Honing the Digital Edge in China

Novartis’ “Digital Acceleration Workshop” program helps raise the digital IQ of its marketing teams in China.

By Frank Waltmann, Ph.D., Head of Corporate Learning, Novartis

This is the third of a three-part series of articles written exclusively for Trainingmagazine on business challenges and opportunities in Asia and how Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company Novartis’ learning and leadership development programs are helping address the myriad issues.

In an effort to retool core marketing skills for the digital age, Novartis Corporate Learning and the Novartis China University teamed up to create the Digital Acceleration Workshop (DAW) program. Initially developed for European marketing personnel, the course had its first run in Basel, Switzerland, at the Novartis headquarters in late 2012. However, with the Chinese market growing rapidly—along with their cultural thirst for all things social media—the program was modified for Chinese marketers and held in Shanghai in January 2013. Attendees included brand marketing personnel from China and local countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan.

 “The course focuses on building skills for digital age marketing,” explains Stephen Ingram, Digital Development director for Brand Learning, who helped create the course. “Because there’s been a seismic shift in customer behavior brought about by the mass adoption of digital platforms, such as mobile devices and social media, organizations around the world are struggling to catch up. The DAW program takes core marketing skills such as insight, innovation, and customer experience, and tunes them for the modern world. It’s clearly about ‘marketing for the digital age’ and not just ‘digital marketing.’”

Bridging Digital Marketing Gaps in China

The need for the DAW program arose from the fact that the business training culture in China is still in an early stage. For example, MBA schools and marketing programs are still relatively new. And most marketing training tends to be on the job, since many Asian pharmaceutical marketers come from medical backgrounds.

“We had a marketing competency gap in China in the area of more advanced topics, such as strategy and the next wave of innovation in the field,” explains Dave Lennon, CMO of Novartis China. “This program answers that need, and is now a foundational element of our digital marketing program and competency building for our teams. We’re putting a big effort into it because we realize there is a distinct opportunity in China, due to the advanced nature of digital utilization and consumption among Chinese consumers. The DAW program raises both the employee competency level and takes advantage of marketplace trends.”

In China, social media is widely pervasive and greatly utilized—more than in many Western markets. And while the Internet is controlled and monitored by the state, the Chinese people regularly use powerful search engine BaiDu (like Google), a posting outlet called Weibo (a kind of hybrid of Facebook and Twitter), and YouTube-like platform YouKu.

However, despite its wide use, marketers are not utilizing social media to the degree they could. “The digital channel needs to be part of Novartis China’s promotional mix in a concrete way,” Lennon notes. “I’d ultimately like to see 20 percent of our investment go to digital promotion; it is at approximately 3 percent today. I believe digital acceleration is the acceleration of competency, the acceleration of investment, and the acceleration of programs that are in the digital platform.”

A Three-Part Program

Novartis’ Digital Acceleration Workshop is a blended learning program with three elements:

  1. A four-module online self-study portion covering marketing basics and digital solutions specific to the pharmaceutical industry
  2. Two face-to-face workshops using a case study to apply digital marketing opportunities
  3. Involvement in a shared best practice online learning site to continue the learning process about digital marketing

The first phase is a self-study online learning session that is run approximately two hours a week for four weeks. It guides participants through a “digital safari” hosted on a company learning Website. The first segment aims to build foundational skills in digital pharmaceutical marketing. Included are the role of the iPad; the importance of insight in digital marketing; and trends such as “the quantified self,” branded utility, and other areas that will remain relevant to digital marketing going forward.

The second part of the DAW is a two-day face-to-face innovation session designed to get teams thinking about how they can use digital technology to enhance and deliver value for payers, physicians, and patients. Day one begins with a short discussion, and then leaders unveil technology kits containing new digital innovations related to the health-care environment (e.g., the Nike Fuel Band, digital scales, and medical apps). In essence, participants are shown how new products and trends give them new opportunities with which to work. What follows is a creative thinking session about innovation in which the creative process is broken down into a four-step method:

  1. New ideas are generated and connected to objectives.
  2. Ideas are rationalized and refined.
  3. The ideas that add value, are insightful, and can work then are chosen.
  4. Chosen ideas are optimized through a framework using a fictitious case study utilizing tools available in participants’ daily work environment.

“We want participants to really think about marketing in the digital age and where it can add maximum value,” says John Cairns, head of eMarketing for Novartis China. “By following this approach, we hope our marketers will make informed choices and find an impactful way to communicate with customers and patients.”

He adds, “We’re trying to educate associates to ask: ‘What is the value in this new app or new digital product? Can I use it to bring value to my marketing plan?’ Ideas that are being considered need to be tied to key objectives, such as patient outcomes, empowering a patient to manage his or her symptoms, drug compliance, or having greater impact with customer communication. These are the skills we want them to use when evaluating anything new—today or in the future.”

On day two of the innovation session, focus is on “need-to-know” company tools such as marketing apps, an iPad-based e-detailing package called Launchpad, and marketing initiatives such as Product Plus (a digital patient initiative that is piloting in several countries in the respiratory market to assist with better outcomes for the patient).

Finally, the third portion of the DAW program is inclusion in a best practice knowledge database within the company’s SharePoint system. It is a repository of best practices related to digital marketing, which allows the company to build on its experience base across the different markets, global teams, and brands. “By sharing best practices and assisting one another, we can internally leverage the scale of Novartis’ digital learning,” explains Ingram. “So if something works in one part of the world, it possibly can cross-fertilize another initiative somewhere else.”

Participant Judy Wang, head of Communications, Novartis China, says she “liked the interaction during the face-to-face sessions, where people came from different brand teams. They brought their experiences, thoughts, and concerns with an open attitude. We shared and even debated our ideas, which is good. And I like how it is action oriented. We learned how to follow through on topics being presented, such as how to start, run, and conclude a project. This is practical knowledge.

“Also, I realized through this course that we need to address issue prevention. In China, we particularly observe issues stemming from social media. To stay ahead of the problem, we need to build a social media alerting system for the company, so we can capture issues earlier.”

Measuring Program Success

To measure success, attendees are quizzed one month after the workshop to make sure they have retained the knowledge, explains Shirley Shi Hua, Novartis Marketing Capability, China. “We also encourage them to share what they learned in the class with other team members back in their home offices.”

Class participants leave the program with one action plan directly linked to their work. The plan is communicated to their managers. “We’ll ask their managers if they applied the knowledge to their work,” concludes Shi Hua. “In this way, we can evaluate whether or not the DAW program was valuable to them. This also allows us to track the program’s overall progress.”

Frank Waltmann, Ph.D.,is head of Corporate Learning at Novartis, a Swiss-based pharmaceuticals and life sciences company.


Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.