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Following Layoffs, Talent Development May Be Key to Pfizer’s Future

January 23, 2007
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Pfizer’s announcement this week that it is laying off 10,000 employees shows how difficult it is to be a big pharmaceutical company these days.

Not only are such companies subject to a popular drug’s patent ending, opening the market to generic competition, but smaller biotechnology firms are able to produce new drugs more quickly, making it crucial for big pharma companies to have a continuous stream of promising drugs in the pipeline.

To address these challenges, companies like Pfizer will need to redefine how they recruit and develop talent, observers say.

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“They have been considered best practice in terms of hiring employees and developing them internally,” he says.

But Pfizer, whose drugs include Lipitor, might have to back away from that approach, Capelli says.

“Developing talent a certain way makes sense if your business is predictable and if a company knows what it will need 10 years out,” he says. “But in this case, the pipeline of drugs that companies must develop is so difficult to anticipate that they might need a just-in-time strategy regarding their talent.”

Rather than spending money on staff development, Pfizer, which numbered more than 100,000 employees before the announced layoffs, may be better off hiring talent on an as-needed basis, he says.

It also means Pfizer may need to change its recruiting strategy so it puts more emphasis on hiring employees who are open to being flexible, says Michael Williams, chair of leadership and HR management at online school Capella University.

“The line between science and business is becoming more blurred,” he says.

This not only means hiring employees who might have experience in both areas, but that Pfizer should focus on more cross-training, he says.

Yet Bill Craib, vice president at the Human Capital Institute, contends Pfizer doesn’t need to abandon its employee development focus.

“Instead of training employees so that they are experts on specific topics, they should use those training dollars toward teaching those competencies,” he says.

Rather than offering training on a specific field of research, Pfizer may begin offering more training on competencies employees need to switch roles within the organization, Craib says.

“They need a person who can switch from working on a heart disease product to one that helps people stop smoking,” he says.

This might require more team-building exercises and other methods to create a collaborative environment, Craib says.

It seems Pfizer is considering changes in how it addresses talent. Last week, the pharmaceutical company announced it had replaced Sylvia Montero, a longtime employee who headed up HR, with Mary McLeod, from management consultant Korn Consulting Group, as interim head of HR.

MacLeod was not immediately available for comment, spokesman Paul Fitzhenry said.

Ultimately, the challenges facing Pfizer are those that confront large organizations in all industries, Craib says. Global competition is increasing, and companies are struggling with staying ahead.

“All large companies are dealing with how to create a nimble workforce,” he says.

Jessica Marquez

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