by Martha Heller

How CIOs can scale scattered pockets of digital innovation

Jan 19, 2016

AstraZeneca CIO Dave Smoley launched a 'Digital Center of Excellence' that spans all digital strategy at the $26-billion pharmaceuticals company.

Do you see little pockets of digital innovation throughout your company? Do you see challenges in bringing all of that innovation into a core enterprise strategy? If so, you’re not alone.

dave smoley photo AstraZeneca

Dave Smoley, CIO of AstraZeneca

For Dave Smoley, CIO of AstraZeneca, getting the company’s business leaders to focus on an enterprise-wide digital strategy is a work in progress. “The reality is, we’ve got pockets of digital activity all over the place,” says Smoley, who has been CIO of the $26-billion pharmaceutical company since 2013. “Our commercial business is focused on social and content creation. Global medicine development is working with sensors and smart devices. Oncology is looking at digital injection technologies, and we have multiple groups using digital to improve the patient experience.”

Smoley loves to see all of this focus on digital, but as of yet, he sees only individual strategies. “Everyone is chasing the same problem, but we are not talking to each other.”

Welcoming all innovators

Not only are people working in silos on digital strategies, they are developing technologies in silos as well. “After they build or buy some technology, they come to IT and say, ‘I’ve got to scale this up.’ In IT, we want to have an open consultative attitude where we don’t just say, ‘No, that doesn’t fit our standards, or that’s not the right technology. We weren’t involved. It’s not our problem.'”

“Our goal is to embrace those pockets of innovation and accelerate them,” Smoley says. “We should be looking for them, hunting them down, and enabling them in a healthy, constructive way from the beginning rather than sitting around with our head in the sand.”

For Smoley, the keys to bringing all of that digital innovation together are relationships and governance. “We need partnerships with the business so that we can assist in the identification and selection of technology, anticipate scale-up opportunities and enable a network of common interest that provides visibility to what each group is doing,” he says. “We need to work with these teams to ensure that their digital activity lines up with our corporate strategy. We need policies, rules, and the ability to fail fast and learn. Our goal is not to control the innovation, but to facilitate the networking that results in learning, faster success and a core digital strategy.”

As a precursor to developing a governance model designed to facilitate an enterprise digital strategy, about six months ago, Smoley led the executive team in a conversation about what AstraZeneca should be doing in digital. That conversation went well, and Smoley took it a step further.

The digital innovation executive offsite

“I took the CEO and executive staff, and we spent a week in San Francisco,” says Smoley. “My CTO and I hosted the trip. We met with a bunch of really interesting cloud companies, some with products and services specifically for the life sciences.”

After meeting with some big players, Smoley and his CTO curated a half day of meetings with startup companies. “We did speed dating with a bunch of healthcare related technology companies, and our executives were completely blown away.”

Some of AstraZeneca’s leaders thought that the trip would be a waste of time. Why travel so far, they asked, just to meet some technology companies? “By the end of day one, their eyes were as big as saucers,” Smoley says. “They couldn’t believe how much innovation was in the room. They said, ‘We need to be part of this, and we don’t have to do it all on our own.”

AstraZeneca’s ‘Digital Center of Excellence’

From the goodwill created during the San Francisco tour, Smoley established AstraZeneca’s first “Digital Center of Excellence.” To lead the Center, he enlisted a marketing leader from elsewhere in the company, who had some customer perspective and experience with systems implementation. 

“The Digital Center of Excellence spans the whole digital strategy piece, including social, apps, websites, devices, sensors and data analytics,” Smoley says. While the center is a business construct that stands next to IT, Smoley’s CTO is an official member of the group. “I want to make sure we’re having one conversation around what technology can and can’t do, not two. We want to avoid the scenario where there’s the digital conversation, and then there’s the IT conversation.”

The CTO’s responsibility in the Digital Center of Excellence is considerable. He scans the horizon for new technologies, connects people across the business who are looking for technology solutions with the right VCs, IT staff, or IT vendor partners, and develops policies and standards around platforms and development.

As CIO, Smoley’s responsibility is to get the Center off the ground, select the right leader from the business to take it from infancy to maturation, and champion “digital” as an enterprise wide strategy.

“People have varying levels of urgency on digital,” says Smoley. “Some think we have other things to think about and can wait, and others believe we’ll be left behind if we don’t move now. My role is to facilitate the conversation and build the Digital Center of Excellence model, so we are informed and ready to take full advantage as opportunities present themselves.

“Digital is an emotional area and a new space. There are no clear roadmaps.”

About David Smoley

Before joining AstraZeneca as CIO in 2013, Dave Smoley was senior vice president and CIO of Flextronics, a global manufacturing services firm. Prior to his six years with Flextronics, Smoley held divisional CIO roles at Honeywell and General Electric. He graduated from Clemson University with a BS in Computer Science and received an MBA from the University of Virginia.