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Thoughts from Rho’s CEO: Fostering Innovation in a Clinical Research Organization

Posted by Brook White on Mon, Feb 11, 2013 @ 02:58 PM

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CEO Russ HelmsThe following article comes from Rho’s CEO Russ Helms who would like to share some thoughts on topics that he sees as important to Rho and our business.

Each year at Rho, we select a company goal intended to further Rho’s core purpose: to improve health, extend life and enhance the quality of life via corporate and research excellence. During 2012, we elected to pursue customer service through innovation as the goal.

Some people have asked, “Can a CRO be innovative?” We can! We’re committed to customer service, and we think one of the best ways to ensure the best possible customer experiences is to make sure our people are constantly innovating. Innovation helps us deliver what our customers need faster and better. We’re also committed to being a good place to work, and we think innovation can help our employees by reducing the mundane aspects of their work and making work more fun. And, of course, innovation helps the bottom line through increased efficiency and cost effectiveness. Maybe we’re unusual for a CRO, but we’re committed to innovation.

I want to share some of the programs we have put in place to foster innovation and to share a few of our successes. The first program we implemented was a series of innovation showcases. We employ smart, talented people, and we wanted the fantastic innovations they were creating to be more visible across the entire company. We created the showcase series to give employees an opportunity to share these existing innovations. The showcases gave employees exposure to innovations they might be able to use and, in some cases, sparked ideas of similar innovations they could implement in their own work. Some of our showcases included presentations on graphic visualization by Agustin Calatroni and a better system for managing documents and communications for data safety monitoring boards (DSMBs) led by Project Director Brandy Lind and business analyst Lee Ann Armstrong.

View "Visualizing Multivariate Data" Video

Our next program for fostering innovation is one we have dubbed “Rho24” modeled on Atlassian’s ShipIt days. The concept is that employees are invited to take a break from their everyday jobs and innovate for one 24 hour period. For 24 hours (10 AM on Thursday to 10 AM on Friday), employees work on any innovation of their choice with the goal of delivering something usable by the end. It doesn’t have to be directly related to their job, only something that is of potential benefit to Rho. We have had two of these events so far, and we’ve been blown away by the number of great ideas delivered and by the tremendous energy the events generated. Fun and useful—a double win! About half of our employees participated in at least one of the events and many innovations that came out of these events are already making a difference in our work. Some examples include:

  • An iOS app to report asthma outcomes
  • Improved reporting for our randomization system
  • A program that pushes out company announcements to the screens of our internal desk phones
  • Tools to facilitate our use of Medidata Rave
  • Converting common on the job training topics into reusable e-learning modules

Some people didn’t complete a project, but were able to do the research or create a prototype necessary to get a larger project started. One example is an iOS app to help clinical study sites determine enrollment eligibility.

We are now piloting the final program, modeled off of Google’s 20% time. This program allows select employees to spend up to 20% of their time working on innovations not directly related to their day to day work. Initially, we selected 14 employees to participate, but we may expand the program depending on the level of success. Our pilot program includes several different models that offer varying levels of oversight and support. This allows us to experiment with several approaches and determine what works best before expanding to a larger group where the costs of failure would be higher. I look forward to seeing the outcomes of this pilot in the coming months.

The 2012 annual goal has been a clear success. We are doing a better job of sharing innovation throughout the company, more of our great staff are engaged in innovation (and they are excited about it!), and we are going to keep doing it. I continue to be interested in how other companies engage employees in innovation. If your company is doing something to encourage innovation, I would love to hear about it. I am also curious about experiments in innovation that haven’t worked out and what you learned along the way, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section.