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eLearning in the Life-Sciences Industry

eLearning in the Life-Sciences Industry
December 2003
Authors: Eilif Trondsen, Harvey Singh, Andrew Broderick

About This Report

This report is the third in a series of vertical-industry reports to examine eLearning in specific industry settings. Previous reports examined the oil and financial-services industries. These industry analyses explore how eLearning can address the industry-specific issues that companies are facing. Executives are demanding stronger evidence than they have in the past that eLearning "really works" and that eLearning investments are yielding a sufficiently high return on investment. The best way to address their concerns is to demonstrate how eLearning helps solve key business problems.

Payoffs from eLearning in the Life-Sciences Industry

The life-sciences industry revolves around a number of very large, global pharmaceutical companies, most of which are fairly conservative and are not typically early adopters of new technologies or new ways of doing business that leverage new technology. Few life-sciences companies have come as far with eLearning as have high-technology companies, whose corporate cultures are more open to experimentation and rapid change. Nevertheless, senior managers in a growing number of pharmaceutical companies are gaining interest in, adopting, and supporting eLearning. Moreover, the life-sciences industry is changing rapidly, and a growing number of executives see a role for eLearning in helping their companies address important knowledge and learning issues. Although tactical benefits such as cost savings are important considerations, life-sciences companies are also recognizing more strategic and longer-term benefits such as improved internal learning and knowledge processes—which are especially important in the highly knowledge-intensive life-sciences industry—and better education of customer constituencies and business partners.

T hree areas are seeing the greatest use of and payoffs from eLearning:

  • Sales-force training. eLearning is bringing significant value in many pharmaceutical companies, both by giving sales representatives flexible access to learning and by avoiding the high opportunity cost of classroom-based training. As content improves and takes advantage of rich media and wireless broadband, the use of eLearning for sales staff will likely increase dramatically. Pharmaceutical companies are also interested in "mobile learning" (m-learning) through the use of PDAs with wireless Internet connection, for instance, although these types of devices will not gain widespread use for some time.

  • Compliance-based training. Like the financial-services industry, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries are also highly regulated, requiring careful documentation of all required training. Because of the serious implications—from damaged reputations to financial penalties—of violating training regulations, company executives see great value in using eLearning for compliance training, especially as evidence accumulates that eLearning is far more cost-effective than classroom-based training.

  • Manufacturing-process training. A number of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are testing simulation-based approaches to training in drug-production processes—an area in which even a marginal improvement in production yield can bring dramatic revenue gains. Medical-device and instrumentation companies already have considerable experience with simulation-based training, and a number of eLearning vendors have produced highly effective interactive, simulation-based products.

Online Collaboration and Informal Learning

The value chains of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors of the life-sciences industry are highly complex: Moving a drug from the R&D phase to the marketplace takes 10 to 15 years, costs $800 million on average, and involves collaboration with a large number of private- and public-sector organizations. In recent years, the industry has seen dramatic growth in the number and variety of strategic alliances and collaborative deals as companies try to gain access to innovative drugs, competency, and talent.

One result of these developments is growing use of online collaboration and of tools and technologies that support the communication-intensive, collaborative ways of doing business in these industries. Synchronous eLearning or Web conferencing that allows archiving of sessions and searching of session content as part of asynchronous learning programs is gaining use. Another result of increasing collaborative activities is the growing role of informal, and increasingly Web-based, learning via virtual teams and communities of practice (CoPs), in part forming electronic communities (e-communities).

Efforts to Leverage and Reuse Digital Content along the Value Chain

Although life-sciences companies are not in the league of Cisco and other leading practitioners of learning-object–based approaches, they now clearly recognize the advantages of this approach and are starting down this road. They want to take advantage of the rapidly growing volume of digital content, storing it in digital repositories and reusing it in applications at various points along the value chain.

A number of pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), hope to see growing reuse or "multiuse" of digital learning content in customer learning as well as in learning for medical professionals. A growing number of Web sites provide educational materials on a wide range of health-care topics, although pharmaceutical companies must adhere to regulatory policies that dictate how they promote their products in educational campaigns.

Integration of eLearning Systems: Toward a Seamless Infrastructure

Like companies in most other industries, most life-sciences companies are still rolling out learning-management systems (LMSs) across their organizations, and much work remains before they have widespread, and especially enterprisewide, coverage. Companies are also connecting their LMSs to human-resources (HR) and financial back-end systems. None of the companies we have interviewed have selected LMSs from the enterprise-application (EA) companies that provide their enterprise-resource–planning (ERP) systems, but they see potential advantages in using systems from the same vendor and plan to revisit this issue from time to time.

Ultimately, integration also calls for connecting LMSs and other eLearning and knowledge-management (KM) tools and systems—to support collaboration or Web conferencing, for instance—with other enterprise systems. Every life-sciences company has one or more content-management systems (CMSs) or document-management systems—Documentum is a dominant vendor in the life-sciences industry—and all companies we interviewed indicate that they are examining how to connect these systems to leverage various forms of digital content. Merck, in particular, has evaluated these issues and concluded that significant technical challenges stand in the way of achieving a high degree of integration of these systems. But significant benefits would result from such integration, so companies will continue to look for ways to connect and leverage the many applications and systems that play direct or indirect roles in their learning and knowledge-management programs.

eLearning in the Life-Sciences Industry