To succeed over generations, companies need both flexibility and strength

Flexibility means firms can bend to changes in the business environment – absorbing new challenges and reacting to competitive threats; strength lets them shape the market to their own will when necessary – taking the lead and breaking new ground.

Flexible chair

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But more important than either of these, they need the wisdom to know when to bend and when to resist, and strong leadership to make those decisions. Keen awareness of the operating environment and plenty of forward planning will help inform those decisions.

It’s likely, therefore, that many of the most successful chemistry companies in the world are already thinking about the possible shapes of their industries in 20 years’ time. While the Royal Society of Chemistry’s broad-brush scenarios for the Future of the Chemical Sciences embrace chemistry in its entirety, it will be up to companies to work out how they might navigate the many potential paths through those scenarios, while remaining relevant and profitable (as GSK’s Dave Allen outlines in his opinion piece).

So what might the companies of the future look like? The past 20 years has seen huge amounts of consolidation across many industries, creating megalithic global conglomerates in a seemingly unending quest for scale and integration. But more recently, there have been signs that this model is not delivering the expected benefits. Pharmaceutical companies that once had R&D portfolios spanning just about every type of disease you might think of (and several you might not), have become more specialised. Chemical juggernauts Dow and DuPont, for example – once united by their merger – intend to split the resultant firm into three, each with a narrower remit. Spin-offs and carve-outs abound, as companies race to refocus.

At the same time, there has been an explosion in outsourcing, and a profusion of small companies springing up – particularly in the wake of lay-offs from big pharma. Small companies often have the agility, flexibility and power to disrupt the status quo and transform whole industry sectors. But few have the financial resilience to do so alone – interactions between large and small companies will be key to survival in any future scenario.

And what of those companies’ employees? The chemists. The beating heart of the industry. What new skills will be required? If chemistry becomes commoditised and decentralised, does the industrial chemist become a molecular designer? As disciplines merge, will specialism give way to breadth of knowledge? Or will we all just become data-wranglers?