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We Can’t Afford “Business as Usual”: Rethinking and Reimagining Alliance Management in the Age of COVID-19

Posted By Michael J. Burke, Friday, September 25, 2020

“It’s clear that over the last eight, nine months things have changed significantly. There really is no going back. The status quo is no more. Everything that has been done in the past can, and in many instances must, be rethought.”

That was the sobering pronouncement by Jeff Shuman, CSAP, PhD, at the outset of the presentation “The Silver Lining: Reimagining Alliance Management to Focus on What Matters Most Now,” on day one of the first-ever virtual 2020 ASAP BioPharma Conference, just concluded. Shuman and his copresenter, Jan Twombly, CSAP, are the principals of The Rhythm of Business, and both they and their keen insights into alliance management are quite familiar to the ASAP member community.

Shuman was referencing the many changes wrought by COVID-19—but according to Twombly, the healthcare ecosystem was being transformed already, before the pandemic, and this process has continued and even accelerated. It’s largely a combination of three factors, she noted:

  • New technologies: including platform therapies, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Shifting economics: more value- or outcomes-based models, changes in government and payer reimbursement policies creating pricing pressures, and a shift in focus from treatment to prevention and cure
  • Empowered patients: reflected in greater consumer experience expectations, the rise of mobile technologies, and the ups and downs of public perceptions of the biopharma industry

In addition, new business models have been emerging due to all of the above factors, plus a declining return on investment in research. These models, according to Twombly, tend to be more patient outcomes focused, more predictable, at lower cost and higher volumes, and—similar to tech industry initiatives—easier to terminate or iterate early (which applies to both programs and partnerships).

“At every step of the way, we see that it is a significantly partnered model that has emerged,” Twombly said.

A Silver Linings Playbook of Coping Strategies

This represents an opportunity and part of the “silver lining” for those like Twombly and Shuman who believe that partnering is a key route to innovation and better patient outcomes, but there remains a thorny problem: resources. More to the point, the lack thereof for alliance management. Limited resources can result in alliances that are essentially “unmanaged,” or managed by people who have no experience in the role, and adds significant risk and potentially lost value to the equation as actual alliance managers are overwhelmed and forced to develop various “coping strategies,” including becoming reactive rather than proactive in their activities.

“If you’ve got 10 or 15 alliances that you’re managing, you can’t possibly have your finger on the pulse of the alliance,” Twombly said, before putting out polling questions online to the audience to canvass their experience of unmanaged alliances, alliance managers having to be reactive, and the like.

“Across the board there are challenges,” she summarized, as these unhappy conditions seemed to resonate with much of the audience given the poll results that were appearing in real time. And now such issues have become magnified as the number of partnerships—and new partner types—focused on tackling COVID-19 alone has multiplied, and at speed.

“New Urgency” to Reimagine Alliance Management Practices

Given these developments and the economic and societal uncertainties that accompany them, “It really becomes clear,” Shuman said, “that there is a new urgency to rethink how alliance management is done and by whom. When you throw COVID-19 on top of already busy schedules, it’s really time to reimagine alliance management.”

So how do we do that rethinking and reimagining? First we have to understand the big picture of our organization’s alliances, Shuman said. What is the portfolio? What alliance management services are required for the various alliances? And what resources are available to them?

“In 20 years of being involved with ASAP, one of the refrains we hear all the time is, ‘We don’t have enough resources,’” Shuman said. “That’s a real challenge.”

To meet that challenge, Shuman and Twombly said, alliance managers need to apply agility to their alliance practice. Not exactly software agility, but agile principles: what matters most now. There are various elements of this process, but the overarching one is to focus on the North Star: “What is it we’re really trying to do?” Shuman explained.

Three key areas Shuman highlighted in this regard were resourcing the alliance portfolio, increasing the agility of alliance management practices, and adapting the alliance management organization to these new requirements. “By this time we know what works and what doesn’t, and what we want to do is take time out of the process. With all the pressure worldwide to develop a [coronavirus] vaccine, there’s bound to be myriad changes to the processes we have always used, to do a faster job of getting to that North Star,” he said.

Journey Through the Front Door

Resourcing decisions need to be part of a coherent and transparent governance process, according to Twombly, “across the board.” The profile of a given alliance then dictates what services are needed. “We call this a front-door process—part of the stable backbone, and collaborative leadership process, that any alliance requires,” she said.

Alliances can thus be segmented into complex, typical, and simple. A “simple” alliance might be a research alliance that doesn’t need a lot of management per se, but can be overseen by project managers. More complex alliances with many moving parts and requirements might then get the lion’s share of attention from more experienced alliance managers and leaders. Twombly recommended applying expertise and alliance management focus to each segment as needed, and having a standard way to resource each segment.

The bottom line? “We have to do things differently and smarter,” Twombly explained. She also referenced the first day’s keynote and panel led by CEO Rusty Field of Upsher-Smith and his colleagues, which described alliance management as a “mindset” rather than merely a group or department.

“Partnering is an organization-wide initiative, not just for the alliance management team,” Twombly elaborated. The key is for alliance professionals to work to engage the rest of the organization and get them involved. “No doubt about it—it’s a journey,” Twombly added.

There’s No Going Back

So what are the steps toward reimagining alliance management? Shuman outlined five:

  • Define your destination, i.e., your North Star
  • Build a “destination back to the present” plan and work backwards from that goal
  • Determine the first steps that will have an impact
  • Enroll a small number of stakeholders who are champions for change
  • Grab the license you have now to fix what’s broken, improve what’s inefficient—and own it!

Alliance management must be rethought and reimagined because the older processes within organizations—and not only for alliance management—were created for “what used to be normal,” Shuman concluded. “We’re never going back there to the way business was done. We’re going to go to the next normal. So stick with it. Make it happen. The one thing you don’t want to do is continue with business as usual.”

Tags:  alliance  Alliance Management  collaborative leadership  governance process  Jan Twombly  Jeff Shuman  Rusty Field  The Rhythm of Business  Upsher-Smith 

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