Sanofi Pasteur’s Chief Digital Officer on Making Virtual Collaboration Work

By Alex Slawsby |  September 17, 2020

As Chief Digital Officer for Sanofi Pasteur, Natalija Jovanovic leads a global, cross-functional team responsible for developing and executing the digital strategy of the largest vaccine developer in the world. In late July, the US government awarded Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline up to $2.1 billion to accelerate the development and manufacturing of a COVID-19 vaccine. It is therefore a particularly important time for Sanofi Pasteur to function efficiently and effectively as a digitally-native organization. 

Natalija Jovanovic, Chief Digital Officer at Sanofi Pasteur

When discussing her thoughts on the subject — particularly the critical role of digital tools and platforms as innovation enablers — Jovanovic considered how the crisis is teaching many innovation leaders lessons she learned much earlier in her career. “When it comes to in-person interaction, there’s a simple ‘return on calories’. We have tools to connect virtually and maybe they cannot completely replace in-person meetings, but let’s say they create perhaps 80 or 90 percent of the value. So I get 80-90 percent replacement for in-person interaction with just a few hours of investment, and I don’t have to spend 48 hours to get there, meet with the customer and then get back. That’s less than 20 percent of the time for 80-90 percent of the outcome.”

Prior to joining Sanofi Pasteur, Jovanovic worked for McKinsey & Company and held innovation leadership positions at Brown Brothers Harriman and AIG. We spoke with Jovanovic as part of our research report, “Digitizing the Innovation Team.” Edited highlights from the conversation are below.

Has the current crisis changed how you think about the use of digital tools and platforms to support innovation?

I think I’m a little bit of an outlier, because I’ve been working remotely for five years while many others are just discovering that it’s possible. Let’s talk about virtual collaboration. In my previous job [at the insurer AIG], I was living in Massachusetts, my office was in New York, and my team and my business partners were all over the world. I was not going to travel the entire world just to spend half a day with a customer. The moment the company rolled out video conferencing, I started using it to interact with both my team and my customers.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable with hiring someone they haven’t seen in person. I’ve hired many colleagues without ever meeting them in person. There are people that have worked for me for multiple years and have delivered fantastic products, and I have never met them. So, for me, the virtual working world in which we are all living because of COVID is a world that I have lived in for a few years. I am really happy for my colleagues that they are now discovering this.

What is your impression of the innovation-specific digital tools and platforms landscape right now?

I know that there are a lot of different tools out there and unfortunately, they always give me just a snippet of what I need. For example, there are front-end of innovation tools that are great for managing the early part of the pipeline and events like hackathons, but they are not good at supporting innovation project management. Then there are tools that can help with innovation project management at an individual initiative level, but they can’t provide a portfolio-level view. 

All of this being said, I do think vendors get this and I am really hopeful because they are building solutions that integrate with general purpose tools and platforms and also with some of the agile development solutions we use. I do think we might see one-stop shop solutions emerge in the next couple of years. 

How do you respond to colleagues who push back on your commitment to digital work?

I have had to answer questions such as, “Why don’t you want to go see customers?” and I’ve responded by saying “I do see customers. Just because an interaction is virtual doesn’t mean it’s not fruitful. My customers often said it was productive to meet virtually and that it was nice that they didn’t have to fill out the security form for me to come on site.”

What’s mind boggling to me is that there are many innovative people out there who consider themselves “Digital Natives,” yet for years they have hopped on planes and spent numerous hours in transit just to get a small amount of time with their customers. 

Most people assume that virtual interaction only gives you 20 percent of what you are looking for, or that people are not going to be forthcoming virtually or open up to you. If people aren’t opening up, it has nothing to do with the tool. You have to have a personality that helps people open up to you, that draws people out. If you don’t have that personality, even your in-person visits are not going to be effective. For those people, it’s not a question of whether or not a tool can be good enough, it’s a question of how can they connect most effectively on a human level, whether it’s in-person or through a screen.