A conversation with Jane Von Kirchbach, Senior Vice President Digital at Pfizer
Marcelo De Santis, Chief Digital Officer at Thoughtworks North America sits down to speak with Jane Von Kirchbach, Senior Vice President Digital at Pfizer. Key elements of a transformation strategy, the ups and downs of a transformation journey and being a female in technology are just a few topics they covered during their time together.
Marcelo De Santis: Hello, everyone, and welcome to a new episode of The HITEC Transform.ed series sponsored by Thoughtworks my name is Marcelo De Santis, Chief Digital Officer of Thoughtworks North America. And I will be your moderator today.
Both organizations, HITEC and Thoughtworks, believe that knowledge should be shared openly. And sharing the real-world experiences of technology executives who are leading the largest business transformations is a way to make the technology industry better. For today's interview, it is my pleasure to introduce Jane von Kirchbach, Senior Vice President Digital at Pfizer.
Jane is responsible for digital strategy and solutions for all commercial aspects of the Pfizer's business as well as external market-facing technologies for patients, caregivers, doctors, payers, and hospitals. Over her career at Pfizer, Jane led enterprise, architecture, innovation, AI, analytics, and the project management officer amongst other functions in the technology area.
In 2020, Jane worked in the Pfizer digital research and clinical product development area. And her team led the technology solutions that support the creation of the Pfizer COVID vaccine. Before Pfizer, Jane worked at Kraft Foods and Accenture, where she held technology leadership positions. Jane has served as a board member of the Society of Information Management and the Vice Chair of the PMI Chicagoland Executive Council.
Without further ado, Jane, welcome to HITEC Transform.ed. Thanks for making the time to being with us.
Jane von Kirchbach: Thank you, Marcelo. I appreciate you having me.
Marcelo: Thank you. So let's dive into the conversation with the first question. I know, Jane, that you have a very personal point of view about the term digital transformation. Would you tell us about that?
Jane: Thank you, Marcelo. Let me start by sharing how I think about digital transformation and maybe even challenge the concept. We've heard the term digital transformation for years now. We keep seeing it on social media. And as digital leaders, we use the term quite often. But I'm sure you all have seen projects that were labeled as digital transformation or maybe were associated to those strategies that were not very transformational in nature.
So in a way, I think we're all becoming fatigued to the term of digital transformation. But if we step back and really think about what it is we're talking about, I would argue that it's not about digital transformation. It's not about technology strategy. What I think it's about is, how do we transform our business, our company, so that it can thrive in a world that's becoming increasingly digital? So to me, it's about business transformation.
Marcelo: Excellent, Jane. I mean, very provocative point of view, and I agree with you with the fatigue that we kind of see around the term digital transformation. So talking about business transformation and business outcomes, let's explore the transformation you're leading at Pfizer. Can you tell us about what business outcomes are you going after?
Jane: Yes. We have been on the transformational journey at Pfizer. Looking at how we leverage technology and everything we do, from how we discover medicines, for example, using AI to help discovery process, to how we conduct clinical studies to how we engage with our customers or patients, but also looking internally, looking at how we can use technology to make our colleagues' jobs easier.
In my current role, I am primarily focused on looking at digital transformation in how we engage with our customers. When I say customers, I'm talking about doctors, health care providers, clinical sites, hospitals, but more importantly, patients. How can we use technology to help our patients on their journey and ultimately help improve their health outcomes?
Let me give you an example. So think about a clinical study. So in the past, if you wanted to participate in a clinical study, you typically needed to live in the proximity of the clinical site, often a hospital, so that you could physically come to the hospital, so you can receive treatment, get your medicines, get tests done. Now many of the clinical trials are done virtually. We started to do this before pandemic, and this transformation accelerated greatly during pandemic for us and other companies.
So now many of our trials are done virtually. That means as a patient, you can participate out of the comfort of your own home. What's really exciting is that in addition to enabling that virtual participation, technologies can actually bring useful insights that were not possible before.
So there's a condition. It's an eczema type of condition called atopic dermatitis. And it may not seem like a big deal unless you're a patient experiencing it. It causes your skin to itch constantly. It's a terrible condition. So for a clinical study that's trying to work on the new medicine for atopic dermatitis, you can use sensors that a patient can wear, including at night. And the sensor would actually be recording itching episodes and then providing that information to the doctor, so that we can decide on better treatment terms.
That type of information we could never get before because patients couldn't report that information. They're sleeping. So really interesting and exciting what technology can do for us. But I'll tell you, more than anything, what I get passionate about is, we can now reach patients that maybe didn't have the opportunity to participate in the past, communities that maybe were not close enough to medical facility. So we can now reach patients that didn't have access previously, which I think is just an incredible way to positively impact our society.
Marcelo: Excellent, Jane. I tell you, it's extremely inspiring story. I don't know how it feels. I'm sure it feels great to be using technology and leading technology in an organization that is improving the life of people. So congratulations, really, really, really congratulations.
So you mentioned that most of your work is around supporting different customers. I think you mentioned doctors, health care professionals, and many others. How are you enabling this transformation, given that you have all these different types or-- or archetypes of-- customers? What are the key elements of your transformation strategy?
Jane: As we think about that element of our strategy, there are four key pillars that we're focusing on. The first one, and I think that's incredibly important, is experience. It's the experience of the doctor who is incredibly busy with patients all day. It's a patient experience and experience in context.
We can provide all kinds of technology. But now imagine your patient who just learned that you have a cancer diagnosis. What would be the right technology to support that individual on their journey at that moment of their journey? So experience is absolutely key.
The second pillar is focused on the ecosystem. And I think it also connects well to experience. The end of the day, as patients we get touched by so many. It's our doctor. It's our hospital. It's insurance company, the payer. And we also are supported and touched by companies such as Pfizer. So none of us individually can really make a difference. So we've got to look across the ecosystem.
So as we think about our transformation, we're actually changing ourself to not transform as a company but actually transform the entire health care ecosystem. So that ecosystem element is really important. And I expect for most industries, this will become more and more important as we look to the future.
The third one is agility. Our world is changing at a faster pace than ever. And I think the pandemic just accelerated this. How do we as technology leaders help our company become more agile, be able to launch products faster, be able to understand and adapt to conditions around us?
And the final one, it's culture. At the end of the day, to make any of this happen, it's all about people. How do we continue to maintain and build a culture that's innovative, that's collaborative, that values people, and create a place where people like to work? So those are the four, so experience, ecosystem, agility, and culture.
Marcelo: Wow. Well, I think we will quote you on those four elements because they're all extremely important. I'm curious about the last one-- culture as a foundation. Would you give me an example? How do you do or how does your team do to build that culture that you just describe? How does it look to build that culture?
Jane: Yeah, of course. Maybe I'll talk about it in a couple of different dimensions, Marcelo. I think, one, company culture. I feel so fortunate to be part of Pfizer. And I think our company culture is very strong but also very unique. Being a large company, an older company, over the years we were able to embrace and evolve our culture to also be very innovative, to be able to think big, and to challenge our own ways of working. And I'll give you one example.
We have been on the journey to challenge bureaucracy in ourselves, to challenge how meetings we have, to challenge, what we call, cut the red tape, really focused on ways to continuously simplifying what we do by becoming nimble and focused and less bureaucratic. So that kind of culture I think is a foundation of everything we do. And I also think it starts with the why, and our why is to deliver breakthroughs to change patients' lives.
So from that very kind of core, the North Star, it is about breakthroughs and continuously pushing beyond to deliver and make impossible possible. So in that context, being a digital professional, what an amazing place to be. So as I look at my team within our digital organization, I feel like we already have a DNA of individuals that want-- are passionate about-- our purpose and what we do but also passionate about technology and passionate about innovation and continuously pushing ourselves to learn and to do more.
Marcelo: I mean, every answer is more inspiring than the previous one. I don't know what we're going to do with this interview. Thank you. Thank you very much. And you might not know, but both organizations, HITEC and Thoughtworks, we have a strong mission. And we call it the why. Why we do exist-- for our communities or for our clients, in the case of Thoughtworks, so really, really feel very close to what you are describing around Pfizer. So congratulations for being part of such a great organization, Jane.
So let me go back to your transformation journey. I mean, as you look back to all the things you have done with your team, what went well, and what didn't go that well?
Jane: Yeah, maybe let me start with what went well. I think, one, and I think it builds on our conversation about the why, I think purpose has to be really clear at all levels of the company, the purpose, strategy, values. If that alignment and clarity is not there, it's very difficult to achieve anything else. I think fortunately for us, we had that foundation that I think made it a lot easier.
I think culture is incredibly important as well. And I know we just talked about the culture and the elements of the culture. But I also think continuously challenging ourselves to reinvent and challenge the status quo is very important as well. And in a way, digital transformation, the business transformation, is very much about challenging ourselves. So I think that helped tremendously.
In our experience, developing COVID vaccine over the past couple of years, I think it served almost like a catalyst. Yes, the team worked incredibly hard and delivered something that made such an impact. But I also think it inspired, us to say what else can we do? What other breakthroughs can we deliver and challenge ourselves even more?
And I know these are some of the foundational elements. As you can imagine, for anyone who has been through digital transformation or any type of transformation, it's a lot of hard work. Things don't always go well, and I'll share some of our challenges. But I think overall, when you have those foundational elements, it creates the right platform to continue to make progress towards your outcomes, even if you have setbacks sometimes.
Marcelo: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, Jane, whenever were those times where things didn't go the way you guys planned-- happens to all of us, all organizations, personally also happens-- from the leadership perspective, from you as a leader, how did you take that moment, and how did you recover from that moment and continue the successful transformation journey that you've been through?
Jane: Yeah, we've had a number of setbacks, some big and some small. And I'll share one example. And this was a while back when we were in earlier stages of our transformation. But we took on a new challenge to build a new platform that was going to be kind of data-focused, enabling new capabilities. And I think we approached it using some of the traditional thinking.
Even some of the basic concepts in how we approached it, it was less agile that I think needed to be. Many of the leaders and some of the individuals that were part of the team were not necessarily fully prepared for that type of project. So we had to, at some point, stop, look ourselves in the mirror and say, is this going well? And have the courage to be honest and say, it's not. And then have tough conversation about what do we do next.
And in that particular case, we actually just stopped and let go of the work that was done. Lost quite a bit of time and effort. And then reset and then move forward in a different way that was actually a lot more agile, where we carved out-- we still had a big, bold vision-- but we carved out small elements and then delivered them in iterations and learned.
This was a few years ago now, and I think we're much further on our journey of maturity. But if anything, I think for me the lesson learned was to have the strength to admit when it's not working. And it's hard. As humans, as leaders, we want to do well. And we want to be there for our people, to support them and help them be successful. But sometimes knowing when to stop and redo I think is the most important moment in your transformation journey.
Marcelo: Oh, in Thoughtworks we called leaders like you courageous leaders, those that make those bold decisions and sometimes are unpopular. But because of those bold decisions and courageous decisions, the company really, really changed the trajectory towards a better place.
Jane: Yeah, it's important. And look, I don't know if it ever will get easier, but I also think there's something about building a muscle in ourselves of being able to do that. Because the more we challenge ourselves to do transformational kind of thinking and transformational kind of work, the percentage of efforts that will not succeed is going to be higher because we're trying to do something that we've never tried before.
So I almost think it's a muscle that we've got to keep training to be more OK with even failure at times but hopefully early in the process and hopefully small. But recognizing it and then learning and then continuing the journey.
Marcelo: Good, good. So talking about leadership and innovation and being courageous, you shared a story about yourself and your team. But when you look across your organization, across Pfizer, what would you say are the organizational leadership behaviors that must be nurtured to be successful in a digital transformation?
Jane: Well, I'll share a couple of things, Marcelo. And in some examples, I think we've made a lot of progress, and others, we're still on the journey. And I'll start with one that would label as focus. I think it's so incredibly important because there's so much opportunity, and we want to make such difference. But when we try to do too much, we end up diluting our efforts.
So being able to really narrow down and focus to just a handful of things and doing them really, really well, I think is so important. And that is actually embedded into our culture. So for example, our goal-setting, it's not an annual process. It's a semiannual process. So we're in semesters, which in a way I think encourages and forces us to think in more concrete terms for six months.
Also, everybody at Pfizer is only allowed six goals as part of that semester-setting. Six goals. That's it, which, again, I don't know about you, but I remember having so many goals as part of my annual performance plan. But if you focus on six, it really gets you to think very much about what it is that will really make impact. So I think focus is one.
The other one that I'll share, and I think it's actually connecting to two goals, it's being outcome-driven, to really always think about outcomes, even as digital colleagues. And I'll explain what I mean. Many of us started careers as project managers or maybe have project managers in our organizations now. Do you remember a typical goal of a project manager? Deliver project on time, within scope.
Marcelo: On budget.
Jane: On budget. Sounds like a good goal, right? Sort of? Not really. If you step back and say, what is it that I'm trying to do, the outcome is not that we delivered it on time, on budget. Yes, it's important, but it's an activity. The outcome is, what difference am I trying to make with that project?
For example, am I trying to engage more doctors, more patients? How many? What percentage increase are we trying to go after? And those would be the outcomes that we all would commit to. And I'll tell you, in the beginning of that mindset shift, we had many colleagues, especially more junior digital colleagues say, well, how do you expect me to sign up for this? I'm a technologist.
But we do. And I actually believe that that creates that organizational behavior, where we're all focused on what actually matters. And we can make better decisions because we're not there to just finish the project, to say, I delivered on time. We're there to actually deliver the outcome that this project is supposed to deliver.
Marcelo: Well-said. Excellent, I fully agree. And I like the concept of outcomes and also your personal story when you have to engage your team in actually supporting things that sometimes when you're in organizations, those outcomes sound and feel very far away from what we do every day. So congratulations of making that shift, Jane.
Jane: It's important. And it's a journey. I think it's been a few years for us. So I think we're slowly kind of getting better at thinking in outcomes and really focusing on what it is that we're doing from business-perspective. And the ultimate outcome is the patient. What are we doing to make a difference for the patient?
Marcelo: Exactly. Exactly. So let me ask you a question about the context. I mean, the more I talk to our colleagues-- CEOs, CTOs, Chief Digital Officers-- they are all facing the challenges of the current economy. I mean, it's recession, cost-cutting, revenue-protection, all those things that you do when things don't go as you would like things to go,
So you mentioned agility before. You mentioned, we plan every six months. How do you manage innovation and transformation in this context where it's pretty full of uncertainty, I would say?
Jane: Yeah. A couple of thoughts there, Marcelo. One, and I actually had that conversation with a colleague a few years ago who said, how can you innovate when your budget is so tight? And I actually thought about that. And I said, you know, I think you can actually innovate better when your budget is tight. Sometimes certain conditions force you to be scrappy and really think different about solutions and sometimes come up with better outcomes.
And I also find that at times when you're in the climate of shrinking budgets, for example, and I've been there many times as I'm sure you have, I think it actually encourages us to think differently about what we do and often find solutions that we would never look for or find if we had the luxury of having the budgets that we're hoping to have.
So that's one mindset. And I'll tell you, as I find myself at times just feeling the pressures, I try to remind myself that this actually could be quite helpful. The other thing I'll say, I think there's something powerful about crisis. And I know for many, the economic crisis over the industries right now is very impactful. But also just look at the world events.
We have more challenges on our hands than any other time I can think of. But I also think that crisis sometimes could be also a catalyst for developing new partnerships, for making connections, for working across industries, sometimes even with your competitor. So I also try to look at a crisis as a way to think differently and pursue opportunities that maybe wouldn't be so obvious if we were in a different place.
Having said that, I'm really looking forward to a time where things become a bit more stabilized and there's a bit more peace in the world.
Marcelo: I fully agree with you, Jane. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for that. Let's look into the future for a few minutes. You have driven a lot of transformation, a lot of innovation, in your organization. Extremely inspiring to know that you've been part of such a large humanitarian effort as supporting the production process of the COVID-19 vaccine.
I think it's an experience that many of us would like to have had in our lives. A lot of purpose, a lot of impact. Where do you see your company and your team after two or three years of this transformation journey that you're going through.
Jane: As I think about where we're going in the future, I try to think about it in a more holistic way. And I think about our health care system today. And think about yourself as a patient. I don't think our health care system is very patient-focused right now. Just think about a simple example. You go to a doctor's office and you sit, waiting to be seen.
You're waiting for the doctor. And that's OK. Sometimes you wait a long time, doctor is busy. But just can you imagine the world where the doctor will wait for you, for a patient, if you're ready?
Marcelo: That would be unique.
Jane: Yeah, it seems silly to even think about it. But if you really consider, it's an opportunity. And I think technology is starting to enable a lot of this. We as patients with consumers are starting to have a lot more power and interest in our own health.
So when I think about the future, I think about what does that overall experience look like for patients, to where, one, we can hopefully prevent disease rather than treating it because historically it's been very much about treating disease. But as we look forward, not just vaccines to be able to prevent disease, but lifestyle changes and wellness advisors and other ways to actually get ahead of some of those chronic diseases that are so challenging to treat.
But also patient at the center of that health care ecosystem supported by technology I think could be incredibly powerful. And there's so much technology now with like sensors and wearables. And we've done some interesting innovations like a smart pill bottle, where the pill bottle can actually remind you to take your medication or have you connect with your doctor.
There's so much opportunity. And what I get most excited about is just looking forward to more diseases being cured and treated and just also having healthier lives and, as Pfizer and other companies in the industry, playing our part in being able to help make an impact for all of us.
Marcelo: Excellent. Excellent. Super nice vision. Great place to be and company to work for. Congratulations to you and the team.
Jane: It's amazing. Things are progressing so quickly. I was reading an article the other day. And 20 years ago, robotic surgeries were unheard of. I think there was one pilot that was done. That was only 20 years ago. And now for many conditions, robotic surgery is the norm. It's a standard.
So if we've made that much progress, and now with the acceleration of technology adoption and transformation, I just look forward. And I think there's so much opportunity.
Marcelo: Agreed. There is. Since you mentioned robotics, let me ask you a different question about technology. I mean, as you said, technology is everywhere. It's evolving at the pace that we don't even have the capability to digest as human beings. In your role, how do you architect solutions and customer and patient experiences, knowing that you might be able to or you might need to buy solutions, build solutions? How do you make those difficult, I would say, Chief Technology Officer decisions in where, when to buy, when to build, when to integrate?
Jane: Yeah, I think back, and you'll probably agree, we see swings in terms of the preferences and the trends where for a while some years ago, everybody was biased towards building and then buying and then somewhere in between. To me, it's about competitive advantage.
If we're talking about a capability that would truly make transformational difference for the company, that will offer competitive advantage, we're inventing something completely new and different, those are the places where I would invest the time and effort of our organization and go build. And we do quite a bit of that at Pfizer.
But all the other capabilities, somebody else is probably in the better position to create a capability because that's what they do for a living. So if you can buy and then use and not have to worry about the ongoing maintenance, release cycles and get support you need, I think that's the way to go.
Marcelo: Excellent. Excellent. And staying in the topic of you making decisions and being a technology leader, how is to be a female technology leader? I guess we all know that we need more females in tech. We need more diversity in general in the technology industry. But I'm curious about your experience being a female technology leader. How was your experience with diversity, inclusion? How do you feel about that?
Jane: Yeah, I remember Marcelo, back to my days in college, I often was the only girl in class. And look, at that time, I actually enjoyed it. But having said that, there's a lot of opportunity. I'm fortunate that I am a part of a very supportive team, where different point of views and diversities is very much valued within our leadership team. But we are not where we need to be. Collectively we're not.
And I look at the progress that we've made over the years. And even though it feels like we've talked a lot about it, whether it's being a female or it's ethnic diversity, it feels like we're making progress. But if you look at the data, we're actually not making enough progress.
So I believe more to be done. My personal experience has generally been quite positive. But I also realize that this is not the experience that many females are facing. And we, I think as leaders together, need to do more, to be able to encourage it.
So I have a daughter who is a senior in high school. And she's in the process of looking for colleges and looking at STEM careers. And I'm just excited about it. And I think looking at the young generation and introducing girls to technology, to sciences early on before they start getting some ideas and biases in their mind about what's a girl supposed to pick for career and what she's not supposed to pick, I think there's not a lot of opportunity there. And I think we actually have to start quite early as we think about our next generation.
Marcelo: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So finally, let me ask you a more personal question. We ask all our colleagues that are coming through this series to share their personal words of wisdom. So they share those words to inspire all our colleagues that are going through similar transformation journeys in their organizations. So, Jane, what would be your words of wisdom for our colleagues?
Jane: Hmm. When I think about what does it take to be successful with the transformation, there's so many elements that are important. It's about having the right people. It's about right vision, right strategies. About executing. It's about alignment. But you've probably have heard all of that.
So if anything, I would say that what's often overlooked is how we as leaders approach transformation. And my suggestion would be to challenge ourselves to think big. I think as technology professionals, we like to deliver well. We like to succeed. We like to make a difference. And sometimes that drives us to being more careful that we need to be.
So thinking big and challenging yourselves and coming up with vision that is ambitious, very difficult to achieve. I think that is so critical. And even if we manage to only achieve parts of it, I truly believe we would be better off than if we set less ambitious vision and then achieved all of it.
Marcelo: Wow. So thinking big. I think that we may be the last words that will remain after watching this interview. For technology leaders, for those leading complex transformations, change your mindset, think big.
Jane: Yeah, got to I think big.
Marcelo: Well, Jane, we have arrived at the final of our fireside chat. I hope that all of you found today's session valuable and inspiring, I would say. Thank you, Jane, for joining us today. And thank you to all of those watching this interview. We really look forward to connecting with you again for the next episode of HITEC Transform.ed series in which we will hear from other executives on their experiences in leading the transformation of their organizations.
Take care and stay safe.
Jane: Thank you very much, Marcelo. I enjoyed talking to you.
Marcelo: Thank you.