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Enabling Effective Collaboration Across Boundaries

Roche “Pharma International” is the commercial arm of the Pharmaceutical Division of F. Hoffmann-La Roche. The unit has total Profit & Loss accountability for the commercialization and distribution of innovative medicines in 100 countries worldwide, excluding the USA & Japan.

A decentralized organization with a workforce of 13,000 employees accounts for nearly 40% of all Pharmaceutical Division revenue at around CHF 18 Billion (2021).

This case study represents one of the submissions for i4cp's 2023 Next Practice Awards, winners will be honored at the i4cp 2023 Next Practices Now Conference. You can also view other Next Practice Award case studies.

Business challenge

Roche Pharmaceuticals' goal is to provide more advanced medical benefits to patients at a far lower cost to society. Roche has a promising pipeline of 80 New Molecular Entities in 7 different therapeutic areas coming to the markets between 2023 and 2030. 

We need new radical approaches to organizing work across multiple therapeutic areas and decentralized markets to achieve this ambitious goal. We must increase the channels for exchanging knowledge and expertise, work more collaboratively across boundaries to increase impact in complex healthcare systems, and improve our ability to innovate and to shift talents and funds across different markets and therapeutics.

Our team decided to focus on the challenge of increasing collaboration across markets and improving the fluidity of talents and expertise across therapeutic areas and decentralized markets.

We conducted a diagnostic Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), which indicated a level of collaboration of 5% between different markets with a predominantly fragile hub-spoke network. Around 80 individuals were the single connecting hub to spread learning, expertise, and innovation to 89 countries and 13,000 employees.

Pharma International Organization Network Analysis with Hub

Pharma International Network without the Central Hub

Most markets were isolated and disconnected, relying exclusively on limited local expertise. Countries’ metrics on the speed of information sharing and learning were below 40%, with the best cases above 10% of the external benchmarks. However, countries isolation blocked the diffusion of any accelerated knowledge across the network.

A risk condition with several points of stress failure if we were to increase the number of innovations in the markets without increasing the number of personnel by multiple products.

Solution – Scope & Innovation

We based our approach to identifying solutions on the belief that the most successful and lasting interventions emerge from culturally solid traits that already exist in the organization. Therefore, our first step was to understand the state of collaboration and the tensions in the cultural values lived daily by most employees. 

The Organizational Network Analysis provided a glimpse into the current state of collaboration and indicated a strong cultural value that brought different teams together. However, we needed a more in-depth understanding of the cultural traits and behaviors valued by most employees that we could amplify and incorporate into the working system.

Therefore we identified the positive deviants in collaboration inside the organization, those recognized by their peers as central to collaboration, boundary spanners, or energizers of ideas. We could codify their behavior patterns and learn from them the solid cultural values around collaboration. 

The Cultural Carriers were our gateway to unlocking emergent and lasting interventions.

Finding the Cultural Carriers

We identified 8% of the employees as Cultural Carriers through the Organizational Network Analysis, covering 13,000 employees from 89 countries. Their peers recognized them as essential in the spread of innovation, new practices, behaviors, and technical expertise and knowledge crucial to the work of many individuals.

They also represented the employee population from many different countries, ethnically diverse, gender-balanced, and from all levels of the hierarchy. 

We surveyed and interviewed 300 critical network connectors, boundary spanners, and catalysts. Two teams of 8 Cultural Carriers volunteered to identify behavior patterns and design the principles that would guide all our actions in executing the interventions.

Together we envisioned creating an emergent and adaptive organizational system governed by principles. The six simple principles, encompassing behaviors supported by the company culture, were:

  1. We prioritize work based on outcome and impact on patients and customers (internal or external),
  2. We empower people to choose the work and how they contribute to it based on their skills, purpose, and intended development independent of their job description, function, or location,
  3. We make transparent to everyone the outcomes & the progress,
  4. We make transparent to everyone people's skills, intended development & current contribution.
  5. We intentionally include diverse perspectives in every working team,
  6. We recognize and incentivize individuals and teams that connect, contribute and energize across internal and external networks to address patients' and customers' needs.

To realize these six principles, we agreed to focus on three pillars of execution based on the impact and urgency correlation:

  • Strengthening the Network of Cultural Carriers
  • Creating Conditions for an Opportunity Marketplace to enable fluidity of talents
  • Fostering a learning culture that serves as the foundation for an adaptive organization 

Strengthening the Network of Cultural Carriers

Through a program of capabilities development and mentorship, we improved the bonds and relationships of 180 Cultural Carriers, creating a super-network. At the same time, they disseminated effective collaborative practices to their trusted connections and to newcomers who were on the edge of the network.

For this pillar, we benefited from pre-designed programs from Connected Commons. Namely, the Connected Leaders Program combined with the Connected Talents modules.

Organizational Conditions to Enable People Fluidity

Previous attempts to accelerate the flow of people using traditional short-term assignment, or rotation in formal administrative teams had been timid and ineffective, in one year the best result achieved was 8 rotations. It was clear that following the traditional practices of mobility of people was not the correct solution.

To materialize principles 2 to 4, we improved the existing employee work management system and attached an Opportunity Marketplace. Self-managed teams of volunteers composed of Cultural Carriers from different markets conducted joint awareness campaigns across their markets and others. Other teams targeted introducing the Opportunity Market place in collaboration clusters at the network's margin.

The first hurdle was the low visibility of employees' experience, skills and development interests. Only 4% of the 13,000 employees had completed their job profile in the employee’s management system Workday. Moreover, employees’ experience and participation in previous or current projects were not visible in any system. The Employees' Individual Development Plan was not visible to the general public, only to their respective line managers. 

However, the diagnostic of the ONA indicated that the great majority of the employees collaborated 55% of their time with other teams in five to seven simultaneous projects on a wide range of topics unrelated to their job families.

Collaboration in Topical Networks Consolidated by Job Families

The data indicated a lot of intelligence about employees needed to be included. It was evident that employees were developing expertise, and acquiring experience beyond their current jobs. Employees were developing faster than the formal structure of job descriptions could capture.

This intelligence is crucial to whichever mechanism we use to increase the speed of allocating people across markets and therapeutic areas.  

Because of that, it was natural to re-think how we bring talents together. The typical approach is to group skills into pools of capabilities, such as “Centers of Excellence.” These administrative structures are very similar to the current setup. They invariably function like matrix management structures, where talents are allocated to multiple projects while belonging to an administrative system disconnected from the result of the project.

Therefore, rather than re-naming the current set-up at a high administrative cost and getting little result in increasing organizational intelligence. The team introduced the concept of the Opportunity Marketplace, where project teams form around a clearly defined outcome that brings a positive benefit to customers and patients. No change was made to the existing organizational set-up or administrative structure.

The main purpose, therefore, was to create visibility about existing projects, existing collaboration in different projects and employees’ skills and capabilities. At the same time, to introduce a formal mechanism to accelerate fluidity of people and their capabilities.

Fostering a Learning Culture

We must continuously evolve and improve people’s capability to work collaboratively in a fluid context. Such continuous improvement requires a commitment to learning by embracing double-loops learning; we enable principles 1,2, and 6 by sensing the organization for appropriate interventions.

We embraced the principles of emergent change by first diagnosing what’s most needed to foster a learning culture. The first step was a crowd-sensing exercise, where we invited 1,028 people from all countries and regions to participate in the theme of “Flowing to Work to Create Impact.” We revalidate the results with additional crowd-sensing in three different themes and the participation of more than 450 people. 

We discovered a repeated theme of a “doing” culture and a potential collective blind spot of lack of pausing and reflection. The graph below illustrates most people’s focus on results and processes. However, experience and purpose are essential elements to guide actions. 

Questions profile from 1028 employees on the theme “Flowing to Work to Create Impact”To address this blindspot, continuous efforts are being made to support colleagues and bring more focus on learning and reflections by addressing individual and collective mindsets and beliefs; self and system awareness. We introduced a Learning Organization journal as a component of the employee contribution cycle process (the formal performance evaluation process). The journal incorporates three principal elements.

  1. “It starts with Me.” Supporting colleagues to start the learning journey by self-reflection on their core values and purpose, identity, and mindset
  2. “From Me to We.” Introducing team rituals such as impact retrospectives and event-based feedback practices.
  3. “From We to the Ecosystem.” Embracing concepts of complexity and networked organization.

The Learning Organization practices are being integrated with the formal employee evaluation process globally and serving as a learning resource in existing learning and development programs. Two of the most prominent audiences are the customer-centricity training program consisting of over 1,100 alums worldwide and the newly launched capability-building program for customer-facing colleagues with 630 participants in 2022. 

Furthermore, for the learning culture to be embedded, it is imperative that leadership lead by example. Therefore, we collaborated with experts in the leadership development department to bring leadership development based on narrative identity, systems leadership, and holistic well-being. 

Additionally, on a team level, we have invested in forming Team Coaches and on-the-job training for the self-managed teams. Examples of new working practices introduced are team agreements, time-bounded projects, pull-system for work task distribution and transparency (kanban), etc.

Results & Impact

Strengthening the Network of Cultural Carriers

We moved from a fragile network of Cultural Carriers to a resilient Network. We improved the collaboration across markets from 5% to 56%.

Culture Carriers Network in 2020, a fragile and fragmented network.

Culture Carriers Network in 2022, a resilient and integrated network.

Cultural Carriers reported an increase on the quality of their relationships, working together on business challenges or in inspiring other colleagues on the practices of collaboration. Based on the ONA in 2022, 84% of the the new connections among the Cultural Carriers are based on mutual help in stretched business challenges. 

This strong network translates in 5 times more innovation and better solutions to customers and patients.

Creating Conditions to Enable People Fluidity

In 12 months, we improved the visibility of employees’ skills and competencies from 4% to 70% in major markets. It’s an improvement of 17x on understanding the capabilities of the existing 13,000 employee population in 89 countries.

During the same period of 1 year, 3,140 employees (24% of the working population), contributed to more than 600 self-managed teams in defined work projects. This is an astonishing result 350 times more effective than the traditional Human Resource practices used to exchange talents across the markets and teams.

The above results bring several business benefits: 

  1. Cost Avoidance: the participation of 24% of the working population in more than 600 self-managed teams with ZERO additional management structure represents a cost avoidance estimated at CHF 150 million, considering costs associated with relocation, recruitment, administrative structure, and potential turnover.

    Participation in the Opportunity Marketplace
    Evolution of Employee Participation since Intervention in Pharma International.1
  2. Improved Accelerated Knowledge Exchange: Through passive ONA of data from the Workday Opportunity Marketplace, we confirmed an increase in collaboration from 5% to 43% across the whole Network, excluding the Head Quarter in Switzerland. Across regions, the improvement was from 5% to 54%. It is a 10x improvement in the number of wide bridges across markets.

Collaboration Level across Regions in Specific Business Challenges in Self-Formed Communities  at Q4-2022

Collaboration across marketsFostering a Learning Culture

Even though we are yet to launch systematic sensing and feedback on the impact of double-loop learning practices, we have already received signals of progress across many regions. For instance, in Canada, Spain, Australia, the UK, and Portugal, over 1,500 colleagues have consistently used a learning journal to guide personal learning throughout the year with reflections and rituals of coaching. Colleagues reported that adopting the learning journal has shifted the conversations between peers, employees, and their leaders. It has become a more embedded practice to have discussions on feedback throughout the year - not only at the end of the year. And more of that feedback is done peer to peer. The conversations between people leaders and employees have shifted to topics around development, growth, next steps, etc. Such practices have formed a feedback culture throughout the year, contributing to the organization's continuous learning and adaptation.

We also recognize that this is an area where we need more understanding and metrics about progress. Adoption of learning organization practices and rituals needs to be accessed and impact more clearly understood. Team coach formation required a faster uptake. We still need mechanisms to assess teams'' evolution and adoption of effective practices at scale.


In the short period of 2 years since the initial Organizational Network Analyses and 1.5 years since the launch of the six simple principles we feel that we’ve progressed fast and learned massively for an organization of our size and geographic spread. All this was achieved without restructuring the administrative structure, as it’s the traditional approach adopted in this type of operational design.

A key lesson learned is to invest in resources for the formation of Team Coaches and having a good structure of support for the new self-managed teams. The delay and low investment in this area may have jeopardized the effectiveness of the self-managed teams and negatively impacted the team members' well-being.

Our areas of improvement and focus in the next year are based on a recent crowd sensing exercise with 1,028 colleagues across 89 countries:

  1. We’ll introduce technologies that make transparent working connections using a passive Organizational Network Analysis. The objective is to create Collaborative Intelligence, giving employees better information to decide what to work on, with whom to work, and which correlated skills to develop,
  2. We will continue creating spaces for people to discover their individual purpose, develop purposeful connections and identify meaningful and fulfilling work for them. This is a low capability at the moment according to our internal research. 
  3. We’re going to experiment with creating conditions to reduce Priority Overload, which has skyrocketed since the above changes were introduced. However, a phenomenon that is not exclusive to Roche is evident due to the transparency created by the above changes.