5 Ways a Pharma Giant Fosters Innovation

Roche’s Head of Human Resources, Cristina Wilbur, talks to MBAs in Barcelona

28/11/2016 Barcelona

Cristina A. Wilbur
“Innovation comes when people feel empowered to make decisions,” says Cristina Wilbur, Roche’s Head of Group Human Resources (right) / Photos: Roger Rovira

With 87,771 employees of 138 nationalities, Roche is one of the biggest and most international pharmaceutical companies in the market today. And, boasting more FDA breakthroughs for medications in the industry than anyone else, the company is right on the leading edge. How does Roche ensure it continuously fosters innovation and creativity among talent despite its size and global footprint? Recently appointed Head of Group Human Resources, Cristina Wilbur, came to IESE last week to explain.

“I’ve been with the organization for 14 years and I bloom in everything they are trying to do,” says Wilbur, who seems to echo the sentiment voiced by many at Roche, which is consistently rated one of the top places to work across the globe.

IESE has a long standing relationship with the company, pointed out Dean Franz Heukamp, with 10% of pharmaceutical graduates going into employment at Roche, and 80 alumni currently working there – “This is a reflection of the caliber of students and quality of programs,” comments Wilbur.

The talent demographic is changing - 50% of the Roche work force is now made up of millennials in Asia Pacific versus 30% in Europe, but Wilbur expects the proportion in the latter to soon catch up. In her session, she disclosed five ways that Roche manages this talent across continents so that innovation continues to blossom.

1. Diagnostics and Pharma under One Roof

A key factor in helping Roche to stay on the cutting edge of treatment is that “we are the only company that has both pharmaceuticals and diagnostics under one roof,” says Wilbur. They are able to be first to both identify the need and find the solution. And “with the personalization of healthcare, diagnostics and pharma are increasingly coming closer together,” she adds.

Paradoxically, the strength of Roche’s innovation sometimes comes from the ability that their dual focus gives them to look outwards. “Diagnostics sometimes go into things we don’t have medicines for, and so they might partner with other pharma companies,” says Wilbur. “We believe that you don’t need to have everything invented in-house and that you should keep an eye on what’s happening outside of the organization.”

The combination of disciplines also opens up more diverse in-house opportunities for talent to grow. “We encourage and support movement across divisions,” says Wilbur. “But it’s not like joining a completely different company,” she adds, “wherever you are in the organization there’s a commonality – there are certain processes and values that remain core.”

2. Value Maintenance

So what are these core guiding values that encourage talent to innovate, wherever they are at Roche? “Integrity, courage and passion are our values,” explains Wilbur. “Integrity must be encouraged because we always have to take the best decisions in the interest of patients and not Roche’s balance sheet; Courage is needed as the belief in what you’re doing rather than banking on insurance that it will work, and we can’t do what we’re doing without passionate and engaged people.”

3. Matrix Structures

In a large worldwide corporation, innovation can be stifled by perceived lack of autonomy and ability to make an impact. “Innovation comes when people feel empowered to make decisions,” comments Wilbur, “which is why we’re very much decentralized. We find that matrices work best for a multinational company.”

“When it comes to volatility in Venezuela versus the situation in China, we need to consider how we tailor decisions for each environment,” says Wilbur, even if it does make sense for certain things to be centralized.

And, in the case of some projects, pulling together a cross-country, multi-discipline team is the way to ensure optimum solutions, despite the logistical challenges involved. “We created a cancer immunity committee and pulled in people ranging from the commercial side to research and development, hailing from areas including Shanghai, Basel and San Francisco.”

4. Big Data

“We are looking at where different divisions come together to talk about the longer term strategy,” says Wilbur, “and big data coming from both sides is enabling a richer dialogue.”

Big data is big for diagnostic and pharmaceutical innovation. “IT is a core part of our business,” says Wilbur, “and we are trying to understand how to use it to tailor clinical trials so that we can better target profiles that will better respond to treatments. We are moving into more individualized treatment for better results.”

To a certain extent though, the jury is still out for Roche on how to optimize big data. “We are looking at how to mitigate risk and what role data plays in this,” says Wilbur but, “we don’t have the answer yet.”

5. Systems that Reflect People

Generation X and Y live their lives differently and, to get the best out of them, workplace systems have to reflect that. “Nine years ago, while a lot of companies were still working with spreadsheets, we were one of the first to harmonize global people processes and create one global IT system for them,” explains the HR Head.

At the time, Roche implemented SAP “with an extensive amount of personalization,” says Wilbur. “We established service centers, and the idea of employee and manager self-service. And we were able for the first time to know about all of our people across the world.”

“We are now embarking on a process of moving to a cloud solution with Workday,” adds Wilbur, “and we will have greater analytics on our core people this way.” More insights on employees means a greater ability to stay in tune with them. “The flexibility of our policies cover most people,” says Roche, “and when they don’t we look at how we can accommodate them.”

But there is still some way to go. “My vision for the near-term is that you will be able to do everything at work via your mobile phone,” asserts Wilbur, “just like the way people live their lives.”

Rewarding Principles

Roche strives to foster innovation among existing employees, but how do they attract the right talent in the first place?

In speaking to MBAs at IESE, Wilbur explains “the core contribution of Roche to society is improving healthcare. We are a very humble company and don’t always talk about the great things we do. Other companies may have basketball courts and treats in the fridge. We want people to come to Roche not because of treats, but because they’re passionate about science and improving the lives of patients. We do have treats,” Wilbur hastens to add, “but we don’t want to lure you in with these!”