Safety & Security Today recently had a conversation with Syed Ijlal Jafri, Chief Information Officer, Martin Dow Group to better understand the digital ecosystem of pharmaceutical industry
Safety & Security Today (S&ST): What was your inspiration when you joined the pharmaceutical industry, specifically the digital domain?
Syed Ijlal Jafri (SIJ): Surprisingly, it wasn’t the progress of the pharma industry that inspired me to be a part of it. In fact, it was quite the contrary – it was the long-time modernization gaps that made me want to join it so I could try and bring the long overdue change. Traditionally, the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t been very welcoming to change and there are many regulatory and inherent business issues at play here. Being a part of it for the past 25 years, I’ve seen it evolve and known it inside out – I know the gaps that need urgent plugging, especially in today’s digital-first world. We can’t say that the pharma industry has been resistant to digital adoption; but it’s safe to say that it has been quite slow at it. While Covid-19 caused havoc to life and business worldwide, the one good impact it had was pushing the long-overdue digitalization of businesses, among other things. So, the pandemic proved to be a powerful catalyst for tech adoption for our industry, as it did for education, healthcare, and others. Resultantly, the pharma industry’s digital focus, which had always been on Research & Development (R&D) and Manufacturing in the pre-Covid world, now fell on the entire industry including formulation and distribution – the two focus areas of our business in Pakistan. This push has given the industry the encouragement that digitalization is the only way forward. And to achieve that, we now have to identify and plug the gaps, remove the roadblocks, and focus as much on bridging the digital divide that still exists in the pharma industry as we do on business.
S&ST: In your illustrious career, how has the digital landscape evolved?
SIJ: I’ve seen the pharmaceutical industry transition into the digital era, and I must say it’s been a breath of fresh air as it brings whole new possibilities and opportunities for both healthcare and business. I break the transition into two phases: the first one being the pre-Covid era where the digital adoption was slow and limited to specific domains of the sector; and the second one being a more holistic with the entire sector seeing waves of digital change. Today, the digital focus isn’t just on R&D and manufacturing, but also on formulation, distribution, and developing engagements with HCPs (Healthcare Personnel), doctors, etc. While we still have a limited scope of digitalization in Pakistan so far, it’s causing a true transformation of the pharma industry elsewhere in the world. A whole lot has happened in R&D in some countries. For example, a company where I previously worked is employing digital technology in R&D, manufacturing, and distribution of drugs. Then, there are big tech companies now investing heavily in health care and pharmaceutical businesses. IBM Watson is one of the biggest examples where the system is completely Artificial Intelligence (AI) based for the early detection of cancer, and this has been a big support when it comes to advocating the use of technology in the early detection of any disease. Manufacturing is also seeing some true digital transformation. When in Malaysia, I saw many companies investing in “Industry 4.0” which is based on smart manufacturing systems. I saw companies rush to this technology and employ it in almost all areas of manufacturing, be it discrete or process. Unfortunately, we don’t see many examples of it in Pakistan. Mainly because it is a kind of concept that is implemented heavily in manufacturing and industrialized areas, a manufacturing landscape that we still lack in the country. More interestingly, some countries have now started developing customized medicines that’s doing away with the one-size-fits-all concept. So, where there used to be one standard pill for cancer patients, for example, there are now pills customized specifically to the individual need of the patients.
S&ST: How is the pharmaceutical industry evolving in the digital domain, specifically in Pakistan?
SIJ: While not at par with the international players, the digital adoption of the Pakistani pharmaceutical industry of late has still been encouraging and laudable with different pharma companies taking their own digital initiatives. As discussed before, the digitalization of the Pakistani pharma industry has been more focused on manufacturing. Plus, ERP systems have been modernized to become more personalized and efficient. But a more noteworthy development is that the pharmaceuticals in Pakistan have significantly improved their Distribution Management Systems over the years. Substantial work has been done when it comes to the delivery of a product through the distribution network. I must mention a very important government-supported ‘Track and Trace’ project through which medicine can be tracked throughout the supply chain and traced back up the supply chain upon return or recall. Plus, tremendous initiatives were also undertaken to ensure that engagement with HCPS and doctors was more efficient. Big pharmaceuticals like us (Martin Dow) invest a lot in awareness when it comes to doctor-related activities. Different forums are used for educational purposes and a lot is done for patients’ well-being. We participated in a lot of workshops/conferences and have sponsored many initiatives and new startups. Then, there’s e-clinics whose acceptance among the general public grew dramatically amid and after the Covid-19 pandemic; people now accept and realize that they can see doctors remotely via video link and save the trip to hospitals or clinics. E-detailing was another domain that lacked acceptance. As the world went into lockdown, pharmacists and the medical industry saw its potential advantages and scope in Pakistan. The basic purpose of e-detailing was to cover remote areas. So, it’s evident that Pakistan’s pharmaceutical industry has also made encouraging inroads into digitalization, albeit them being in parts and phases. But the progress so far is a strong evidence that the industry is continuing to evolve digitally, a positive development that it must continue.
S&ST: Considering your experience abroad as well, how do you think Pakistan’s ecosystem is different and how it can evolve?
SIJ: Although Pakistan is making good progress when it comes to the digitalization of the pharma industry, it still needs a lot of catching up to do with its global counterparts. When comparing our industry with the international players, or those in our neighborhood, the one thing that has stalled progress of the pharma industry (and other industries as well) is a severe lack of policy continuity. For example, the industry’s growth and initiatives are somehow closely linked to political stability, which is always problematic in the country. In comparison, other countries have a clear vision and strategy on which the change of political regimes have little to no effect. Pakistan, on the other hand, never had a concrete IT strategy or vision. We have had initiatives but all were executed in bits and pieces as whenever the government changes, most of the ongoing projects/initiatives are put on hold or replaced with new ones. This has also contributed to shaking the trust of foreign investments in the country’s pharma industry, besides other ones. No foreign (or even local) investor would make investments in a volatile market where the investment isn’t safeguarded and is rather linked to the politics of the country. We started too late and still are not serious about the significance of IT. It’s sad that despite having no dearth of IT talent in the country, we are unable to compete because of a lack of vision and strategy. A serious effort is required when we make our vision for 2030. We need to decide on a roadmap and follow it regardless of other uncertainties in the country. At the government level, we must devise a concrete IT vision and plan accordingly. It should be implemented at the mass scale and must be ensured to remain intact despite any changes.
S&ST: Martin Dow is one of the top pharmaceutical companies in Pakistan. How do you think it’s different or advanced from its competitors?
SIJ: What sets us apart from the rest in our domain is our innovation, culture, vision, and values. I feel very proud to be part of such a setup where decision-making is a key strength and there is continuity in actions. All of this contributes to the immense progress we’re making every year. Innovation is at the core of our value system where we innovate in almost all spheres of our business, be it manufacturing or delivery of medicines to our patients. Martin Dow has a culture where we empower the young generation. Our strength is the visionary leadership which has a clear strategy when it comes to the vision and the reason for our existence. As for the brand image, Martin Dow has 170 brands currently. The acquisitions of brands began in 2010 when the company took over Roche. Then, the acquisition of Merck Germany’s shareholding in Pakistan took place in 2016. Acquisitions are challenging for every organization as the company has to absorb in itself another organization with new employees, different culture, and brand image. So, Martin Dow was a big example in the industry as we not only brought swift unison of these organizations, but also of the members, making us one big unit connected by our shared goals, vision, and commitment to progress.
S&ST: Can you please explain how Martin Dow has digitally transformed under your leadership?
SIJ: Prior to joining Martin Down in 2019, I had over 20 years of experience working in different areas and functions of IT. The biggest attraction for me was Martin Dow’s value system, which for me was inspirational, looking at the growth of the Group, its product line, and its landscape. I felt that this could be an interesting opportunity for me as their IT system had a lot of gaps that needed to be filled. At that time, IT was reporting to another function because there was no clear strategy and roadmap. Here, my international experience of working in multinationals on large-scale projects gave me dominance. I felt that the job of a CIO here would help me bring efficient changes. When I became the CIO, making a strategy that would support the business was both a big challenge and a massive opportunity. My first endeavor as CIO was to restructure and make an IT team that was set on a baseline of a truly large-scale organization with a clear IT vision to support the business. I, with the help of my team, implemented a number of projects in the last three to four years. The biggest one was the ‘InfoSec – Information Security Division’. As healthcare and pharmaceutical are very vulnerable to cyberattacks, this project was about securing the organization’s information system. My second division, which I conceived with the help of my senior leadership, was Data and Analytics. Martin Dow has four manufacturing sites in Pakistan and two in France. Besides that, the organization also has acquisitions, hence there are different ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) Systems running. Hence it was a challenge to align them at a group level and make a strategy that resonates with the whole group. All the ERPs were operating independently, hence the information was scattered. It was a strenuous task to bring all the information together and put it in such a way that they helped the leaders in decision-making. To that end, I launched a project called ‘Genesis’, which became immensely popular and has since transformed the organization.
S&ST: How has your digital transformation benefitted Martin Dow, with reference to Genesis?
SIJ: Genesis was the project that genuinely transformed the company. We made a Swift data warehouse, based on which we gave a roadmap for each and every function of the company, right from production to sales. We made roadmaps relating to the nature and function of the department which could be giving business insights or reporting daily activities and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) through different dashboards. With this, we created a connection that started with the Chairman and ended with our field force. With this, depending upon what type of information you want or what functional area and level you are working on, you can extract information and use it for decision-making. For example, our sales team makes a complete sales analysis on a daily basis. This includes analyses on in-house progress vs progress against competition, brand performance now vs brand performance last year, targets vs achievements, as well as growth, market share, benchmarks, etc. Performance analysis are made region-wise, country-wise, as well as station-wise to the level of a medical representative. For finance, we have a co-financial system, thanks to which monthly reports – which otherwise would take days to be analyzed – can be ready as soon as the books are closed. Now, with all our applications including SAP’s implementation plus twenty-five other applications that are developed in-house, we extract data from the business warehouse and make our business insights so it can be used for more efficient decision-making. This has helped the leadership to make business decisions promptly as they can access all insights on the go from their mobiles and laptops.
S&ST: In reference to your win at CIO 200 summit, what contributions of yours made it count in the digital domain?
SIJ: It was a great pleasure and an absolute honor to represent Pakistan at the CIO 200 summit. I am humbled that I could make it to that list of the four people who participated in the event in Bangkok, Thailand. I was surprised when I found my name on the list because the selection process is very rigorous. I must mention here that, there was no ‘one’ specific contribution that got me onto the list because in the selection process, the committee looks at all the past and present performances and work of the candidate. It was a four-day event and was arranged by the CIO Global Network. We used to start at 6 O’clock in the morning with the wellness yoga classes followed by the training program with Harvard and INSEAD professors on how we can move from our existing role as the CIOs to CEOs, and a workshop on strategy and vision. I was thrilled when I came to know that this was not just a celebration but also a training session for the top CIOs. Networking with other top 200 CIOs was the best part of the event as I was able to make some really good connections and learn about new developments taking place globally. Also, it felt really good to proudly represent my beloved homeland and tell everyone about Pakistan and the developments taking place in the country.
S&ST: How do you foresee Pakistan’s digital evolution with respect to the pharmaceutical industry?
SIJ: As discussed before, a lot of good work is happening in the IT and pharmaceutical industries of Pakistan. Recently, I have attended many conferences as a panelist and seen some global initiatives also being implemented in Pakistan which could really help our technological landscape. Besides, our pharmaceutical industry is also catching up quickly. Work is being done on engagements with healthcare professionals and making the distribution system better. Substantial work is being done on projects like serialization, tracking, traceability, etc. Moreover, the use of Internet of Things (IOT) & Technology is increasing when it comes to manufacturing processes. Martin Dow is well known for its quality standards and we make sure that medicines are up to the international standards. In our Operational Technology Department, we have recently introduced an initiative called Annual Product Quality Review (APQR), which helps us ensure the consistency and appropriateness of an existing manufacturing process. So, in a nutshell, things are looking up for the pharma industry of Pakistan and I’m confident that the progress would be consistent. I just hope for a better business environment and consistent policy framework to be in place for the growth to stay permanent and remain unimpacted by political upheaval