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How the Novartis chief information officer led a new way to distribute drugs

By Professor Donald A. Marchand - February 2013

The story
Novartis, the Swiss healthcare company, is one of the world's biggest makers of anti-malaria drugs. Through its Novartis Malaria Initiative, it has provided more than 500m Coartem treatments at cost to help make the drug available to people who could not otherwise afford it.  

Most of the drugs were distributed in Africa. But government agencies there had problems matching the supply of the anti-malaria drugs to the patients who needed them, especially in health facilities in poor, remote areas.    

The challenge
Jim Barrington, chief information officer at Novartis, believed IT could help solve this longstanding supply chain problem. He proposed to work full-time on it for 12 months, ahead of his planned retirement.  

Although it is normal for chief information officers to lead such projects, he faced internal scepticism. Colleagues warned that the project both lacked funding and would run into bureaucratic hurdles when dealing with outside organisations.  

But Mr Barrington persisted: he set about implementing his idea of harnessing the increasingly wide use of mobile phones throughout the developing world to help manage the supply chain. He called the project SMS for Life.  

The strategy
In January 2009, Mr Barrington started out with an office, a phone and a computer. His initial priority was to secure internal and external support – which he did by emphasising the emotional goal of saving lives.  

He then assembled a team comprising three Novartis employees who asked to take part and one each from Vodafone, IBM and Google, all of whom had specific skills and would fund themselves to contribute. This approach was efficient and reduced bureaucracy.  

From the outset Mr Barrington defined problem and potential solution very clearly in order to ensure potential partners could understand them. This paid off when he convinced Roll Back Malaria, a global co-ordinating partnership, to support the project actively. That gave Mr Barrington credibility when trying to attract other partners, countries and funding. For instance, it helped convince IBM, Vodafone and Google to give technical support.  

Tanzania agreed to be the pilot country. Mr Barrington included Tanzanian government officials, health workers, pharmacists and medical stores in project design discussions and got fresh perspectives from a diverse group of students who were working with IBM.  

Their eventual solution to the supply chain problem involved SMS text messaging, Google mapping and the internet. Each week, local health workers would send a text message reporting stock levels to a central database. Electronic mapping showed exactly where stocks were low, allowing district health officials to order drugs and distribute as needed.  

In October 2009, nine months after starting from scratch, a pilot project set up in three districts with a high incidence of anti-malaria drugs running out.  

The results
Stock-out rates fell sharply, the average response rate by health workers was 95 per cent, and the Tanzanian authorities approved a national rollout (funded by Medicines for Malaria Venture, Novartis and the Swiss Agency for Development).  

SMS for Life has been extended to track other commodities, such as diagnostic tests, other drugs and blood supplies. This could give Novartis a new model for distribution and sales in emerging markets.  

The lessons
Entrepreneurial CIOs can break out of their usual areas of operation to use their experience, knowledge and contacts to design and lead projects – in this case to address a longstanding social problem.  

The keys to Mr Barrington's success were: to set a goal that was both eye-catching and clear; to start with a small but committed team of internal and external experts; to be fully briefed via local contacts on the area in which the scheme would operate; and to form strong external partnerships, which he was able to do thanks to his position at Novartis.    

Donald A. Marchand is Professor of Strategy Execution and Information Management at IMD. He teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance program, which provides individuals and teams with the latest management thinking.

This article first appeared in the Financial Times on January 29th 2013.

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