Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, based in Cambridge, Mass., develops disease treatment options by taking a network biology approach to understanding disease.
In 2005, the founder and CEO began to worry employees were not collaborating sufficiently. As the company grew, integration became more difficult and the company sought new ways to transfer knowledge and develop internal partnerships. Given the company’s focus on biological networks, it was a natural step for Merrimack to think about its workforce in network terms, as well.
Andy Porter, senior director of human resources, said the company started by creating network maps that identified the flow of knowledge in the organization. With the assistance of consultant Bruce Hoppe of Connective Associates, Merrimack created a wiki workspace in which employees added areas of expertise and tagged learning priorities. This information was used to map common areas of expertise across teams.
Another map was developed based on seating arrangements. Comparison of the knowledge and seating maps showed there were opportunities for greater integration. The company put major changes in place to encourage collaboration:
• Teacher-learner pairs: The wiki helped Merrimack identify who had knowledge and who needed it. By making matches, the company identified and connected teacher-learner pairs, usually from completely different disciplines.
• Multidisciplinary teams: In a radical shift from traditional organization design, Merrimack eliminated all departments within R&D. The company learned over time, and through some unwelcome staff departures, that it was better to allow people to choose their own teams. Today, people choose their projects based on research interests.
• Peer-to-peer networks: Merrimack actively encouraged people to create informal, self-organizing peer-to-peer networks around areas of interest and expertise. These networks have been effective at leveraging knowledge, streamlining models and encouraging sharing across the organization.
One group, focusing on computer modeling, meets every week without any set goals other than to share knowledge and solve problems collectively. People receive advice on thorny issues, avert potential problems and receive coaching from peers. Merrimack is committed to keeping this group, and the other peer-to-peer networks, informal.
“If we mess with it and make it too formal, it becomes just another meeting,” Porter said.
To embed innovation and knowledge sharing into the organization, Merrimack adopted the credo: “Learning and work have to take place at the same time.” To support this belief, Merrimack invests in core organization skills training that every employee attends each year.
This core skills training, focused on giving and receiving feedback, coaching skills, running meetings and seeing systems, provides people with the tools they need to learn while working. Much of the additional learning is integrated into day-to-day work.
The results of Merrimack’s efforts have paid off. It’s poised to launch two completely new drugs into clinical trials in back-to-back years, something rarely done by a company of Merrimack’s size. In comparison to industry averages, Merrimack has substantially decreased the amount of time and dollars spent from discovery to entering clinical development with its first two products, while finding new and innovative approaches to disease treatment.
Individuals from different disciplines have moved a little closer, and many more now embrace each other’s diverse tools and skills. For instance, more and more biologists are using computational tools previously exclusive to computational modelers. And likewise, more modelers are now integral to designing laboratory experiments.
Porter said all HR professionals should learn about how networks can be helpful in their organizations. “There are informal learning groups in the company whether you see them or not,” he said. “Understanding and being able to see networks in your organization gives you a leg up and helps you understand how to accelerate learning. It gives you the opportunity to leverage networks as opposed to letting them happen by chance.”Filed under: Learning Delivery