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Clinical Research is Growing More Complex; Build a Workforce That Can Handle It

Clinical Research is Growing More Complex; Build a Workforce That Can Handle It

Helen Neal, vice president of clinical operations at PPD, discusses how coaching, training and mentoring can build an agile, remote workforce for the future.

Evolution or revolution? With the pace of change in health care, I’d say we’re experiencing the latter with breakthrough therapies, data-powered analytics and shifting regulations. The opportunities are certainly enormous, but often the clinical research to support these advances is increasingly complex.

And while PPD’s 28,000 global workforce is comprised of brilliant minds and capable hands, we realize that building a workforce for the future of health care mandates agility on top of this foundation.

Sometimes It’s Not What You Know, But How You Think

As unpredictable as life sciences discovery can be, hiring for what comes next requires a fresh approach. For example, a traditional interview process includes a review of qualifications, some probing questions, and perhaps a challenge to the candidate to share a situation where they encountered and overcame a particular problem. While these competency-based scenarios are important to continue, today’s changing environment suggests adding in a technique to assess how people think and are likely to behave in a given situation.

With this tactic, the conversation can start like this: “You’ve just discovered that your client has made a mistake. You’re faced with a very difficult situation and your milestones are in jeopardy. How would you approach this problem? What initial steps would you take?” Based on their response, the interviewer should be prepared to raise the next part of the scenario…and then the next.

This approach builds complexity into the scenario in real time — not to see if candidates have all the answers or can resolve the situation, but to gain insight into their behavior by seeing their critical thinking in action. Here at PPD, we are actively seeking these critical thinkers, those who can use solid judgment in unpredictable situations — not just follow instructions.

Why is this so important? Customers trust their partners with highly valuable data, putting the onus on the partner to deliver quality and to communicate openly — whether sharing good news or bad. Those team members who can think on their feet, balancing proactivity and transparency, enable the customer to feel that their trust is well placed.

Maximizing the Power of Critical Thinkers

Whether new hires or familiar hands, it’s critical that diligent training, coaching, mentoring and nurturing are available to every team member. By combining decades of knowledge and an influx of fresh ideas, a powerful resource pool is created and available to all.

In my role as a people manager across regional operational delivery, for example, I encourage leaders to build a robust “lattice network” so that they’re able to answer the question, “What resource can I access at this moment to help me resolve this issue?” With a network in place, team members can get advice and find answers quickly — even getting answers from a different time zone. There was a time when different time zones were a roadblock. But today, with teams accustomed to remote work, globally distributed resources are a real advantage.

Importantly, this network should be cross-functional. If you have the right connections, no matter what you face, you can access support — whether it’s about clinical supplies, logistics or regulations. Knowing who to reach out to enables you to stay agile.

Learning is Good; Sharing is Better

As mentioned above, a large, distributed workforce can fuel information sharing and deliver a powerful advantage. You may discover that someone in Vietnam has a gem of a solution for a problem occurring in Vienna, so it’s important to develop a management structure that enables that flow of communication cross-regionally.

This may include formal routes for sharing, like a newsletter or digest that allows people to pick up key information and move on. If they want a deeper dive, the resources and training should be readily available. Informal sharing across the organization through colleagues, articles and internal social media is also recommended to continue to grow this repository of knowledge and best practices every day.

COVID-19 Tested our Agility Right from the Start

Certainly, the coronavirus pandemic challenged everyone’s ability to conduct business as usual while also getting vaccine and therapeutic trials off the ground. To say that we all needed to be responsive and agile is a bit of an understatement. Along with our customers, we were pushed, pulled and forced to find new and better ways to do nearly everything — a true test of critical thinking. With the right team in place, rising to the occasion was more than possible.

For example, in late 2019 and early 2020 while COVID-19 was mainly concentrated in China, at PPD, we had to find a way to maintain our ongoing studies there. Many of these Chinese trial participants relied on medications as part of their trials. Without the ability to travel, getting these medications delivered in a timely manner was a very real problem. Within two weeks, we’d set up relationships with new vendors and opened vital communication channels to ensure that we could maintain business continuity for the client and medicine continuity for those patients.

At the time, we didn’t realize how crucial the learnings from this scramble would be. Yet, as the pandemic spread around the world, so did our ability to tackle problems with increased confidence. In challenging situations, project leaders need to be empowered with greater accountability and the ability to navigate the organization and find resolutions within a complex landscape more quickly. Our workforce solution, Project RISE, had launched in 2020 across global project delivery with a three-fold objective to increase the level of accountability and ownership, provide a career development framework and achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction. This type of solution is vital to ensuring you have the right workforce in place that is ready to address complex challenges.  

Having shared that experience across that portfolio team as COVID quickly evolved to be a global challenge, we were in a much more proactive position when the same situation arose in other countries.

Building a Workforce for the Future

What COVID reinforced for all of us is that life is unpredictable. Coupled with the speed of change in health care and the increasing complexity of clinical trials, it’s easy to see the need to build a workforce that stretches beyond today’s needs. The team needed tomorrow will be one that can cope when the game changes, writing a new playbook on the fly.

Build that team today, and support them with processes and technology that encourage flexibility, open communication, agility and an unparalleled commitment to doing whatever it takes to deliver on customers’ goals.