Business Process Digitization In Life Sciences

Rajagopalan Subramanyam

Life science companies are facing several challenges that are forcing them to innovate.

A survey published in Harvard Business Review (March 2016) found that internal dysfunction and creeping complexity is the main barrier to consistent profitable growth. The survey polled 377 business leaders, most of whom represented companies with revenues of $5 billion and above.

Over time, companies accumulate disparate, inconsistent, and siloed processes. Some of these come from different processes and technologies introduced through acquisitions. Some linger from when the company was smaller. And some result from organizational resistance to change.

Resolving internal dysfunction and standardizing processes benefits the company in many ways:

  • Combats stalled profitability and growth
  • Leads to faster support and lower costs in technology and processes
  • Enables faster integration in M&A and reduces costs and time to integrate so business leaders can realize synergies more quickly
  • Provides better control over processes and makes it easier to determine the root cause of problems

Realizing these potential benefits, one leader in a niche biologics manufacturing space is undertaking a global process digitization initiative. The organization is standardizing processes, adopting leading practices, and building metrics and analytics around processes and sub-processes. The company’s goal is to support aggressive future growth plans. In that sense, it is re-imagining processes as a top-line enabler.

Digitization of processes helps companies re-imagine their business functions and gain deeper insights to improve the bottom line, move products faster and with greater precision, and understand patient or customer behavior at a deeper level.

The following are some trends seen by life science companies that are re-imagining their business processes.

Lines of business


A progressive medical device company is looking to 3D-print smaller parts for its products.

A pharmaceutical company leverages 3D printing to print temporary spare parts so equipment can function without interruption until replacement parts arrive.


A Covance study (which appeared in in June 2017) reported that 10% of sites fail to enroll even a single patient in oncology clinical trials. In sites where patients were enrolled, the rate was slow: In one case, out of 116 sites, only 42 were active in patient enrollment. The study states that even in those active sites, it took 15 months to enroll just 77 patients. Pharmaceutical companies are leveraging analytics to improve their processes to improve patient engagement and increase enrollment rates.

Better patient engagement, faster enrollment, and positive customer experiences can help pharmaceutical companies get through their clinical trials more efficiently. For successful trials, this can mean getting approvals more quickly, which in turn can get products to the market earlier. The bottom line is faster revenue realization, but more importantly, much-needed therapies can get to patients sooner.


Technology enables companies to finish products closer to the customer. This enables manufacturers to plan and move products better and to react more quickly to changes in the market.

To achieve this, some companies have chosen to separate their packaging operations from manufacturing. Still other companies are deploying cutting-edge planning systems to improve their planning processes.

Another pharmaceutical manufacturer has piloted process robots for some critical routine processes, such as palletization.


Pharmaceutical companies, especially biologics, must transport their products carefully. Historically, cold chain shipments require a mandatory “temperature” release stating that products have not been subject to temperatures outside a prescribed range. This ensures that product properties are not altered so the therapy stays potent and effective.

Digitization allows companies to monitor other parameters that could potentially affect products, such as light, pressure, humidity, geographic location, length of time spent at various nodes en route, altitude, shock, etc. Integrated with an event management system and mobile alerts, anomalies or incursions can then be reported in real time, allowing quick action to save the shipment.

Other lines of business

Lines of business such as HR are also digitizing their business processes. Tasks such as resume matching and reading social media signals to gain insight on whether key employees could leave the company, etc. are increasingly being digitized. Digitization in HR also helps executives match roles with employees’ skill sets, experience, personality, and passions to put the best people in the right roles.

Leading practices, standardized processes

Based on observation of process dysfunction at various companies, some consulting companies have drawn up a taxonomy of best practices or standard processes. They have taken these leading practices and configured templates by industry, which companies can leverage as a starting point to accelerate ERP implementation. This approach not only saves considerable time and costs, but it also helps lower the volume of customization.

Another benefit is the quantification of process-related metrics at each logical step—for example, the number of erroneous orders or quality release failures with reason codes helps to periodically monitor the business.

Continuous process improvement

Digital transformation is introducing new process-related roles, such as process owner, process lead, sub-process lead, and even chief process officer. These roles reflect the importance of managing and governing processes for continued operational excellence.

Not only are these specialists responsible for continuous monitoring of their processes based on metrics and key performance indicators, but they are also entrusted with continuous improvement.

Another approach to process improvement is to use robots for operational functions. Such automation of processes with machine learning is known as RPA—robotics process automation, where a process robot learns the process and gets better at executing it. The business analyst can focus on data and metrics and glean business insights rather than battle with the operations tactics.

Re-imagining processes is an easy and cost-effective way to affect change, especially if companies start small and scale up their process improvement and automation as needed. The concept mooted by Dr. Michael Hammer in his book, Faster, Better, Cheaper, is now being taken to a whole new level.

I invite you to share your thoughts on this topic.

For more on advanced technology in life sciences, see The Internet of Things In Life Sciences.

Rajagopalan Subramanyam

About Rajagopalan Subramanyam

Rajagopalan Subramanyam is Senior Director of the Life Sciences Business Unit at SAP.