Merck & Co.'s touted chief digital officer bolts for Marriott just 2 years into tenure

Scholefield joined Merck & Co. in late 2018 after a stint as chief information and digital officer at Nike. (Merck & Co.)

In a sign of the times, Merck & Co. mimicked other leading drugmakers in late 2018 by hiring its first chief digital officer––a position tailor-made to bring the company's R&D and marketing into the tech-fueled future. But now, less than two years in, Merck's digital head is moving on.

Jim Scholefield, Merck's short-lived chief information and digital officer and a former Nike executive, will join Marriott International in the same role, according to Forbes. 

A Merck spokeswoman said Scholefield departed Merck in December. Dave Williams, Merck's VP of animal health IT, has taken over Scholefield's role in the interim and a search for a permanent replacement is ongoing.

Scholefield, also a board member at Stanley Black & Decker, was brought on by Merck to help boost the company's drug development, IT infrastructure and cybersecurity, joining trendsetters Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer in making the gung-ho digital shift. 

Underscoring the company’s bid to thread new digital and IT work into its operations, from R&D to commercial, Merck put Scholefield on its executive committee. It also tasked him with handling cybersecurity, a pressing need after 2017's notPetya attack disrupted the company's manufacturing and R&D, caused some supply issues and cost Merck nearly $1 billion.

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Scholefield came highly touted from his time at Nike, where he led a "digital transformation" and delivered "state-of-the-art cybersecurity," the company said in its hiring announcement. 

Merck, following in the trend of pharmas late to the party on digital, hired Scholefield as part of a surge to use digital and data technology to speed up drug development, make marketing more efficient and effective, and boost productivity all the way around. Scholefield's hire came on the heels of similar executive moves at Pfizer, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, all of which had previously appointed their own digital chiefs to catch up with the times. 

RELATED: Sanofi CEO Hudson singles out his digital ambitions in big executive shakeup

Scholefield also wasn't the last in a wave of similar hirings: In February 2019, Sanofi tapped Ameet Nathwani, M.D., as its first chief digital officer and chief medical officer, combining the two roles inside the company.

That dual job didn't last long, though; in a recent reorg by new CEO Paul Hudson, Nathwani departed Sanofi, and Hudson plans to tap a new exec to focus on digital-only.

RELATED: Sanofi's new chief digital officer joins wave of executives looking to leverage tech for treatments

And despite the surge of action at the executive level, companywide shifts to digital take time.

Novartis digital chief Bertrand Bodson told FastCompany earlier this month that the company's digital transformation would likely be a five-year process after his hire in mid-2018. Bodson attributed that long process to the daunting task of getting all of the global drugmaker's leaders on board with the process and completely rewriting the company's stance towards digital data.