The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic impact have exposed the weaknesses of the corporate world – from weaknesses in the supply chain to inadequacies in the ability of companies to maintain remote work.
As the CEO of a global biotech company, I’ve seen firsthand how traditional corporate structures slowed the healthcare industry’s ability to meet the needs of a diverse and global population.
Most global companies’ traditional hub-and-spoke model, centered around a physical headquarters, evolved out of necessity – good, timely decisions require clear, real-time communication. Teamwork needs trust. In the past, this was certainly best done personally.
But this structure (like all) had limitations. This often resulted in a corporate monoculture making decisions that maintained a limited worldview. This created tension with regional affiliates and also often limited understanding of unique cultural or local needs. It required executives to move to headquarters for a period of time or permanently.
This was most evident in the public health area, where our global pandemic response was tested, when we sought to coordinate across regions using remote technology for timely information and access to vaccines.
When Dr. Xiaodong Wang and I founded BeiGene in 2010, we shared a vision of embracing the world in our efforts to develop innovative medicines and trying to bring these innovations to the world. We believed there was a better structure and we made four key decisions to avoid the hub-and-spoke model issues.
We believe that BeiGene’s experience and cultural model provide an interesting antipole to 100 years of management science – but one that reflects the advancement of workplace technology and the global nature of disease and science. As we continue to learn and develop, our structure has enabled our company to continue to move fast during the pandemic. At a time when many life science companies were moving to a virtual workplace, we continued to expand our manufacturing presence in the US and conducted clinical study programs in 40 countries on 5 continents to ensure our drugs reach patients far and wide can continents. We hope that executives from all industries will find inspiration in our efforts to create a business without borders.
Create a level playing field where no country-based team has the say.
Executives of all levels can be in any location and are in fact spread all over the world, from Beijing, Shanghai and the San Francisco Bay Area to Cambridge and Basel, among others. Our leaders were dispersed long before the pandemic so we could continue to make decisions quickly while other organizations adapted. We have worked hard to create a culture that is characterized by mutual understanding and respect for each other’s strengths and differences. This extends to all 23 offices that we have today on five continents.
To make this work, we use collaboration technology in the workplace. In fact, for years before the pandemic, we were known as the company that said their headquarters are on Zoom – to which most outsiders replied, “What is Zoom?” We also travel to be together – at least in times when there is no pandemic – but we consciously strive to rotate this in different regions.
Build understanding and trust across borders
Respect for all cultures and perspectives is important. We strive to listen, understand and benefit from diverse perspectives and ideas. This understanding was critical in building trust with local investigators for clinical trials and integrating new locations into the global ecosystem with participants representing a range of ethnic, gender, economic and environmental traits. This approach takes more effort, but pays off in the long run.
We ask that discussions of conflicts remain focused on specific topics, not generalizations, people, functions, or geography.
For example, the clinical development program that led to US FDA approval of BeiGene’s BTK inhibitor Brukinsa came from Australia and New Zealand and was also based on data from 27 countries, including China, Poland, Spain and Italy. The design of the program was largely shaped by ideas from clinicians in Australia, Great Britain, Germany, China and France. Today, Brukinsa is approved in multiple indications and in markets such as Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Israel, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, and has shown efficacy and safety advantages over other treatments.
Make decisions based on facts, data, science, and logic – not hierarchy, region, role, or person
In our experience, recruiting and supporting the best people, regardless of where they live, drives innovation, job satisfaction and performance significantly. We have zero tolerance for stereotypes. As with our scientific activities, facts and logic form the basis of our team building strategy, which enables colleagues to work together across all regions.
Attitude based on talent, not location
I believe that a truly exceptional person in the right culture with the latest collaboration tools will far outnumber an average geographic talent.
A recent example of this geographic teamwork is our clinical operations organization, which has faced the challenge of accelerating the timeline for the interim analysis of a global study comparing Brukinsa with another drug in its class. With new processes to maximize the use of time across time zones, colleagues have spread work across continents, enabling continuous analysis of a huge amount of data and getting it to completion weeks ahead of schedule.
These commitments to decentralized headquarters, collaboration tools, and a global culture have allowed BeiGene to grow to 8,200+ employees in 10 years and initiate more than 100 clinical trials in over 40 regions – including some regions that have long been deployed are outsiders in an outdated drug development system.
We know that implementing such a model is challenging. It is not for everyone. It won’t be the best structure in many situations. What drives BeiGene, however, is our shared mission to fight the terrible villain, Cancer, who knows no boundaries. Since cancer knows no borders – neither should we.
We believe that a decentralized model is possible today and is preferable to a centralized command and control center model in order to understand and effectively address the health needs of a diverse world population.
John V. Oyler is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of BeiGene, a global biotechnology company.