The Mathematical Corporation

Josh Sullivan and Angela Zutavern

304 pages, PublicAffairs, 2017

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The final, and tough, leadership challenge that we discuss in The Mathematical Corporation is the degree to which you address societal problems beyond the ken of your organization. In our interconnected world, you can’t ignore global, cross-sector problems like immigration, climate change, and world hunger. The impact of each of these issues sends ripples, if not stormy waves, onto the shores of all organizations. Given the power of machine intelligence to find new ways to ease these problems, we show in Chapter 8—part of which is excerpted here—three approaches to contributing to solutions: opening your data to help with societal improvement, aligning your organization’s strategy with strategies for social good, and, if you’re a corporate leader, using philanthropy to contribute money and skills to the larger good. —Josh Sullivan and Angela Zutavern

Impossible Solutions: Answering Society’s Biggest Questions

Why do leaders expect so much of themselves today? One reason is that society has become so interconnected—we face problems that, when institutions were more disconnected, we could ignore as “someone else’s.” But growth in knowledge and wealth has brought us to the point where we need to address insoluble problems that have long plagued society, such as disease, hunger, poverty, in new and better ways. And we need to do so together.

One truth seems undeniable: even as you tackle the most complex problems in your organization, you can no longer ignore the most complex problems that cut across organizations, in fact, cut across nations. The idea has been long in the making. In the same way you can no longer compete without integrating functions and data across silos, you can’t compete without addressing problems across industries and sectors.

Consider the oil and gas industry. Companies in this sector are beset by one of the world’s most pressing challenges: figuring out how to reduce carbon emissions. For a long time, they could leave that job to other players on the global stage. But now they have to jump on stage themselves, and not just because governments are asking them to but because investors are demanding it.

Without working with the larger cast of global leaders, oil and gas companies do not have a future, and investors know it. In its recent financial statements, Shell Oil ominously notes: “If we are unable to find economically viable, as well as publicly acceptable, solutions that reduce our GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions we could experience additional costs or financial penalties, delayed or cancelled projects, and/or reduced production and reduced demand for hydrocarbons.”

Such enormous challenges cannot be handled piecemeal through traditional analysis of proprietary data sets by teams of people at just one company. They demand fresh solutions that require us to master a bigger analytical job. Only with data sets both open and proprietary, and only with the advances in algorithms by clever and far-flung mathematicians, can we address “impossible problems” that plague the planet.

As a leader, your job requires that you tap data not just for what we call the “small” strategic issues but also for “big” issues in an integrated global system. The planetary scope of things—global trade, global people flows, global communications—requires fresh cross-sector solutions. And even though global integration is not new, the possibility, in fact, the inevitability, that digitization of global systems will provide new answers to impossible questions is new.

When you search for fresh answers to big strategic issues, you advance your organization and global civilization. In years past, many organizations could dismiss the big issues as outside their realm of daily relevance. But as refugees flood Europe, as terrorist threats sweep the globe, as climate change triggers sea-level rise, you can’t operate as if you don’t have a vested interest in what’s happening globally. You have a growing role in aligning work that boosts the bottom line with work that betters the planet.

One leader who has taken such an approach is Sir Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline. On October 16, 2012, Witty announced that the world’s sixth largest drug company would release all of its proprietary clinical trial data, a move that would accelerate global progress in fighting disease. The company would no longer hold the data itself but would instead open the data for access by external researchers. Witty said GSK was building a website so that qualified researchers from anywhere in the world could access GSK’s in-house patient-level data, the data that sit behind the clinical trials themselves.

And GSK didn’t make just summary reports available. Nor did it just launch its new policy prospectively. Says Witty, “We’re not simply going to publish data on trials still to come, but we’re going to go back, and we’re going to publish all the data for all the trials that have been done since the company was formed.”

In opening up GSK’s proprietary data sets, Witty was doing what outsiders had long asked for—not just from GSK but from every pharmaceutical company. Still, he was breaking standard operating procedure for the industry as a whole, an industry in which drug development that can cost as much as $1 billion for a new pharmaceutical forms the basis for making money. In other words, GSK was taking an unprecedented stand and leading the industry away from its closed-mouth ways.

Outsiders responded swiftly, even if some questioned GSK’s motives. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, physician Deborah Zarin called the move “bold.” Later, on Twitter, as GSK began to roll out the program in 2013, longtime industry critic, physician, and best-selling author of Bad Pharma Ben Goldacre tweeted, “Historic moment.”

Not everyone thought GSK’s idea was novel. The press, the public, and many scientists had long questioned why clinical trial data weren’t always open. They also questioned whether GSK’s initiative was a way to defuse anger over how it and other companies had improperly marketed drugs. GSK had paid a $3 billion fine to the US Justice Department for, among other infractions, marketing Paxil as an antidepressant for teenagers despite clinical trial data published in 2001 that showed some teens in trials went on to feel suicidal.

GSK’s move, whatever prompted it, marked a cultural and behavioral watershed for the drug business. Eleven competing companies, including Novartis, Roche, Lilly, and Bayer, signed on to join GSK in its new program, which had long been a vision of company insiders. Today thirteen pharmaceutical companies share data on the platform, a one-stop shop for data sharing across companies. Witty, CEO since 2008, decided that GSK would release all data from company-funded trials back to 2000, the date when Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham merged to create GSK.

Witty explained that company executives had undergone a change of heart since his naming as CEO. In announcing the move, he said, “There was a fear in the industry around collaboration especially, [and] openness of information, and the mistaken judgment that by actually being more open and more transparent around data somehow that would destroy the fundamental business model.”

The GSK story, however, shows the pharmaceutical industry entering a new era by backing away from that fear. It also signals a greater impact: a step into that era by all companies. Leaders in industry, government, and academia believe we can solve the most serious problems on the planet—eradicating malaria, tuberculosis, Ebola, and Zika, in GSK’s case—by sharing more data and working earnestly across organizational and sectoral lines.

To this day, that logic remains counterintuitive, and not just for those in business. Organizations of all kinds pour billions of dollars into innovation with the hopes of handsome returns, payoffs in reputation, organizational growth, or profits, if not all three. In industries such as pharmaceuticals, the change to open sharing comes hard because keeping mum traditionally gave companies a competitive edge. Why would a for-profit business hand out such valuable secrets?

The answer is that, in many cases, by giving away, they get more back. Since launching the registry, GSK has continuously added more information faster. Jessica Scott, GSK director of North American Medical Advocacy and Policy, reports the company has further enhanced the independence of research proposal reviews for access to data by handing the control to the Wellcome Trust. In turn, the trust appointed a new panel of independent experts, who will continue to field requests by research groups. To date, GSK has listed approximately two thousand studies as open for requests by researchers worldwide. Over a hundred research teams are currently using the data to conduct secondary research.

Even though giving away sensitive data was once unheard of, the time has come for leaders of mathematical corporations to think creatively like GSK. How do you align organizational gains with societal gains, especially over the long term?

No leader can be expected to cooperate across silos and sectors of society on every issue. Organizations still gain profits through the value of trade secrets, patented technology, and close-to-the-vest elements of operational excellence. But, if leaders want to be part of the solution of global-scale problems, they must find more ways to work together to take advantage of the power of machine intelligence.

The risk, surprisingly, is not as great as many leaders think. As GSK’s Scott says, “We were the first in industry to show this can be done, and the sky won’t fall.” A physician and attorney herself, she notes that many MD and PhD researchers in the company were cheered by the move. “We…put something in place that had really never been done. We weren’t the second ones to arrive. We were the first. And there’s a lot of energy behind that.”

For other companies to adopt tradition-breaking changes, ones that generate similar energy because of their far-reaching societal value, four changes must be made:

  • Looking at global-scale concerns as your own problems
  • Opening up stores of data to allow more minds to find value in the data
  • Understanding how your organization’s mission fits globally
  • Finding ways to pursue high-priority philanthropic ends that align with your corporate values and purpose

In all four ways, you can work to benefit society as a whole. More data, plus more minds working on that data, equals more progress. In kicking off changes in thinking, Witty said GSK executives asked themselves this question: “What are the fundamental ways we can change the way we do business to once and for all align the goals of the organization and the way of thinking in the organization with what we believe society expects of us?” The answer to that question is critical in the era of the mathematical corporation.

Excerpted from The Mathematical Corporation: Where Machine Intelligence and Human Ingenuity Achieve the Impossible, by Josh Sullivan and Angela Zutavern. Copyright © 2017. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.