There's an op-ed piece over at Pharmalot that I think that many readers here will find interesting. It's by Daniel Hoffman, formerly employed in pharma, it appears, and now a consultant. He's writing about the waves of layoffs the industry has experienced over the last few years, but he's not talking so much about the people who are gone, as the ones who are left:
In addition to disrupting tens of thousands of lives, the substantial downsizing in pharma over the past two-and-a-half years has changed many companies for the worse. I previously wrote that the guidelines handed down from finance to HR have eliminated many of the more knowledgeable and experienced people at each layoff round because people over age 50 are among the first targets for separation packages. But the dysfunctional legacy is even more pernicious. The resulting culture has created a workforce that is almost entirely at odds with what pharma needs now.
What sort of workforce is that? Hoffman's take is that the people who have survived under these conditions are disproportionately those who don't rock the boat, who keep their heads down, and who keep the top management as unperturbed as possible:
Many of the people remaining in operations deliberately choose not to ask big or important questions, lest their colleagues perceive any fundamental doubt as a threat. The truly adept manage to avoid taking a position on even the most mundane matters, lest someone else equate perceptive questions with disloyalty. Some even find it wise to feign ignorance concerning the elephants in various rooms. The combination of such simulated ignorance, together with the genuine version among the inexperienced survivors, makes the task of determining the smartest guy in the room a purely theoretical exercise.
I think that these are tendencies built in to most large organizations, but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the shakeups of the last few years have exacerbated them. Many people, when the pressure is on as hard as it's been, decide that the first thing they have to do is try to hang on to their job. Anything interesting and risky can wait until after the mortgage payment has cleared and the tuition checks have been written. The behaviors most associated with "Don't get laid off" are not the ones that are best associated with "Keep the company going", much less "Discover something new". That last set of behaviors, in fact, might be one of the first to go, along with the people who exemplify them.
Hoffman has an aggressively cynical take on the motives in other parts of large organizations - and while I wish I could say that he's completely wrong, there are indeed places - too many - that operate on these general principles:
. . .At the top, finance sets the strategic direction. The goal of finance, paramount to everything else, consists of keeping senior management in control of the company. Forget the blather about shareholder value, customers, the community and medicine for the people. Everyone outside the boardroom is the enemy. . .Reality for CFOs involves long-term product and business development approaches that would create several quarters of flat or negative earnings. In their doomsday scenario, that would prompt the board to replace management.
And that's the tricky part of capitalism. One of the philosophical reasons that I'm such a free-market kind of person is that I think that it works with human nature as it really is, without needing any magical-thinking schemes to suddenly transform or improve it. People tend to act in their own self-interest? Fine, let's use that to try to derive benefit for more than just one person at a time. But it goes without saying (or should) that not all self-interested actions can be so harvested, which is why I'll never be anything close to an anarcho-libertarian.
Philosophy aside, what we're seeing in some drug organizations is this sort of self-destruction. The fix they find themselves in leads to behavior that makes the problems worse, or at best does little to overcome them. This, taken down to its individual basis, is what Hoffman's piece is arguing. And although his editorial can also be fairly characterized as a bitter rant, that doesn't mean it isn't true. Or at least more true than it should be.