Health Information Made Easy to Make People Healthier

Pharma Tech Outlook: Pharma Tech Magazine

Health Information Made Easy to Make People Healthier

By Gray Knowlton, CIO, Upsher-Smith Laboratories

Gray Knowlton, CIO, Upsher-Smith Laboratories

Big Challenge in Technology

Our industry is moving toward individualized, targeted solutions for improving a person’s health. Aligning incentives with outcome-driven care is difficult in our current environment. Research toward individualized health outcomes come at a very high cost. Records and information that will help us develop better therapies are locked in silos across the health care industry. Technologically speaking, these challenges manifest as a problem of data science – finding, analyzing and applying insight from the vast amount of disconnected health information to make people healthier. We manage everything from clinical trials to social media, IOT, and other data and we are making rapid advances in analyzing this information as parts of a whole picture. This capability is made possible by the advancement of data science and related tool sets.

“We’re not overly enamored with “big data,” for us it is “right data” that moves us forward more quickly”

360 Degree View of the Pateint

For pharmaceutical companies, the idea of aggregating many sources of data to better understand problems is not new. Drug development is difficult and expensive, it benefits from a long history of research innovation. Advances in analytics technology enable us to undertake vast expansions of the type and quantity of data in our research–efforts that would overwhelm advanced research efforts in the past. We’re not overly enamored with “big data,” for us it is “right data” that moves us forward more quickly. For Upsher-Smith it means ongoing investment in ingesting and integrating new data sets quickly. When we do this well we put our technical teams in position to get to a better answer faster. This is a tactical objective, but it is critically important. In the pharmaceutical industry this type of improvement can save tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in the development cost.


We are only satisfied by technology solutions that create value for the company. We favor Platform or PAAS approaches where we grow from a core of robust capability. We have a strong allergy to vendor-swap style solutions that represent modest incremental improvement. We avoid single-function solutions and “feature as a service” type solutions because they fracture workflows and slow down innovation. Knowledge management is a great illustration of why we choose this approach. Data lineage, context, relevance and other aspects represent both strategic and day-to-day opportunities for improvement. Unfortunately it is difficult to find tools that successfully optimize integration and usability. Patchwork quilts of functionality are incongruent to the idea of knowledge engines capable of making smart decisions about information within the enterprise and they are a usability challenge. Conversely, platform approaches are challenging because of the typical “one size fits all” mentality. The layers of people, process and other facilities to close that gap come at a premium cost. Some solutions exist, but knowledge management is a category that is ready for the next generation of advancement.

Five Trends

Agility would most accurately describe the “trend” having the greatest impact on our technology practice today. Agility is essential for us to adapt to new research techniques, new therapeutic categories, new regulatory models and other changing aspects of our industry. Agility is a mindset. We favor an ongoing planning process and avoid annual planning. We continuously re-forecast, re-prioritize and rebalance workloads to meet the current business need. We have strong discipline in making sure our projects actually end and we stop work when those are complete. This is a surprisingly difficult part of achieving an agile mindset. We remain very close to the strategic planning process for the company, often adjusting our focus ahead of the organization. For our technical staff, this helps create the expectation of change and keeps our technology investments pointed at business areas that have the greatest need. This also keeps our staff connected to the business and gives them a great sense of purpose for their project work. Our agile approach influences everything from hiring practices to contract negotiation policies. An agile mindset has yielded substantial IT savings and landed high-impact changes with great frequency for us.

In the past IT organizations have been regarded as farmers, providing service similar to plumbing and electricity. This is my first CIO role after spending 18 years in commercial software development. My experience is in finding business problems and building technology to fix them – I believe this makes me a hunter more than a farmer. It is a focus that I bring to this team and to our company. Our IT practice has evolved to a point where the bulk of what we do adds direct value to our business areas – a much stronger emphasis on hunting. We are so aggressive, technologically speaking, that part of what we do could be regarded as “supply-side” economics. We proactively build and deliver solutions to the business, even when we are not asked to do so. Our IT staff are constantly evaluating business processes and applying technologies to revolutionize them. Our business partners have come to value this attitude toward development. As a CIO/CTO it is important for me to balance our infrastructure and service needs with the more opportunistic opportunities to add new value to the company. Balancing between the hunting and farming type work is a part of this role that I enjoy very much. This approach is common to many G&A and other traditional cost center functions. For example HR teams are now adding management development programs and corporate wellness initiatives to add new value to companies.

CIO or CISO as an Ombudsman

Security is always top of mind for seasoned technology leaders, especially in heavily regulated environments. Whether security is led by one person or by a team it must remain a critical focus of any company. From my experience, security is as much about creating a secure culture as well as implementing effective technology solutions. This requires the partnership of our entire leadership team. In our case we strive to ensure that we have appropriate levels of integration between our digital and physical security measures. We also back those with clear protocols and evaluation practices. In the end a secure environment begins and ends with each person. We work hard to create a culture of accountability for security.

Piece of Advice

Advice is a strong word, but I will offer a few statements that I share with many colleagues. The first and principal job of a CIO or any C-level employee is to create value for the company. This cannot be overstated. I don’t really view my job as being “leader of IT.” Since I am heavily invested in business outcomes I tend to view IT as a means to an end, and I set my goals around delivering those outcomes to the business. In obtaining those outcomes I am constantly on the lookout for new ways to evaluate technology and to learn from case studies and other examples.

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