protectors of the long term.” The success of internal education efforts can be shown when there is “unambiguous recognition from the organization” for alliance management, he added—and when people outside alliance management want to learn more about it and even be part of it, because it “seems cool.”

Cool, and complicated. Thus various forms of learning and information sharing have been developed at some companies, ranging from the Centers of Excellence (disliked by some for the name and the prospect of critics charging that this or that practice “is not truly excellent”) to the Communities of Practice (derided by others as “lunch and learn”). Call it what you will, but the presence of handbooks, manuals, playbooks, one-pagers, and the like that help people understand alliances in context (Why are we in this? What decisions are coming up in the next 18 to 24 months?) can give a huge boost to partnering efforts, alliance management’s visibility, and overall collaborative competency.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

On the Horizon

The roundtable discussions ended with suggestions of “new capabilities” that alliance professionals will need to keep on their radar and further develop, ranging from watching out for cyberattacks affecting partners to geopolitical events to competitive intelligence and ongoing cultural sensitivities needed.

And that’s a lot for alliance managers—even the ones who have operational wizards and gurus in their midst—to keep their eyes and minds on. But it only scratches the surface of what was discussed at today’s Leadership Forum—and it’s a drop in the ocean compared with the fountain of knowledge that will flow freely over the course of the next two days of the ASAP BioPharma Conference proper. There’s much more to come, so stay tuned to this space as we continue to cover the conference in all its glory!