Role of Knowledge Transfer in the Growth of Malaysian Biopharma


The Malaysian biopharma industry is in its painful initial growth stages. An effective knowledge transfer process is critical for the industry to survive and grow. This blog evaluates the opportunities challenges of Malaysian biopharma industry and then explores the tools for effective knowledge transfer monitoring and job transition that can solve various operational hurdles the companies are facing currently.

Malaysia is seeing an increase in biopharma investments lately. Many local generic pharmaceutical companies are assessing biosimilar opportunities. While some of them are exploring options for product licensing, others are opting for setting up biosimilar operations in partnership with foreign companies.

Foreign investments are also rising as foreign pharmaceutical companies are increasingly considering Malaysia as a viable alternative option in ASEAN since Singapore is getting saturated. Johor government is making strategic real estate investments to encourage foreign investments in the state taking advantage of its proximity to Singapore, where many leading multinational biopharma companies have invested heavily.



This renewed interest in biopharma will create several biopharma jobs in the country ranging from entry-level to senior management level positions. However, Malaysia lacks a critical mass of local talent pool that can drive biopharma industry growth. The local manpower is not yet ready to take up many of these job roles, especially those where strong technical and regulatory skills and knowledge are essential.

On a positive note, Malaysian government acknowledges the complexity of the biopharma industry and the importance of developing local skilled manpower for its sustainable growth. Many initiatives have been implemented to grow biotech and life sciences talent by the government. In addition to various skilling programs targeting science graduates in the country, the government is also encouraging investments in the biopharma sector by offering various incentives such as financial support and tax holidays. The government also permits the industry to employ foreign professionals in Key posts and Time posts.

Key posts are assigned to top-level managerial professionals in foreign-owned private companies. These are permanently filled by foreigners who are responsible for determining company policies and looking after the company’s investments and interests. Time posts, also known as Term posts, are assigned to expatriates for a specific period and include executive posts as well as non-executive posts. These professionals are allowed to be hired with an intention to encourage knowledge transfer and growth of skilled manpower in Malaysia.

Unfortunately, job transition has not been effectively achieved in pharmaceutical and biopharma industries. Today, most of these companies are in a state where they need to apply for work permit extension for expatriates in term posts.

The companies have not been able to develop a competent local workforce capable of shouldering the technical responsibilities during the work permit period of the expatriate employee. Knowledge transfer from expatriates to the local workforce has been slow, which is impacting job transition.

In order to get work permit extension for expatriates approved, biopharma companies need to prove to Malaysian Immigration Department that an effective job transition process is in place, though some complex technical competencies need more time for effective transfer of knowledge to the local workforce.

Knowledge Transfer Challenges of Malaysian Biopharma

Most biopharma companies in Malaysia jumpstart their operations by hiring foreign scientists and other technical executives. Their goal is to get their local manpower trained to manage operational activities within a few years. However, knowledge transfer has not been happening effectively and at the speed at which the companies and Malaysian immigration would love to achieve it.

I have been interacting with Malaysian pharma and life sciences sectors closely for a while. I have noticed a few practices and trends that have an impact in effective job transition through effective knowledge transfer.

Some of these key factors that are limiting the effectiveness of knowledge transfer are as below:

  • Experience Gap between Expatriates and Locals

Expatriates hired by Malaysian biopharma companies are mostly in mid-to-senior level categories with 10 or more years of experience in the industry. The local staff, on the other hand, are mostly fresh graduates. Some staff may have a few years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry but lack biopharma experience since biopharma is in its preliminary growth stages in the country.

This gap between the foreign and the local manpower makes effective delegation of tasks and on-the-job-training difficult. During our interactions with junior staff in biopharma companies, many indicated that they are intimidated by the experience and knowledge levels of expatriates. Their hesitation to interact and learn from expatriates impacts the speed at which skilling and knowledge development is happening in the workplace. It also has a negative impact on the confidence levels of local staff, limiting the chances of them picking up the insights needed for shouldering complex operational responsibilities.

Expatriates, on the other hand, struggle to meet their work targets with a team that comprises mainly of entry-level technical staff, who need an involved training, supervision, and handholding to complete most routine tasks. As expatriates focus on ensuring regulatory compliance and meeting deadlines with limited scope to delegate tasks, little time is invested in encouraging local staff through productive communication that can lead to effective knowledge transfer.

  • Stark Contrast to Work Environments

Expatriates for term posts are hired mostly from countries such as India where a considerably larger pool of talent is available for sourcing entry-to-senior level scientists and engineers. Hence, they are used to working with a team of entry-to-mid level scientists with a range of skill sets and experience in their teams, which helps to delegate critical tasks and achieve job targets.

Ph.D. is a minimum qualification for many scientific positions in the home countries of expatriates and finding candidates with advanced degrees and suitable experience is not difficult. This offers them plenty of freedom to delegate tasks and meet job targets effectively. It also offers an intellectual environment in their workplaces.

These expatriates are little prepared for managing the talent gap they face in their workplaces in Malaysia.

  • Hiring, Training and Retaining Science Graduates

As mentioned above, the absence of a critical mass of local talent who can pick up and shoulder responsibilities of complex biopharma production activities is the main hurdle for Malaysian biopharma companies.

The number of science graduates is declining and many science graduates are moving out of the country, which is also limiting the talent pool size available for hiring and training.

Retention of trained staff is also a significant challenge. Most Malaysian biopharma staff move to other companies within one year of employment to fast track their career growth. Some of them move to countries that offer better career growth opportunities or switch to more promising industries in Malaysia such as banking, retail or construction, further limiting the number of potential biopharma workers in the country.

  • Malaysian Immigration Policies

As mentioned above, Malaysian immigration policies restrict work permit renewals. HR teams of Malaysian biopharma companies struggle to balance between the speed at which knowledge transfer needs to be achieved and meeting the need to retain the quality of technical operations.

Talent Corp Resident Pass, which was implemented by the Malaysian government as an incentive for expatriates with strong talent to stay back in the country and contribute to its growth, has helped the biopharma sector to a certain extent. However, since it allows free movement to other companies, the initial employers tend to lose expatriates in critical job roles as they have an option to move to other biopharma companies in the country after three years.

  • Absence of Technical Competency Assessment Platform to Monitor Knowledge Transfer

An effective competency framework is an essential tool to monitor knowledge transfer, identify the gaps, and implement solutions to fix them. The competency framework needs to offer a comprehensive list of core competencies relevant for all business functions. This can offer clarity of career growth potentials for staff across all the divisions in the organization.

It is the responsibility of HR teams is to ensure that the competency framework adds value to all staff across all business functions. If that is achieved, employees from all divisions will automatically start referring to organization’s competency framework without any compliance pressure from the top management. This is particularly applicable for staff from technical divisions.

Unfortunately, most HR practitioners of biopharma companies seem to have a bias towards behavioral competencies. Technical competencies are seldom presented in a practical manner that can offer clarity to scientists and engineers in technical business divisions in the company. As a result, technical staff often do not find it useful to understand the competencies needed to advance their careers.

Typically, HR teams lack the domain experience to understand technical core competencies. The third-party consultants they engage to develop competency framework also often lack the expertise to identify core competencies and list them in a language that will be appreciated by technical staff.

Another issue is the lukewarm responses from technical staff when HR teams request their cooperation to develop technical competency framework. Most technical managers lack interest in business/HR matters and do not have clarity about the benefits they can gain from an effective competency framework. They often interpret it as another routine demand from HR and top management when they are struggling to meet their work targets with the limited resources available for them.

Basically, the communication gap between expatriates in technical divisions and HR is an important factor that limits cooperation from technical staff and effectiveness of competency framework.

All the points mentioned above lead to an unfortunate situation where competency framework become just another document that is referred by technical division managers only for performance reviews for compliance – not for competence development.

Sadly, after investing significant time and resources to develop competency framework, a company may not achieve its goals after implementing it.

Advantages of Effective Knowledge Transfer Monitoring

It is important for Malaysian biopharma companies to effectively measure the progress of their knowledge transfer and job transition activities. The companies will be able to present the results to showcase their contribution to skilled manpower development in the country.

Most importantly, knowledge transfer monitoring can be used as an effective strategy to identify the most critical technical activities that are yet to make progress in terms of knowledge transfer, which can be presented to Malaysian immigration as they request for an extension of term post period.

A thorough knowledge framework has to be developed as part of the organizational competency framework. This needs to be approached as a focused task as a company invests in competency framework development to avoid bias towards behavioral competencies. This knowledge framework will serve as the basis for identifying core technical competencies of the company, which can be integrated into the competency framework of the organization.

The next step is to develop technical competency assessment platforms.

If the knowledge framework and competency framework are developed carefully respecting the needs of technical divisions, technical division managers will be able to see the value of these products and their cooperation can be easily gained for developing technical competency assessment platforms.

A company may engage a third-party consultant to ensure assessment platforms are developed without bias. Having an effective competency framework makes it easier to evaluate their work and ensure that the assessment platforms developed by third-party consultants are in line with the organization’s goals and its competency framework. It is critical that the company engages consultants with experience in both technical and business aspects of biopharma industry.

The technical knowledge framework and competency assessment platforms can be optimized to measure knowledge transfer progress. The methodology and reporting format can be fine-tuned for various purposes including performance reviews, talent acquisition, employee development, succession planning and reporting of the progress of knowledge transfer to authorities.

Malaysian biopharma may find it particularly useful to showcase their contribution towards the development of skilled manpower suitable for biopharma in the country. In addition to showcasing the extent of knowledge transfer achieved, they can also justify their requests for extension of term post approvals by demonstrating the complexity of certain technical competencies where knowledge transfer is challenging.

Syamala AriyanchiraBy Syamala Ariyanchira – A biotech and pharma consultant based in Malaysia. She is actively involved in biotech human resource development in Malaysia and assists her clients to develop effective strategies for knowledge transfer and job transition.

December 24, 2017

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