Having diversity in any organisation is a necessity, irrespective of industry. Aside from the ethical reasons, the business case is extremely strong – as McKinsey and Co noted in its latest diversity and inclusion study, 'the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance'. Put simply, the more diverse a business, the greater the chance of sustained success.

The pharma sector is no different. A recent PharmaTimes article commented that 'across the pharma industry and throughout healthcare, the totems of difference and parity provide genuine opportunities for tangible change'.

The article goes on to point out that 'having representation from alternative groups and cross sections within society, opens up a unique frame of reference for drug development. Why imagine being in someone else’s shoes, when you could be learning directly from the person who owns the shoes? Indeed, these pockets of knowledge within a company have increased in currency during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the nuances of socioeconomic, location, employment and ethnicity factors have been repeatedly highlighted'.

Nowhere was this more apparent than within the companies that developed the first approved COVID-19 vaccine. Dr Ugur Sahin and Dr Özlem Türeci, founders of BioNTech, the vaccine's manufacturer, are both children of Turkish immigrants to West Germany. They partnered with US-headquartered Pfizer. The diversity of expertise, and what it brings to workforces, has been critical in bringing together experts to find the right solutions.

Yet for many, diversity is an internal matter – most discussion focuses on attracting and retaining employed talent. What is often missed is the fact that no organisation can exist in isolation. As the BioNTech/Pfizer partnership demonstrates, bringing in outside expertise is critical, whether it’s to advise on a new investment, provide resources a single company cannot marshal alone, or deliver skills that are cost-prohibitive to have employed within the company. Furthermore, making sure that external knowledge is suitably diverse is just as important as diversifying the workforce.

Disrupting established thinking

As well as introducing skills and knowledge, leveraging external expertise can also be a valuable way of disrupting groupthink. Even within the most diverse organisations, we run a major risk that employees and executives will succumb to a degree of internal bias in their decision-making. Market leaders and successful disruptors alike de-risk for this by bringing in outside expertise to challenge established views and provoke greater diversity of thought. This in turn leads to the identification of new solutions and alternative approaches.

This isn’t new. Sports teams make a lot of noise about how they bring in expertise from other areas, whether it’s psychologists, nutritionists, or even specialists from other sports (such as sprinters to teach footballers and rugby players how to accelerate) to deploy new ways of thinking and unlock elite levels of performance. The pharma sector as a whole is starting to deploy this approach, with new, disruptive biotech firms looking outside traditional talent pools to attract what an article from NICE Insight called 'people with diverse backgrounds, ranging from international work experience to different cultures, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.'

But in a world exploding with information and more ways to self-promote than ever before, how do businesses go about ensuring they engage with the real experts who can truly add value to their company?

Protecting against bias, even in experts

It is important to clarify how one actually becomes an expert. While there is no clearly defined formula, in many ways the pharma sector is ahead of other industries in this respect. Accredited, scientific rigour have long been requirements, with peer-reviewed expertise expected as standard. As we’ve noted, collaboration in certain areas also has a long and storied history.

That does not mean, however, that these established practices are problem-free. Firstly, there can exist many distinct schools of thought within a discipline or sector, so speaking to only a few experts can run the risk of missing innovative insights. Secondly, if we stick too closely to the accepted means of accreditation, we put the responsibility for diversity on the shoulders of traditional establishment gatekeepers. It is an issue that plagues the diversification of pharma leadership - as the NICE Insight article highlights, 'one of the key problems facing the industry is the fact that most CEOs and board chairs tend to select from their established professional networks — generally white men — when hiring for top positions. Some companies even make it a policy to only appoint new directors that are already known by current members of the board. The result: large numbers of highly talented and skilled people that could help improve company performance — women, minorities, and LGBT executives — are overlooked'. This can be just as pronounced a problem when it comes to identifying experts.

Plus, there is often tendency to use the same experts, or the same networks, over and over again once relationships have been established. Experts are human too, and if they persist in using the same people, companies are only going to be getting a handful of different perspectives at most. To combat this, businesses need to be tapping into a diverse range of knowledge holders from a variety of backgrounds. But how can you identify these specialists quickly and effectively?

In theory, the democratising effect of digitalisation, and the ever-increasing online availability of this identifier information, makes it easy to ascertain an individual’s credentials. Yet in practice, that same proliferation of information threatens to drown out true insight and original thinking. So, how can we sort the signal from the noise?

Combatting information overload

It is an ongoing issue – we are all flooded in information day in, day out. The World Economic Forum estimated that on any given day we collectively send 500 million tweets and 294 billion emails, and make more than five billion searches.

To wade through all that information, to sort it and identify the most relevant expertise would be a process that is too time intensive for any organisation. Plus, by the time you’ve manually analysed the data, the field will most likely have evolved and the true experts of today may not have been the thought leaders of yesterday.

So, how do we find people that are becoming increasingly hidden by the noise of modern life? Technology has an answer. Artificial intelligence (AI), already being used by pharma companies to accelerate innovation, could be used to comb through digitally stored information, whether it’s research papers or tweets, press releases or award announcements, and identify potential experts that could support a business need. Such a platform would dramatically cut the time it takes to find knowledge leaders, while still providing a broad and diverse spread of candidates. It would go beyond simply highlighting the latest information, and give companies access to the minds behind the material, providing a gateway to previously hidden insights. What’s more, technology sees no borders, meaning that businesses are no longer restricted to those experts in their region, time zone, or cultural affiliation.

There’s a major opportunity to ensure that those experts bring a diverse and varied outlook, challenge internal consensuses and give businesses the competitively differentiated insight they need to make informed, accurate, and innovative decisions.

By giving organisations access to AI-sourced experts, such a platform is acting as a route to, rather than the ultimate source of, knowledge. What AI can do is rapidly find the needle in the haystack of knowledge, providing access to insights that can be fed into strategies that allow companies to stay at the forefront of innovation in their space.

Diversity driving innovation and growth

Diversity isn’t just a fashionable buzzword – it’s a performance driver that supports businesses in making fast, accurate decisions. Those organisations that only consider it an internal matter are missing an opportunity. Ensuring you have a diverse range of external expertise to call on is also critical, as it means being able to access a varied base of knowledge that others are missing. Using an AI platform to find the right individuals gives pharma companies a path to finding the expertise they need to challenge internal thinking and, ultimately, identify new opportunities for innovation and growth.

Graham Mills is co-founder and managing director, techspert.io