Significant discussion and several recent publications have focused on how the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role is evolving and on the types of challenges MSLs now face. These realities, unfortunately, aren’t going away anytime soon. However, little has been written about what all of these changes mean for effective MSL performance. The MSL role is different today, so what should MSLs do differently to succeed? To provide meaningful answers to this critical question, the Medical Science Liaison Society launched a major, first-of-its-kind, global, quantitative survey in 2015. Our goal with the survey and this report is to provide a clearer understanding of the specific skills and knowledge bases that are most critical to MSL success in today’s environment.
Medical Science Liaisons face a number of challenges that continue to reshape the MSL role, but perhaps the most urgent involves pharmaceutical companies’ most critical asset: Thought Leaders or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). Seventy-two percent of MSLs and MSL managers expect the number of MSLs to increase globally by 20 percent in just the next one to two years (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Expected Global MSL Growth in the next 1-2 years (MSLs & MSL Managers)
However, demand may be outstripping supply. For example, from 2011 to 2012, the number of oncologists in the US grew by just 5 percent (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Growth of U.S. Oncologists
MSLs are becoming increasingly concerned about access to Thought Leaders or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). Data from another recent global survey conducted by the Medical Science Liaison Society underscores this challenge. The results of the survey concluded that 62 percent of MSLs and MSL managers report that KOLs are becoming less accessible (Figure 3).
Given the increasing number of MSLs being launched over the next few years, and with the concern that KOLs are becoming less accessible, individual MSLs will need to be more successful during each engagement with a KOL. As a result, competition for a KOL’s time will likely increase.
To understand what drives MSL performance today and to help MSLs make the right improvements, the MSL Society launched a major quantitative survey. We received responses from 369 MSLs and 199 MSL managers from forty-three countries, with significant representation from every major geographical region in the world and from all main healthcare company types.
The survey focused on 14 competencies (i.e. the skills and knowledge items required for success) for two reasons: (1) competencies are the most basic elements of human performance, and (2) they can be learned/improved. Specifically, we asked MSL managers to rate the MSL competencies that they feel are most important to business success and to indicate how effectively MSLs tend to deliver in light of these competencies. Our objective was to identify any gaps, particularly regarding the competencies that matter most.
Figure 4: MSL Competencies and Methodology
- Analytical Thinking
- Building Partnerships
- Business Acumen
- Communication Clarity
- Emotional Intelligence
- Customer Focus
- Presentation Expertise
- Regulatory Expertise
- Scientific Expertise
- Solutions Orientation
- Value Demonstration
To build this list of competencies, we started with a review of the existing research on the subject of competencies. Next, we sought the opinions of several highly regarded MSL managers from major companies around the world. Finally, with their help, we built the list of competencies listed in Figure 4. The results offer a helpful mix of knowledge, such as Business, Regulatory, and Scientific Expertise, as well as skills like Analytical Thinking, Influencing, and Demonstrating the Value of the MSL role to others.
These specific roles are performed by MSLs in the course of their daily work. To be deemed a “Scientific & Technical Expert,” an MSL must use knowledge of science, the regulatory environment, and business to drive specific outcomes for stakeholders. The “Relationship Manager” MSL delivers great service to those with whom he or she works, both internally and externally. Finally, the “Excellent Communicator” MSL uses interpersonal and communication skills to create value for stakeholders and to change the way they think and behave.
First, the average importance scores for each role (noted in each role category) show that the Scientific & Technical Expert is the least important to business success today. That is not to say that scientific and technical expertise are not important. Indeed, the competency receiving the highest importance score is Scientific Expertise, at 91 percent. However, relatively speaking, in the eyes of MSL managers, this role is the least important for driving business outcomes in the current business environment. Put another way, technical skill has become table stakes. These competencies are critical, and MSLs must have them in order to succeed. However, they are not differentiating factors among successful MSLs.
Notice the gaps between importance and effectiveness in the Scientific & Technical role. With the exception of Analytical Thinking and Business Acumen, where there is some room for improvement, MSLs are largely proficient in these competencies. In other words, while MSLs may want to work on their Analytical Thinking and Business Acumen somewhat, these are not the roles where MSLs should spend much of their limited development time.
Now note the Relationship Manager role. For the most part, these results resemble those of the Scientific & Technical Expert. MSLs could be better at Proactivity and with developing solutions to our stakeholders’ challenges, but on the whole, MSLs are effective at relationship management. As with the Scientific & Technical Expert, this area is not where MSLs should allocate substantial portions of their limited development time.
Finally, note the Excellent Communicator role. Again, this is the role where MSLs use their interpersonal and communication skills to create value for stakeholders. As indicate by the survey data, this is the role that managers feel is most important in terms of driving business success today. However, note the heights of the grey bars: this is also where MSL managers feel MSLs are the least effective. Being an Excellent Communicator is the most critical role in terms of helping pharmaceutical companies succeed, and yet this is where MSLs have the greatest room for improvement.
What does an Excellent Communicator do exactly?
The below definitions for each of the competencies that relate to the Excellent Communicator role. Here are several important aspects:
- Communication Clarity: Excellent Communicators do not simply use language that everyone can understand; they tailor their communications for the right audience.
- Building Partnerships: Excellent Communicators build creative and diverse networks. And because they are good listeners, they “activate” these networks, capturing rich and valuable information.
- Value Demonstration: Excellent Communicators are effective at not only communicating the value they create for others, but also in continually identifying new sources of value for stakeholders.
- Influencing/Persuasion: Excellent Communicators understand what motivates others, and they use this knowledge to help stakeholders appreciate their point of view.
- Emotional Intelligence: Excellent Communicators are attuned to social and psychological cues. They use this information not only to know what to say, but also to determine when and how to say it.
In short, Excellent Communicators use their emotional intelligence to sense stakeholder needs. They use their abilities to communicate clearly, to influence, and to persuade as a means of engaging stakeholders’ interest. In addition, they use their partnership and value-demonstration skills to add value.
Conclusion and Discussion
With increasing competition for KOLs’ time, a new set of competencies is required for modern MSL success. While scientific and technical expertise and relationship management remain core requirements of the MSL role, these competencies have become table stakes, no longer providing unique value for KOLs or other business partners. As the results of this first-of-its-kind study demonstrate, MSLs who wish to outperform their peers and to differentiate themselves need to strive to become Excellent Communicators.
MSL managers rate the Excellent Communicator role as the most important for business success. This is most likely due to three factors:
- Demand for Insight. In the current digital age, KOLs or Thought Leaders are regularly bombarded by vast amounts of information of varying quality. As a result, they want MSLs who can help separate the signal from the noise and provide information that is relevant and valuable. This requires Communication Clarity and the ability to Demonstrate Value.
- Demand for (Human) Networks. Business today is increasingly interconnected, particularly in the global world of healthcare. Therefore, KOLs and business partners value MSLs who create and capitalize on interpersonal networks, both within and across organizations. This requires Emotional Intelligence, Partnership Building, and Influence/Persuasion.
- Skill Scarcity. The skills that make up the Excellent Communicator role are highly nuanced and sophisticated. In addition, they rarely receive the development attention they deserve. This makes the Excellent Communicator skills less common, boosting their worth.
Interestingly, while MSL managers feel the Excellent Communicator role is the most important in terms of driving success, it’s also where they see the greatest room for improvement. As a result, MSLs should spend their limited development time enhancing their Excellent Communicator skills.
- 2014 Global Survey, The Medical Science Liaison Society, 2014.