Project management in pharma

Projects and project-related skills have taken on a new importance in the post-pandemic landscape. Rebecca Fox explains why project management matters in pharma.

The importance of projects in the UK’s healthcare sector cannot be overstated. This is as much about the essential public functions they enable as it is about the economic contribution they make.

A recent APM study, The Golden Thread: Project Management in Three Key Sectors, produced in partnership with PwC, reveals that projects in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life science sectors generate £17.5 billion of annual Gross Value Added (GVA) and employ 223,800 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers. 

The findings of the study indicate that the importance of knowledgeable, experienced and professional project managers will only grow. The Golden Thread notes the professionalisation of project management is expanding in the pharmaceutical, healthcare and life science sectors. The report identifies that, while the pharmaceutical sector has employed dedicated project professionals for some time, project managers are increasingly specified in private and academic life science funding bids, and the NHS is actively developing the project profession internally.

Projects, it seems, are the future. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the sectors that have been at the front line in the battle against coronavirus. Project managers in the health sectors have faced a succession of challenges to repurpose project activity whilst pivoting to deal with the immediate challenge of the pandemic. 

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Meeting the challenges

The construction of Nightingale Hospitals, the race to find a vaccine and the work to contain the spread of the virus in the UK – to give just three examples – all serve to highlight the importance of successful projects within the healthcare sphere.

There is still work to be done, however, to increase awareness of the benefits that project management skills can provide, including stronger execution of projects, and saving time and money.

The research revealed that almost 30% of organisations surveyed expect to see project budgets decrease over the next three years, despite the number of projects undertaken expected to remain stable. Continuously developing project managers’ skills will be essential as organisations – both public and private – grapple with emerging challenges with potentially reduced budgets.

There is also a need for ‘accidental’ project managers (i.e. people who find themselves tasked with delivering projects despite it not being an official part of their job) to be developed in a way that supports the shift to greater professionalism. The report identifies that project managers in the health, pharma and life sciences sectors are often subject matter experts first and project managers second.

Ultimately, this comes down to ensuring that people tasked with delivering projects have the skills they need to be able to succeed.

Skills gaps

Knowledge and experience of change management has been identified as a skill gap. Incorporating strategies to prepare for, manage and embed change will allow the NHS to deliver more effective and sustainable organisational transformation.

Digital transformation projects accounted for nearly half of all projects undertaken across the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life science sectors in the past year. In a period of digital change, advanced skills in this area are becoming a necessity.

Soft skills such as a flexible mindset and strong communication and interpersonal skills are key characteristics needed for a successful project professional in the health sector.

Looking to the future

Projects and project management are no longer confined to the traditional domains of construction, heavy engineering and large capital investments. Awareness of project management in the public health sector has been increasing and there remains opportunity for further growth. For pharmaceuticals and life sciences, an ageing (and hence more vulnerable) population will drive growth in demand for the delivery of new drugs, equipment and facilities. Robust project management approaches will be crucial for all of these.

As organisations within the healthcare sphere continue to play a vital role on the journey to recovery in the post-pandemic world, the case for investing in project-related skills and professional development is clear. 

Rebecca Fox is Head of Membership at the Association for Project Management (APM).

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This article was previously published in Pf Magazine.