Novartis digital chief is turning his CEO's 'unbossed' plans into new platforms

The goal of Novartis' digital transformation is to get different teams, whether its digital, sales or drug development, to think about how technology can help them inspire and learn from each other, Novartis chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson said. (Novartis)

Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has been touting an “unbossed” management environment at the Swiss drugmaker. To hear chief digital officer Bertrand Bodson tell it, part of that effort includes arming employees with digital solutions.

At the very core of unbossing the company—making the Swiss company less hierarchical, more agile—is empowering its teams to take the initiative, Bodson said in a recent interview with FastCompany at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

It’s harder than it seems. “Often you want to be unleashed, but it actually comes with ownership and accountability,” Bodson said. “It comes with the intent of having to provide clarity to your teams and then to back off and let them run with it.”

How do digital tools fit into this goal of empowering employees? Bodson raised the example of clinical drug development.

Novartis is running about 500 clinical trials across the organization at any point in time. “The journey we took on was how can we use technology to really help us—especially in a segment that was really fragmented a couple of years ago. Every team, every disease area’s running their own trials without really realizing the impact they could have on others.”

The goal is to get all different teams, whether it's digital, sales or drug development, to think about how technology can help them inspire one another—and learn from one another, too, he said. “Then on the back of it, how do we bring our teams closer together to unlock and unleash all that data that sits in two different spreadsheets, in different areas of businesses?”

Those underlying platforms are where the “nonsexy” work happens, and Novartis has invested heavily in them.

RELATED: Novartis to put AI on every employee's desk through Microsoft partnership

Last year, Novartis teamed up with Microsoft on an AI innovation lab in R&D. The partnership is initially focused on three projects: implementing AI-based approaches to help personalize treatments for eye diseases, increasing manufacturing efficiency for cell and gene therapies, and helping the company design new drugs.

It also tapped Amazon Web Services to transform its technical operations with a data analytics platform. The collaboration focuses on tracking manufacturing work and detecting existing or potential issues in quality and inventory management.

To ensure leadership across different capabilities are all on board with the digital transformation, Novartis has aligned its incentives, Bodson said.

Understanding where different groups can come together to “make a dent on some of the trickiest underlying platforms and experiences that we need to crack” is one thing, he explained. “But at the end of the day, we also have a massive job to do, to demystify what the digital stuff is all about.”

So, Novartis has put in place training courses, which have attracted broad interest from workers to be a part of the initiative. In the past six months, about 30,000 Novartis associates have signed up for a course, Bodson said.

Bodson, who officially joined Novartis in early 2018 to oversee the execution of the strategy, said Novartis is still very much “in the thick of” the process of liberating the organization, which is going to be a five-plus-year journey.