SMS for Life case series A-C

Congratulations to Donald A. Marchand and Anna Moncef for winning the ‘Best of the Best’ in the EFMD case writing competition for their SMS for Life case series. We asked Donald what the win means to them and why they believe so passionately in the SMS for Life project, an initiative that harnesses everyday technology to provide essential malaria medicines in developing countries.

As a Professor at IMD, I entered the competition to share a wonderful and innovative leadership story that I felt other professors and their students around the world could benefit from on both a personal level and in their classroom teaching. Winning the ‘responsible leader’ category in the competition exemplified the singular commitment and vision that Jim Barrington, the leader of the SMS for Life project, has. Winning the ‘Best of the Best’ underlines the strength and character of this story and case that we were so pleased to be a part of at IMD.

A prizewinning case

The most important factor for success is the selection of the story itself: is it interesting, groundbreaking and worthy of the weeks spent preparing the teaching package – the case, the video, the teaching note and accompanying slides for instructor usage – with colleagues from IMD and the individuals from the company involved, as well as other organisations related to the case study?

Secondly, are you personally excited about writing the case and sharing it with professors and students around the world? Thirdly, is the story capable of touching minds and hearts, helping students to reflect on their aspirations and goals for their lives and business careers?

An elegantly simple solution

Malaria continues to result in thousands of lives lost each year and yet there is a cure for the disease. The bottleneck, as we discovered in the case story, was addressing the problem of ‘stock-outs’ at the clinics and hospitals where patients go to be cured.

SMS for Life was an elegantly simple solution to the problem of collecting, organising and sharing information about stock-outs to enable redistribution of supplies where they were needed. In business terms, the SMS for Life solution required an integrated solution involving supply chain management, information management and the use of mobile technology, Google Maps and database software that made the resulting stock information easily shareable and actionable in the field.

But most of all, it required a leader to put this all together and make it work in sub-Saharan African countries by mobilising government officials, medical directors and clinic staff. 

Stepping into Jim's shoes

I think that it is critical in this case to step into the mind and shoes of Jim Barrington to understand his motivation and focus in taking on this unprecedented project and finding a workable solution.

I believe that all business students and managers can benefit from this case at any point in their careers. It can be used to help focus on the values and motivations necessary to deliver innovative social and business solutions to ‘hard’ problems that affect real people in emerging markets across the world.

Potentially effective healthcare solutions can be found to disease and poverty if they are creatively developed with business discipline and talent. This case has inspired other much younger Novartis IT managers to volunteer their time for the SMS for Life initiative. 

Experiencing the problem first-hand

From the beginning of the story, Anna Moncef and I wanted to accompany Jim on a surveillance visit in Tanzania and experience the problem and the SMS solution first-hand. We wanted to make a video that would touch future professors and students who would learn from the case. So, Jim arranged for us to accompany him on surveillance visits to remote clinics and hospitals in the Lindi District, 470 KMS south of the capital Dar es Salaam.

We were able to see patients first-hand, see clinic and hospital conditions and the challenges of addressing stock-outs of life-saving malaria drugs in Tanzania. We also interviewed government officials in the Ministry of Health in the capital and other NGOs involved in healthcare delivery in the country. This week-long trip in February 2009 gave us the motivation to develop the best case possible to communicate this story as broadly as possible.

Motivating managers

There is no doubt that business managers at some point in their careers should consider taking on social projects that have the potential to affect people and communities in the developing world. Most large international companies have corporate social responsibility initiatives but do not motivate managers enough to apply their unique business expertise and skills to creatively address problems in the developing world.

As with SMS for Life, these initiatives can start out as creating social value, but may also contribute to business value over time by changing the way the company approaches doing business in emerging markets. So it makes good business sense to challenge managers and professionals to lead or participate in externally focused initiatives.

Keeping things simple

There are too many social initiatives that attempt to push complex technology and tools without clear purpose at social problems. These initiatives need to be kept simple at the point of user interface (eg mobile phones and simple SMS messaging) and collect only the information that is absolutely required to solve the problem. In addition, such projects should be organised to motivate people to participate; complexity should be kept behind the scenes (eg mobile networks, databases, Google Maps and report generation).

Also, there are too many pilot projects that do not get implemented in emerging markets because it takes too long to apply for and receive funding from NGOs (non-governmental organisations). The time between the end of the pilot and the full-scale implementation is critical as there are no funds to cover the interim period. With the help of the Novartis Foundation, Jim found creative ways to bridge this potential funding gap.

SMS for Life was meant to launch a novel approach to public/private partnering and I think it succeeded. That’s the power of one person motivating others to pool their skills and resources to make an elegantly simple solution happen. 

Teaching strategy

My advice is to focus on Case A and the video, and then move to Case B – the broader implementation. Case A deals with the practical problems of start-up leadership, funding issues, the pilot in Tanzania, and building the right team. It can end on the question: will the successful pilot survive to be fully implemented in Tanzania and other countries? Case B addresses Jim’s efforts to bridge the funding gap between pilot and full -scale implementation in Tanzania and how to get other countries involved in the effort. Case C then brings the story back to the company, Novartis, to support the global diffusion of this initiative in the public healthcare sector, and also discover value in the SMS for Life approach for the private distribution of medicines through pharmacies in African countries – changing the business model!

This case series could be used in business courses on leadership, information management, and supply chain management. Case A can stand alone. Case B and C can be used for follow-on sessions. 

On camera

For professors and students who have not experienced the harsh and remote conditions of sub-Saharan Africa, the video is a vital part of teaching Case (A) as it brings to life the context of the case series.

Business students today need exposure to real-life cases of social and business leadership being combined to benefit communities and business development. SMS for Life is now adapting smartphones and tablets for use in the same remote African healthcare environment to help provide better products and healthcare training online and also distribute drugs on a timely basis in the public and private sectors. This is a wonderful example of ‘digitally transforming’ both the healthcare delivery in emerging markets and the companies that discover, make and distribute vital life-saving drugs. 

Supporting material

In addition to the Novartis Malaria Initiative website, others that are very useful for students to review before, during or after the SMS for Life cases are taught include the World Health Organisation’s Rollback Malaria site.

An insider’s view: Jim Barrington, Programme Director, SMS for Life, Novartis Pharma A.G. 

Jim discusses why he took part in the case and the benefits he hopes it will bring.

As a project, we would not have either the resources or the expertise to document the project in the way the case study has captured and distilled the major learnings. I am hopeful that the case will provide a leadership and management learning platform and inspire others to take on seemingly impossible problems by using and harnessing the power of public/private partnerships to bring specific and much needed expertise, that exists in private sector corporations, to resource poor countries in need.

Fresh insights and future changes

The opportunity to have ongoing access to Professor Marchand, an expert in areas of critical importance to the project, such as information systems, leadership, use of information and knowledge, and human collaboration, gave us independent academic input, advice, guidance and critical analysis that both validated some of our thinking and brought new ideas and fresh thinking in other areas. We regarded IMD as a project consultant, contributor and valuable member of the team.

An opportunity to learn

I have seen the case being taught and participated in a Q&A session with the class. I very much enjoyed the experience and in particular the opportunity to be questioned as to why we made certain choices or why we did not do it another way. Having access to 25 to 30 diverse students to discuss problems, solutions, innovation and alternative approaches is always an opportunity to learn and improve our processes for future projects.

Adding value

I would say take part in a case study if it can be done during the life of a project or programme, as having access to independent academic input, advice and counselling can really add value and positively impact the outcome. I would also recommend taking part if you believe there are some unique learnings, insights or approaches that might be valuable to others.

e jim.barrington@novartis.com

Case details

SMS for Life (A): Public-Private Collaboration to Prevent Stock-Outs of Life-Saving Malaria Drugs in Africa
Donald A. Marchand and Anna Moncef
IMD
Ref IMD-3-2168
SMS for Life (B): Living the Implementation Challenges of a Successful Pilot Project

Ref IMD-3-2169
SMS for Life (C): Sustaining the Initiative and Leveraging its Social and Business Value for Novartis

Ref IMD-3-2171
Also available:
Video: SMS for Life

Ref IMD-3-2168-V 

About the authors

Donald A. Marchand is Professor of Strategy Execution and Information Management at IMD, Switzerland.
e marchand@imd.ch

Anna Moncef is a Research Associate at IMD, Switzerland.
e anna.moncef@imd.org

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