Five minute CIO: Sarah McDonald, MSD Ireland

14 Aug 2015

Sarah McDonald, country IT lead, MSD Ireland

“We’re sowing the seeds of big data, so game-changing decisions and insights can come to light,” says Sarah McDonald, country IT lead for Ireland at healthcare giant MSD. McDonald was also one of Ireland’s earliest female computer science graduates.

At a time when most Leaving Cert students have received their results and are awaiting the results of the CAO to see if they get their first choices, Sarah McDonald, country IT lead at MSD in Ireland is a prime example of the kind of rewarding career that can be enjoyed through technology.

McDonald is particularly important as she was one of the earliest female computer science graduates in Ireland, graduating from DCU in 1985 with a B.Sc in Computer Applications.

“I approached the Leaving Cert without a clue what I wanted to do career-wise but knew I wanted something a bit different, something with a bit of a ‘wow’ factor.  But it was also 1981 and jobs were scarce.  I scanned the jobs pages in the papers and saw lots of ads for ‘Systems Analyst,’ which sounded intriguing so I found out what a SA was and discovered computing.”

Remember this was 1981, the same year IBM launched the world’s first PC. One of McDonald’s earliest jobs was with Kerry Group where she worked as an analyst and programmer in VAX/COBAL.

“I loved that language!  I was one of a very small group of developers looking after software development and IT infrastructure for their meat processing plants around Ireland.”

In those days, IT always reported into finance. “It’s different now; IT is not seen as a sales reporting/invoicing/number crunching function. IT infrastructure then consisted of terminals connected to a mid-range or mainframe running in-house developed applications and a scattering of standalone PCs running Word and Lotus 123.

“But it’s amazing how we ran big business from such basic IT.  No such thing as a LAN or WAN or internet.  But I learned so much from those years – some really fundamental principles of IT that I have never forgotten and that have stood the test of time — like normalisation of data, logical troubleshooting, debugging and good coding practices.”

McDonald’s arrival into the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry in 1992 was with Organon Ireland, which was opening a new manufacturing facility in Swords.

“They needed someone to lead the IT function into this new future and they chose me.

“The next years were spent being part of a company that quickly grew to 600-plus employees and building and deploying the IT infrastructure to support that growth.  This meant implementing a LAN, moving away from VAX and COBOL to Windows servers and configurable off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions instead.

“Having built up a team of 22 IT staff we provided a complete end-to-end IT service in-house for Organon Ireland.  We had some amazing challenges: Y2K, EURO, ERP, SOX, and all done in an environment which was fully validated to comply with the toughest of regulatory standards”

Fast-forward to today, and Organon was acquired by Schering-Plough in 2007 which then merged with MSD in 2009.

“Today I am director of IT for all MSD in Ireland with responsibility for five manufacturing plants and the varied divisions of human health, animal health, shared business services and global support functions.”

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology rollout across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

MSD is one of the world’s leading healthcare companies, operating in 140 countries and employing more than 2,000 people in six sites across Ireland.  I am responsible for IT in those six sites.

Since company development in 2009, IT has had to focus on the integration of infrastructure and applications across all divisions of these two large companies.  This has been hugely successful and is no longer a focus of attention.  Instead, we now focus on differentiation.

MSD works to differentiate itself from competitors and knows that the key to this is to move ‘beyond the pill’, as we call it.  Beyond the pill, data-driven science helps doctors to use an evidence-based approach to match patients with the most suitable interventions. IT at MSD can play a vital role in this area through its new healthcare solutions and services subsidiary with the enhancement of our products through digital services and solutions for the benefit of our customers and patients.  We fully understand that the future is digital – and significant value generation will be enabled by innovative IT.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

We recognise that what is strategic today will become commoditised tomorrow.  And that cycle is accelerating faster and faster every day.  This means that we have to embrace the rapid pace of change and emerge from it with the speed and agility that will enable us to drive value going forward.

Significant changes are underway in the healthcare industry.  In fact, one could argue that this is perhaps the most transformational time for healthcare in recent history – and a major reason for that is information and technology. Technology is proliferating every aspect of people’s lives and every corner of healthcare. I believe IT has an extraordinary role to play in making MSD’s life-saving products more available, accessible and affordable, while expanding the reach and range of prevention and wellness.

We’re always questioning old models of thinking so we can branch out into new realms of possibility and opportunity. We’re sowing the seeds of big data, so game-changing decisions and insights can come to light.  And we’re breaking through unnecessary silos in our organisation and the IT function is constantly reinventing itself so we can use our full potential to help MSD unlock life-saving innovations that matter.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We now have a standard IT architecture in place and this enables the seamless operation of our global business.  We can deploy software updates to 60,000 users overnight, ensure connectivity to our core business systems to more than 50,000 mobile devices, and host more than 6,000 Webex meetings every day.  We have four regional data centres around the world and tens of thousands of virtual servers and more than 100,000 workstations.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

We classify all IT spend and investment according to four quadrants: utility (running the business), productivity (achieving efficiencies, cost savings and productivity improvements), revenue generation (using IT as an enabler), and disruptive (game-changing IT).  Spend on utility and productivity helps our bottom line but should be limited as there is finite opportunity to create value there.  Nevertheless, our newly-established analytics practice is on track to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in economic value to MSD through improvements in productivity.

However, where the possibilities are endless are in the revenue generation and disruptive quadrants as innovations in these spaces can contribute directly to the company’s top line.  To realise the potential here, MSD has established three Global Innovation Centres in the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific. It’s important to note that at MSD we speak in terms of value generation rather than in terms of spend.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Simplifying our application and technology portfolio, despite an increasingly complex computing environment, is key. As MSD takes advantage of new mobile, cloud and collaboration technologies, we inevitably introduce increased complexity into our IT landscape. However, by reinforcing our commitment to IT’s world-class enterprise capabilities, we managed to make this complexity run simply and cost-effectively across the business.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

Internally we have transformed our way of working to break down divisional silos and operate as “One IT”. In-market IT teams are very lean.  They are supported by an extensive network of internal communities of practice and external partners who, together, provide services around application management, helpdesk, and global infrastructure and network services. Strategic outsourcing is a key pillar of our IT strategy.

We also look for assignment opportunities to rotate key talent across the organisation.  This helps individuals to build out their network and competencies, and helps MSD to build key capabilities for game-changing success.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

My role is IT Country Leader for Ireland, a single point of contact for business and IT colleagues.

This allows me to spend probably 70pc of my time on above-site matters, in particular liaising with my counterparts in the other countries and engaging with colleagues in the Global Innovation Network hubs.  Where possible, I leverage solutions and best practice methods from other countries for use in the Ireland market.  We have tremendous tools available to allow us to collaborate effectively with colleagues across the world and we use these to full local advantage.

I am one of a number of IT country leaders around the world.  I address all IT topics across all divisions in my country. Reporting into me is a small but potent team that partners with the business and links intuitively with the regional hub.  For each MSD site in Ireland, there is a site IT lead.  They look after the operational IT for their site as well as providing input on site strategic plans.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Information has become the new currency of healthcare and it is growing exponentially every second. We need to leverage the power of data to unlock life-saving science and business-critical insights — and we need to do it better and more quickly than anyone else in our industry.

A couple of years ago, the question of IT’s value to the business would have resulted in a fairly homogeneous set of responses like: “productivity,” “to keep the systems running,” or “to support business clients.” And all of these answers still hold true.  But now, something new and more valuable is rising in MSD IT.  It’s an awakening to fresh possibilities driven by the ubiquitous digitisation of healthcare and our company-wide transformation at MSD.

Starting in 2014, under the leadership of our executive VP and CIO Clark Golestani, we accelerated MSD’s IT strategy to exploit new ways of working, create higher value, utilise analytics to unleash data-driven insights, drive revenue and produce disruptive solutions. We decided that we could no longer limit ourselves to yesterday’s contributions and remain peripheral to the business. We decided to officially lean in and help grow it.  For example, we are close to completing the implementation of SAP as our core business system globally, and MSD leadership is now able to visualise, analyse and make decisions regarding the health of the business consistently around the world through the vast amount of data that’s being collected across the integrated enterprise. And with consistent data, regulatory compliance becomes more manageable than ever before.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

It’s important that we routinely monitor our IT performance to assure we’re adding business value, are trending in the right direction and are among the best in the industry.

We ask ourselves questions like, are we investing in the right priorities? Are our IT services and costs getting leaner? How do we compare to our peers? Answering these important questions provides us with key data points – or benchmarks – that give us insights as we fine-tune our IT strategies, monitor our transformation progress and ultimately aim for greater heights in creating business value.  Every year MSD IT publishes a Benchmarking Report to transparently document our costs and demonstrate what value MSD gets for its IT investment.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

With so many sites in the MSD network, future proofing your infrastructure to meet your needs is always a concern for the IT function. It is particularly acute in a regulated environment where the cost and effort to update or replace systems is onerous and does not necessarily yield any benefit that is visible to the business.  We need to be as flexible and agile as possible in this regard.  We also need to simplify our application landscape.  Our history of mergers and acquisitions means that we have inherited more legacy systems than we really need.  We have to be ruthless in retiring unnecessary applications.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

Lots of interesting work is planned for the remainder of 2015.  Some of the more exciting initiatives involve migrating one of our sites from a local JD Edwards system onto global SAP, exploiting the possibilities which mobile devices are affording in sterile areas of manufacturing and the labs, utilising mobile technology to support the launch of new MSD products in the market, and working with external customers to develop customer engagement solutions specific to their needs and to improve patient outcomes.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years