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Placing people first: the human strategy of Bayer’s CDO

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ZEISS Microscopy

Jessica Federer, CDO of Bayer, featured as one of Hot Topics' top 100 digital leaders and explains why her primary focus for the life sciences giant is her employees.

Digital transformation strategies can be translated by different people in many different ways.

For Jessica Federer, charged with steering the German multinational life sciences company Bayer into a digital future, the term mainly encompasses “people”.

“Digital transformation is a people topic. Not a technology topic. People should always come first, and companies looking for change should focus on what talent they’ve got, what needs to be brought in and how to cultivate digital workforce creativity and capacity.”

This is a long way from the thought process Federer began with when starting her role as CDO 14 months ago.

“The role didn’t specifically mention culture, but given the benefit of hindsight of the past year or so, I now see it has being tremendously important to not just my role, but for the company.

“Digital transformations aren’t amazing because your workforce now all have smartphones, they’re amazing because of the potential of what people can do when they’re all connected and how they can impact your brand.”

It’s logical to consider the employee plays a critical role in transformations: a company’s skeleton is fleshed out with several layers of potentially engaged staff across distinct functions, companies, and in Bayer’s case, the world, so for any large-scale change to be effective and sustainable, they need to agree with the change and be cohesive in their progression.

It’s a sentiment that Federer herself agrees with, so much so that she places Bayer’s digital workforce as a critical component of how she measures her own success as Head Digital Development.

“My first [measurement] is people, and I ask myself whether the message of digitalization has been adopted thoroughly, if that thought-process is spreading and whether I have evangelized the transformation as effectively as possible.”

Only when a workforce recognizes a change is necessary can they be empowered enough to drive new methods and increase the value of a transformation, Federer reinforces.

This approach places a lot of pressure on companies to shine a light on their relationship with their potential digital workforce.

Advances in communicative technologies, the introduction of collaborative startups and an increasingly millennial population have brought to light a power struggle between legacy organizations and a workforce with different ideals, standards and beliefs.

By that thinking, Bayer, as a 150 year old chemicals brand, should be playing catch up in attracting talent and partnerships, but Federer asserts that the value that culture has within transformative strategies is actually an advantage for the German company.

“Within our company there is a lot of ‘We’ and ‘Us’ that aligns everyone with the vision for the entire company. The first thing we did was to create a Digital Council that spanned every part of the business to make sure each silo could collaborate. That set the tone for my role.”

The push for a company-wide adoption of Federer’s digital workforce transformation was based around a scientific understanding of failing and learning – often found in many pharma-R&D laboratories. Bayer wanted to extend that approach across the business as a whole.

It has fostered “a feeling of experimentation” which is an important factor when trying to label the ingredients of innovation. It has also fostered a change that goes beyond a digital workforce.

“We are a company that makes world class molecules, but maybe that’s not enough anymore…that’s why we have to have a combination of data insights, technology innovation and that cultural shift to facilitate this change.”

And these paradigms don’t have to be fed from CDO to workforce, Federer continues, arguing that a combined top-down and grassroots approach to digital workforce transformation can work even better.

“The grassroots energy of Bayer I’ve experienced has made this digital transformation like pushing on an open door – we’ve had so much momentum because we all realise that this strategy is critical for our innovation.”

It’s not an easy process however, nor one that occurs overnight.

Bayer is a complex organization that has already experienced a large-scale transformation recently: last year, Bayer’s existing companies encompassing healthcare, crop science and materials science changed form as materials was sold, and healthcare and crops brought under one roof.

New Bayer, as Federer explains, works across human, animal and plant health and the organizational remodelling implemented digital workforce strategies with the knowledge that it would provide the groundwork for Bayer in the future.

It was “a very savvy move for the Board and has enabled us to be much more digitally enabled and connected at a quicker rate.”

It certainly presented a suitable opportunity to begin inserting digital architectures into the newly formed Bayer.

The new structures enabled each division to share ideas and networks – “digital colleagues across the functions were better able to collaborate, for example” – so that success could be shared.

Within the new Bayer structure, the digital team focuses on what they call “digital enablers”, the elements that are needed for every team and brand to maximize the potential from digitalization.

In fact, Federer and the Board have a set of “four P’s” that they work on to satisfy themselves and the company that the transformation is hitting its targets.

“People; processes; platforms; and partnerships…”

All factors are assessed and evaluated to make sure the business benefits from each one performing to a certain standard.

Within the life sciences industry, processes are tremendously complicated, requiring huge levels of investment and development to turn a molecule into a product. Digitizing that journey can have profound implications for the company’s future.

Similarly, platforms can be diverse in their nature and inefficient and digital transformations “can simplify them greatly.”

Finally, a truly digital company also recognizes that it cannot perform or sustain its operations in today’s climate without help, or partnerships.

“We’re world class at what we do but we now need to partner with digital leaders that can cement our position for the future, so we need to ask ourselves how we manage those relationships and integrate them further into our business.”

Partnerships, platforms, processes, and, above all, people, have been the focus for Federer and the first year of her digital workforce transformation.

It has helped her create short term wins for the multinational that sees her “excited for the year ahead”, but she is still aware that the CDO role is also about driving long term trends and investment “that need to be balanced in order to fulfil the remit of this role completely.”