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“I’m a bit of a fixer,” says Stewart Houston, Executive Director of Business Operations Finance at clinical research organisation ICON plc. “I’m always thinking ‘what can I do to make today better?’ That includes my department. I’m always reminding my team, ‘nothing is sacrosanct’. Everything can be improved or made better.”

Stewart, who by his own admission got into finance and accountancy ‘quite late’ (he was in his late twenties), worked initially in core accounting before his ‘inherent nosiness’ led him down the FP&A path. 

Since then, he’s worked predominantly across the IT industry for the likes of Cisco Systems, Nortel and BEA Systems before moving into the clinical trials arena, where he is now. 

Working at ICON plc

Stewart has been working at ICON – formerly PRA Health Sciences – for nearly fifteen years. In that time, he’s fought several battles with several departments and previous colleagues during attempts to improve accuracy around financial reporting and modelling – and, for the most part, he’s won. 

His main battle has been around staff resourcing. Not an obviously financial issue, but as Stewart explains, it doesn’t have to be. 

Most things, he insists, will ultimately have a financial impact and the thorny issue of resourcing is no exception.

“I don’t confine myself to just finance,” he says. “I will lean over as far as my team needs me to go, to fill in any gaps and come up with solutions.”

Resourcing in particular has caused considerable issues over the years because quite simply – the modelling has been wrong. 

“My first ever interaction around resourcing was with the VP of the project manager of one of our clinical trials at the time,” he recalls. 

“I was relatively junior and new to the company and I was trying to tell her the modelling was wrong. You have to be diplomatic in these situations and use data to make your case and try to take emotion out of the situation. No one can really argue against data.”

 Smarter resourcing

In simple terms, resourcing methodology had been based on incorrect assumptions and had been done the same way for years.

“They never seemed to model in project completion, ever,” he says. “So on the system, no one ever came off a study so it looked like we always had staffing issues.” 

It meant that when subsequent studies began, the resourcing team would simply hire more staff rather than utilising staff they already had.

“These staff could never be moved onto other studies because it looked like they were still involved on a particular project.” 

Stewart recalls a particular study where he had to make a lot of interventions into the resourcing process because due to the hiring process and methodology, wrong assumptions had been made right from the start. 

“Estimating the number of staff needed for a study is never an exact science, but you change that assumption as you go, based on accurate information.” 

“What was happening was that they made an assumption on the number of people needed, yet it became apparent they didn’t actually need them all right away. They decided to keep them on anyway. If you keep hiring staff early, there are going to be cost implications. I always try to provide the right data to counter the point of hiring early based on wrong assumptions,” says Stewart. 

Stewart and his team have since tightened up the data and processes. The resourcing data he produces now correlates with the financial forecast and the two systems feed into each other. The resourcing team have now picked up on his methodology and their data is on the whole, much more accurate. 

Logistics and the pandemic

Along with resourcing, Stewart has also been involved in the logistics of site access particularly from a technological point of view. 

During the pandemic physical access to sites of clinical trials was massively restricted for both clinicians and patients – it dropped to below 50 per cent. Many clinical trials began to operate remotely and this trend has continued. 

“26 per cent of new studies are now remote and we expect that will increase to 50 per cent in two years’ time.”

“It’s not been an overnight binary switch, but the pandemic has definitely accentuated the need for some trials to be run on a remote basis,”  says Stewart.

“Some trials will have procedures where in-person support is paramount, but for conditions such as like asthma, patients can be monitored at home via wearables, it can work really well.

Utilising tech and data

Stewart is passionate about the role technology and data has on business strategy. 

“My role is about using technology and data to provide better, accurate information to help management see the patterns of behaviour and trends which will help them make the right decisions,” he says. 

“A big part of this is to assume nothing and ask questions.”

”The worst case scenario is that you’ll learn something and the best-case scenario is you’ll educate someone.” 

“The things you don’t pursue and ask questions about are the things you’ll regret.”

Stewart’s Power Profile

What music empowers him?

“I don’t have much time for music as much of my time is spent staring at the screen! But outside of work I like Arcade Fire, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, some dance music and German techno.”  

Who is his hero?

“I admire anyone who gives their time selflessly. My son’s scout master does it for nothing, he doesn’t want money or kudos in return. Doing something for the good of someone else – that’s just amazing.”

 

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