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Digital transformation: Bayer prescribes a different approach


Digital transformation: Bayer prescribes a different approach

Published 6 March 2023 in Magazine • 6 min read

Life sciences giant Bayer is using the latest technology to drive change in three very distinct areas of its business: agriculture, pharma, and personal healthcare. Training and developing a new breed of leader is paramount to success, Sarena Lin, the company’s Chief Transformation and Talent Officer, tells Misiek Piskorski 

Digital transformation has been a company-wide exercise for many large companies for years. But Bayer, the German life sciences company, is taking a unique approach to each of the company’s three main divisions of pharma, crop science, and consumer health. 

That’s because the needs of the end customers in each of the three divisions is different.  

Crop science 

Farmers who were previously sold seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides now need data-driven insights to help them cultivate crops more efficiently. This means moving into software and data.  

“Ultimately, if you think about what science tries to do, it’s really driving much better efficiency, much better precision, and also convenience for our farmers – and eventually for consumers,” said Sarena Lin, Bayer’s Chief Transformation and Talent Officer, in a podcast with I by IMD. 

This starts with data science, which can provide digital tools which give predictive and prescriptive capabilities to farmers in terms of when to plant, how to plan, and how to carry out crop protection to get the best yield through the most efficient use of products.  

“That’s a critical ecosystem in terms of the number of variables that need to come together, powered by truly analytical skills behind the scenes to empower the farmers to do what they need to do in terms of making better decisions,” said Lin. 

Digital transformation: Bayer prescribes a different approach Climate FieldView is helping farmers to make more accurate predictions.

Lin believes that the collaborative partnership idea also applies here. “How do you create that ecosystem and build that digital solution where the consumers know if there is a one-stop shop where you’re rating the kind of information that they find objective and useful and are willing to engage?”  

All of this illustrates how digital has brought Bayer much closer to consumers and has made it a much more consumer-focused company. This has implications for leadership and for what differences have been observed across Bayer’s various divisions in this context.  

Lin believes that while everybody defines digital differently, it’s important to “galvanize the organization and to be able to start painting more of a common vision and direction of what digital should mean for an organization that’s large” – as Bayer is.   

A second element is learning. Specifically, how to create a learning opportunity to make sure that people start speaking in common languages about the transformation required. That’s because the concept of digital “isn’t just owned by those people who have ‘digital’ in their title”, said Lin. 

“It becomes a mindset question. What is it that digital can do? It should work for them whether they’re in a functional role, a commercial role or in the business department. That’s a critical aspect of helping to drive that mindset and is at the forefront of our leaders’ minds when they think about what they do.” 

Digital transformation: Bayer prescribes a different approachProducts are being developed to help people take better care of themselves and their families.

So how has Bayer implemented those changes across three divisions and what organizational design has been involved?  

“Instead of changing organizational design, it’s more important that we create an environment that fosters cross-functional and divisional collaboration and exchanges in terms of best practice, and that builds awareness of the mindset we want to drive towards,” explained Lin. 

“This includes changing expectations of how we want leaders to lead and apply that not just to digital but to transformation in a broader sense. We’re basically saying: ‘In this transformation journey we expect leaders to engage differently, engage themselves, engage their teams, engage across functions differently.’ That really drives an ownership mindset. We expect leaders to step up and lead to be able to drive this transformation journey forward.” 

Precision medicine requires a true understanding and a combination of biology and technology, both in terms of diagnostics as well as treatment. And this is where the digital aspect really becomes critical in every step of the value chain
- Sarena Lin

Bayer was still at the early stage of this journey, said Lin, but in practical terms it had involved three things so far:  

  1. Asking leaders to start by creating an environment with their teams so ideas can flourish, and trust can be built. 
  2. Encouraging leaders to become coaches, to drive team performance, and hold them accountable for it. 
  3. Helping leaders to set audacious goals that are tailored to their teams and to individual members of those teams. 

“We are really going back to fundamentals to say that transformation starts with leaders equipped with the ability to build, trust, to know how to coach, to know how to get feedback, and drive performance culture and organization as a starting point — and hold them accountable for the kind of transformation journey that we expect to see,” said Lin. 

As many as 500 Bayer executives have taken part in a training scheme launched at the beginning of the year. The aim is to further roll out the scheme to all leaders to instill a common language and approach to digital transformation.  

Listen to the podcast

The Interview series

In this episode of IMD’s “The Interview” podcast, Sarena Lin, Chief Transformation & Talent Officer at Bayer, speaks with IMD’s Professor Misiek Piskorski about digital transformation and leadership.

Discover more

In order to prepare its leaders, Bayer also conducted employee engagement surveys and focus groups, looking at what might be holding Bayer back as an organization. This identified several challenges.

“We know that as an organization we are too complex,” said Lin. “We know we are too slow in making decisions. We also know we are not empowering decision making at the lowest level. And sometimes accountability is not as clear.”

This told the business that there were some “organizational health” questions that needed to be addressed if Bayer was to remain competitive. This was where leadership came in, and a realization that the company needed “transformational leaders”, rather than transactional leaders.

“The transformational leader is the one who says, ‘Look, I can give you enough leeway as well as direction, and I’m going to lead this organization in an inspirational and empathetic way. But at the same time, I am demanding. I know how to drive performance. I know how to inspire right, and I am absolutely demanding the best from everyone’. The lead-ers of the future need to have both of these abilities,” said Lin.


Misiek Piskorski

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski

Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania

Mikołaj Jan Piskorski, who often goes by the name Misiek, is a Professor of Digital Strategy, Analytics and Innovation and the Dean of IMD Asia and Oceania. Professor Piskorski is an expert on digital strategy, platform strategy, and the process of digital business transformation. He is Program Director of the Digital Strategy Course.


Sarena Lin

Sarena Lin

Management Board and Labor Director of Bayer

Sarena Lin is a member of the Management Board and Labor Director of Bayer, a DAX company based in Leverkusen.


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