The enemy is complacency | Straight Talk

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The US CIO of a Japanese pharmaceutical giant offers experience-based insights on the challenges of executing a global digital transformation – including the risk of overlooking cross-cultural differences.

By Nolan Bennett, Chief Information Officer, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies (US)

I moved to Otsuka two years ago because the IT function faced an interesting challenge. It was going through a major transformation at the same time that the business units inside were going through a transformation and the holding company was going through a transformation. The situation was like a matryoshka, a Russian nested doll. Otsuka didn’t just ask me to come and help change IT. They asked, “Can you come and help us change IT while we’re changing everything else at the same time?”   

And “everything” covers a lot of ground at Otsuka.

We are a Japanese company made up of very different businesses. In the US, we’re primarily a pharmaceutical company but we also have a winery, a vitamin company, and a water brand. We have about 190 entities worldwide. And the entire organization is globalizing. Some of this shift is by design, but some of it is a byproduct of platform consolidation.

Driving this transformation has been simultaneously exciting and scary, in equal measure – and often at the same time.

Building the platform

Not all of our platforms are future-ready. Some are at the end of life while others are new but unaligned with the way the business now wants to operate.

Most of the new platforms that we have installed so far are just within pharma, with a few covering other business units. And that’s very difficult. You’re interacting with businesses that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and rolling the platform out across these very different units can get very difficult at times.

We are also migrating all of our data centers to Amazon Web Services. This move to the cloud offers us the scalability, flexibility, and infrastructure that we need but don’t possess in-house. It also gives us a set of tools and technologies that we can plug into, so we can work much faster than we could in the past. This switch is driving a massive change in how we operate as an IT organization, how we provision service, and how we develop the skillsets we need.

We were already outsourcing a lot of tasks to external partners when I arrived, and we’ll continue expanding on this front. Most people within IT will take on new roles and become functional leaders, project managers, and relationship executives – people who need to stay close to the business. They will be people who are good at building relationships with the business and finding ways to solve their needs with technology. We need people who can sit with a data scientist or with a bench scientist or with an accountant and hold up their end of the conversation.

We won’t be looking to move people to low-cost locations or to centralize operations or anything like that. The idea of IT being remote located and delivering solutions back to the business is not the efficient model anymore. We are moving towards continuous delivery. The idea of waiting six months before you deliver something to the business just doesn’t fly any more. Now, you have six days to turn something around and put it in front of the customer and ask, “Is this what was needed?”

A lot of people find that very uncomfortable. Some people are leaving, but the ones who love it are staying. They enjoy having the opportunity to use the latest technology and work in different ways.

Building bridges

I’ve always worked in multinational organizations: I was first a regional CIO almost 20 years ago, in Europe, Middle East and Africa. And I learned fairly early how different people are, how cultures change from country to country and even from office to office.   

You have to be able to adaptable. Working with the French is different from working with the Germans. The way you write an email, the way you make a phone call, the way you ask a question, the way you get alignment depends on who you’re talking to.

And it’s no different with Otsuka. Japan has a very different culture than the US. After nearly a year with the company, I’m still in learning mode. The Japanese culture is much more collaborative. It’s much less directive than what we’re used to in the US. 

Otsuka is over 100 years old, and many employees have had a very long tenure at the company and there are a lot of very deep relationships in the company. Everything has a deeper layer of complexity, greater than we’re used to.

Here is what I think about cross-cultural management: Never assume that you understand. It’s easy to be complacent and think you know. This is even – perhaps especially – true in the case of familiar cultures. My wife and I are Brits, and we moved to the US 15 years ago. I’d worked in the US on and off and had traveled to the US countless times in the past for work and vacations.

But once we moved here, we realized that there are countless small and subtle differences between the way Brits and American use the same language. And the behavior and the culture are different from the norms familiar to us. The closer you get, the more you realize it.  In the end, I think the real enemy is not cultural differences but complacency in the face of those differences.

The Takeaways 

Porting most of IT to the cloud can transform a business, by providing scalability, flexibility, and infrastructure that it previously lacked.

In the future, most in-house IT people will need training that focuses on developing good customer relationship and project management skills.

Cross-cultural communication is always challenging – not just between nationalities, but between companies and even different offices.