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A “model perspective”: Innovative horizons at Merck

Clark Golestani, Merck EVP and CIO, discusses innovation hubs, new technologies and using the three horizon model to drive results.

Recently Accenture’s own Arjun Bedi, Client Account Lead for Merck, had the opportunity to sit down with Clark Golestani, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Merck.

How did you get into the Life Sciences industry?
I first came to the life sciences industry as a consultant to many industries from telecommunications to manufacturing, to logistics and shipping. What always amazed me about the pharmaceutical industry was the depth and complexity of information that drives the business globally. So when I was offered the opportunity to join Merck, almost 22 years ago, I jumped at the chance to participate in the industry. Since then I’ve found that the information problems haven’t become any easier. In fact, they’ve become far more complex as time goes on as more information becomes available through all the different testing capabilities and now with wearable devices as well. Making sense of that information to drive the business and novel therapeutics is pretty exciting. What really drew me to this industry though is the idea that while there are lots of places to apply IT, few are as fulfilling as life sciences, where we have a hand in enhancing and saving lives around the world.

We see a lot of CIOs across the industry focus on cost cutting, but at Merck you seem to be looking well beyond that. Can you tell us what you’re doing to drive value at Merck?
The first thing I would say is that it’s important to make sure the organization is structured in a way to drive near-term results while ensuring that longer-term results can also be achieved. We’ve adopted and adapted a three horizon model to drive IT:

  • The first horizon is the bulk of the operations, both application infrastructure and technology. In this space, the goal is to provide incredible levels of service and to consolidate technology to reduce costs. As in any business, cost is king, and so we need to develop the most efficient cost structure we possibly can. It would be wrong to think there’s no innovation going on in this space though—it’s just that innovation tends to be near-term and often involves automation.

  • The second horizon is about driving our business operations and it’s an eighteen to thirty month horizon. This usually entails large process change or transformation programs that drive automation of business processes and higher levels of productivity. There are two pieces to the productivity equation—minimizing costs and enhancing revenue. This horizon requires us to work closely with our business colleagues because it’s not something IT can do alone.

  • The third horizon is more disruptive, because we’re looking out beyond three years to those changes in technology that might afford us a step change in what we do as a business or in the way that we operate our business. This is where experimentation takes place. For example, 3D printing offers some interesting impacts on the way we develop drugs and perform trials. It’s particularly important when we look at this horizon that we’re aware of what else is going on in the industry. Some of the ways we do that are by holding a global technology summit with our business colleagues, sponsoring community programs, and by driving technology expertise within the organization through hackathons in each of our hubs around the world. But when it comes to talking about innovation, the biggest benefit comes from developing an innovator mindset across the entire company.

"While there are lots of places to apply IT, few are as fulfilling as life sciences, where we have a hand in enhancing and saving lives around the world."

Speaking of innovation, can you tell us about the IT innovation hubs you’ve set up?
We’ve established three IT hubs—one in Branchburg near New York, one in Prague and one in Singapore—which are part of our global innovation network. Each hub contains all the functions and a multi-disciplinary group that builds and manages technology using a 24/7 model. That model has proven extremely effective. We no longer have people staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning to deal with a problem halfway around the world. Now we’re able to successfully hand off issues to someone in a position to solve them. For example, we just went live with a global unified communications update, and even though it’s one of the most heavily used assets in the company, affecting tens of thousands of people, we completed the update without a hitch. These hubs have enabled us to be much more agile, to deliver change more quickly and to drive faster innovation cycles.

Apart from 3D printing, is there any other technology that you’re particularly excited about?
I think that perhaps the greatest impact to life sciences will come through the Internet of Things. Until now when our industry wanted information on a person, we’ve had to focus on point-in-time testing. Going forward this industry will have the opportunity for continuous monitoring of the human body. We’ll be able to look at heart rate, blood pressure and glucose levels, but I can imagine going even further than that, to couple those readings with continuous monitoring of behavioral data and environmental data. The potential is tremendous. But the amount of data we’ll need to manage is going to be huge. I think that will be the next big horizon for IT in this industry. We’re going to need big data capabilities with analytics on top of that, and it’s going to present some incredible challenges going forward and opportunities that could disrupt the industry.

Can you tell us if there’s anything you’re passionate about outside of work?
Apart from travelling, the thing I’m most passionate about is education. It’s clear to me when I look at IT that it’s all about the talent you have and that you’re able to attract. As time goes on there just isn’t going to be enough talent for everyone, so I think we need to consider how we educate people, who we educate and how we find the people who have an aptitude for IT. I’m also interested in providing programs for those who are less privileged but who have the potential to really contribute and make a huge difference in IT. That’s why I’m a member of NPower, which looks to harness the collective good of educating the underprivileged in technology and cybersecurity, whether it’s with veterans, step-up programs or underserved communities. Education is going to be critical to our future and it’s an endeavor I hope to continue with, even beyond what I’m doing now.