Monsanto CIO Jim Swanson Leads Digital Revolution in agriculture | Straighttalk

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By Peter High, President, Metis Strategy

This article is by Featured Blogger Peter High from his Forbes.com column.

Jim Swanson has been the Chief Information Officer of $15 billion Monsanto for nearly two and half years after spending almost all of his career to date at healthcare companies at companies like Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and SmithKline Beecham. A scientist by training, Swanson joined the St. Louis-based provider of agricultural products for farmers because it allowed him to continue to pursue opportunities at the intersection between science, technology, and intellectual property innovation. As such, he has thought about the role of CIO much more strategically than most.

Swanson has led a sweeping digital transformation over the organization focused around five pillars that define the digital opportunity: operational excellence, business productivity, customer centricity, revenue enablement, and disruptive innovation, each of which he describes in great depth in this interview. As such, Swanson’s team is playing a significant role in revolutionizing a company in perhaps the oldest industry of all: agriculture.

Peter High: You are the Chief Information Officer of Monsanto. Please take a moment to describe your role.

Jim Swanson: I have responsibility for all the IT systems and data that spans Monsanto. We are in about 67 countries worldwide, and I have responsibility to deliver on the IT capabilities across that global footprint. Monsanto is comprised of two segments with a third one that is emerging. One is our crop protection business – our chemistry that helps growers with herbicides, pesticides, etc. Our second is our seed trade business – corn, canola, soy, vegetables, etc. Our third emerging area is economic services. We provide information to help growers better improve their yield, improve their outputs, reduce their inputs, and do it more sustainably. As the CIO, I have the responsibility to enable those three segments with data, tools, and capabilities for our business.

High: You operate in the world’s largest and oldest industry – agriculture. To the uneducated outsider, it may seem ironic in some ways that there is a real digital revolution that is happening within agriculture. You have just begun to describe some of that, and how it applies across the three segments of the business. Please talk about the move from analog to digital that is happening within Monsanto and the industry, more generally speaking.

Swanson: We are taking an industry that has probably done it the same way for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Over the last half decade or so, we are digitizing the farm and digitizing agriculture, which is pretty exciting. You think about the seven and a half billion people on the planet, growing to nine billion in a relatively short period, and growing the amount of food we need, and doing it sustainably is an important mission that Monsanto has. We are going to need every tool that we have to enable that. We need information, science, and technology. What is happening on the farm is a leveraging of data and information insights to provide much better ways to do agriculture than has been done in the past.

We connect combines in the field, so we can collect real-time information on how they are performing on the farm. We use analytics and data to get better insights into the performance of our products, as well as sustainable agricultural practices. We internalize and digitize our internal processes, so we connect more effectively across the “ag” ecosystem. It is rapidly evolving with sensor technology, with data, and with insights that have transformed the way that farming is done. It is having a tremendous impact on yield impact, reduced input, and more sustainable agriculture.

High: How tech-savvy are growers? Do you find that adoption is happening readily? Is it readily apparent as to how important and how valuable the new tools that are now available can be?

Swanson: There is a mix of different growers. We provide services to growers all around the world, so you have certain segments that are highly mechanized, like in the U.S, Brazil, or Argentina. You have others – small growers in small plots of land – who are not highly mechanized, but are truly looking for better ways to farm and have sustainable and profitable farm practices, like India, West Africa, and Indonesia. So you have a mix. Growers, typically, are like scientists. They will assess everything. They will test it on sub-plots of their field. They will look to see if they get a better output, so they are always testing. They are naturally curious about what is going to have better output for them.

As the scientists that they are, as well as business leaders and strong economic folks, we are able to work with them to help understand and grow their thinking around how they can apply technology. Certain growers are advanced, where they provide a lot of sensors on their field, their combines are connected. Others are experimenting. This experimental process is iterative, and we continue to evolve with them. Since we are great partners with them, we can learn together. What works, we do more of. What does not work, we iterate, evolve, and make better. It becomes a great way to continue to advance an industry that has been around for thousands of years, but take technology to the next level. Growers are adopting it when they see that it works.

High: How does IT work with other parts of the organization in order to develop the digital strategy and the plans, solutions, and projects that make up the digital changes that you have described?

Swanson: We spend a lot of time with our executive team and our business leaders to understand and define the impact of digital across our enterprise. You think about things like a smart connected supply chain. We think about information and data coming from our research plots and contract plots into the manufacturing plant. We think about the manufacturing plant optimizing our production of products and getting them to the farmer with tracing and tracking capability and connecting our ecosystem of products. With that understanding, a simple example is putting sensors in the back of our semi-trucks that move product from the farm into our manufacturing plant that allows us to track the product anywhere it is in the process. It allows us to understand if a certain semi-truck is getting hot, which means I could lose that truckload of product. I can provide real-time dashboards and information analytics to our plant managers, so that at harvest time you get miles of trucks in a queue that now have real-time data saying that some truck three miles back is getting hot, and I can move that product to the front of the queue, off-load it, and not lose any product or yield. That is a simple example of the value of digitizing supply chain with high impact for how we run our business.

The same thing is true on our research side as well. It allows us to make early decisions which allows us to do this more sustainably and accelerate our time to market and our product set. It is the same on the commercial side where we look at how to reach our growers with real-time information when and where they need it. We do things with small farmers in India and West Africa, with simple SMS text messaging that allow them to ask questions around if they see disease in their field, the best commodity price to sell at, and other ways to improve their practices using technology and information.

It is a way we can touch our customers that we have never been able to do before by using technology to enable it. We have been showing, throughout the whole company, how digitization of our business impacts our business productivity, our customer value, our revenues, and it allows us to positively disrupt the way we think and operate to improve and accelerate to getting our important products in the marketplace. That has taken hold within the company and has given us a great platform to enable and grow the digitization of Monsanto while we still try to do digitization with our growers and enable their goals.

High: You have been in IT for quite some time, among a variety of brand-name companies. In your time in IT, how have the skills that you are looking for evolved?

Swanson: I would say it has been a major focus for us. I fully believe in diversity – diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of cultures and mindsets. Diversity is a real cornerstone as we think about bringing innovative ideas and being able to execute on them. So, as a result, I have a whole mix of talent and skillset in my organization. I have PhD scientists. I have data science and modelers. I have strong engineers that understand how to build micro services and APIs. I have a strong operational group that knows how to deliver on managed services and capabilities. We are always working with the external community to help educate the type of IT roles that we need in the company, whether it be our work in open-source – we contribute to that in many different ways – our work with STEM to help people better understand the value of technology, or my business partners. One example is bringing an R&D scientist into the IT group, or a commercial person into the IT group. They will bring some real-world data and information around how technology can be applied.

I mix that skillset with the skillsets of traditional IT and emerging IT. Together, that diversity creates tremendous impact to shape strategy, communicate in an effective way, and deliver on this iterative and agile approach to continually iterate and learn. That becomes the cornerstone of the skillset. I have also talked with our HR organization around trying to embed IT and data expertise in every role we have in the company. Whether you are a breeder, marketer, manufacturing person, or a finance person we need a baseline level of data and technology in each one of those roles if we want to harness the value of data, insights, and digitization and they become not only advocates, but leaders in the space. Not only enhancing the IT organization inside and outside, but also enhancing the skillset of the entire enterprise because that combination allows you to accelerate in various ways.

High: You have been at Monsanto for a little more than two years, and you focused on developing an internal brand for IT – changing the way IT has been thought of. Can you talk a bit more about the internal brand migration and developments, as well as some of the activities that you have undertaken to ensure that IT sees itself in its rightful place as a driver of business value?

Swanson: One of the first things that I did when I started was bring in an external marketing firm to help us understand what the identity of IT is for the company – what IT’s north star is. I joke with my organization all the time that we are good at solving problems, we are good analysts and engineers, but we are probably the worst communicators on the planet. We just do not have that skill base in our traditional training. We got some outside help to think about what the brand of IT is whether you are in operations, running cloud based infrastructure; whether you are an engineer, developing an asset for a grower; whether you are a business partner or IT person working to help shape demand. As a result of that effort, Monsanto, at the end of the day, is a yield based company. We are trying to increase the yield, reduce input costs, increase output, and drive that more sustainably. If we are a yield based company, think about the power of unlocking digital and digital yield for our company, in all that we do. If you are a cloud-based compute person, then how do you unlock the value of real-time compute for an IT innovation based company? If you are working with the business shaping demand, how do you think about the power of technology to reshape business processes and leverage data to create new insights? If you are an engineer, how do you unlock the value of digital so that the tools you work with are highly usable, highly consumable, and provide new capabilities to increase productivity and customer value?

That has been a rallying cry for the IT organization. We have digital yield at the top of our mission statement and strategy. Underneath that, we build off of it. IT delivers the digital platforms that allow that unlocking of digital yield. Underneath that, we do it across our core processes, as well as our work with customers and growers. Underneath that, we create five value pillars so we can assess the value of that digitization, and that includes operational excellence, business productivity, customer centricity, revenue enablement, and disruptive innovation. The base of that pyramid is what we do with our people, internal folks, and partnerships that we create, to create the value we want to sustain from the company. That simple phrase of unlock digital yield has the top of the pyramid with a big base of capability under it that allows every person in my organization to have a line of sight to the value that they can bring to the company, for our growers, and to shape the “ag” ecosystem beyond our core products and into adjacencies and other opportunities.

High: How do you encourage your team to develop customer touch points? In an industry and company as complex and geographically diverse as yours, how do you ensure that your team has that insight from the customer?

Swanson: Let me provide some more detail into the five pillars of what I think digital is. First is relentless focus on the customer. Understand your customer and understand what their needs are. That is the first pillar of being a digital company. The second one is process innovation. You should not automate the old way of thinking. You need to think differently around how technology changes the process and changes the operating model. That has a lot to do with my IT folks coming together with our business folks so that we can have processes that are different. The third element of being digital is automation. You automate those disruptive processes so that you can streamline them. Fourth is data and analytics. You apply data and analytics in everything that you do so that you drive the insights and be predictive, rather than being reactive. The fifth is about leadership and culture. How do you influence and change the mindset around how digital can disrupt your businesses and drive the value that you are looking for. Those are our definitions around digital.

What I expect from my people is a little bit of courage. That way they are able to get out there in front with our business partners and our customers so that they can help shape the thinking. They are no more important than a commercial person, marketing person, or breeder, but they are equal important because of the demand they have and the insight they can bring with our commercial leaders, R&D leaders, or supply chain leaders. Having that courage is important.

Second, I remind my team all the time that we are stakeholders in this company. As a stakeholder, we have to understand the value we bring to our customers. Are we giving them services and capabilities that help them do their important practice better and more effectively? That should be an anchor for us as we think about the investments that we make, the strategies we apply, and the impact we have. Understanding the customer center, understanding that we are an equal stakeholder in the company’s success – and we are an IP based company, so we have to continually innovate – and having that view of courage to put yourself out there and help shape the thinking are the anchor points that I look for my people to do. I incent them in that way as well, so that we are carrying that forward in the most effective way possible. Those are how I bring that together to ensure that people can have the impact that I want them to have and we can work with our business partners as true partners to help shape the future of not only Monsanto, but also the industry that we are trying to have a positive impact on.

High: You spent most of your career prior to Monsanto in the pharmaceutical and healthcare space. How did you prepare yourself as you took on this challenge of a new industry and company? How did you think about the transition at this point in your career?

Swanson: I started my career as a scientist. Then, I went back to school for computer science, when I saw how much technology and IT I was doing in the science space. For me, I have a passion between science, IT, and IP innovation based companies. I have been, my whole career, in those types of settings, and I enjoy that mix and balance of science and technology and impact. If you would have asked me eight years ago if I would be living in the Midwest and moved into agriculture, I would never have been able to forecast that. With the exception of the fact that I always try to keep an open mind around opportunities where I could have transformational impact in a company or industry. When the opportunity came from Monsanto, I did my own research on the company. I found a tremendous impact that we could have on an important segment of the world, which is providing sustainable food. Just as why I was in healthcare, it was important for me to have an impact on improving human health and human life.

The mission was there, which was important. When I met with the company and the leaders, I saw that IT was important. IT mattered to the company, but they were looking for how to make IT a step-change for us. For me, that was a tremendous challenge, as well as an opportunity. It also met my criteria of being an IP innovation based company. They are the leader in their segment, by far, and it was a great opportunity to apply IT and science in an emerging transformation area around digital agriculture that was too good of an opportunity to pass up. As hard as it was to leave an industry that I truly loved, it was neat to come to another industry, which I am still learning, but I love working in it. It is an exciting opportunity to have this impact, and I continue to grow as a result. We are growing the IT leaders for the future in this space as well. It was too much of a perfect storm to not take advantage of it and jump in with both feet. It is near learning different industries, but there are more similarities than not, if you think about IP-based industries, where you need to innovate. There are a lot of similarities which you can apply from different industry segments that are important.

High: What did you find to be universal moving from one industry to another? Conversely, where do you see some of the nuance moving from your previous companies to Monsanto?

Swanson: There are a lot of similarities around patent exclusivity. Patents run out and you have to continually innovate. We are both highly regulated industries. There are a lot of similarities there. It is global, and there are many similarities between different industries. When you think about an IP based company, scientists are scientists, whether you are in healthcare, agriculture, or other industries. They are naturally curious. They are skeptical. You have to prove that something has value, and then they will believe it, but they are naturally curious and always thinking about the next level of innovation. I found a lot of similarities between the industries when I made the move. That was a positive observation.

As we continue to evolve, what excites me is that the technology that we are applying. We have big data, real-time analytics, the Internet of Things, modernization of plants and what we are doing at the farm level, both with our research and supply chain areas, but also what we are doing with growers. We have information and capabilities that I have only dreamed of in some of my other jobs. We are able to accelerate the impact of IT across an important segment. That has been exciting, and we are looking at and applying leading edge technologies. We are taking an agile approach and constantly iterating and evolving, and we are learning and contributing back in things like open-source and efforts in STEM, and other novel ways – the White House initiative around STEM, hackathons, and open hour coding where we work with schools to teach students how to code. It has been neat to come into this industry and get the breadth and depth that we are able to get and apply that technology across the segment.

High: We have talked about a number of trends. Are there other trends that particularly excite you as you look to the future? Are there things that you and your team are investigating that you think may grow in importance as you create your plans for 2016 and beyond?

Swanson: In addition to digitizing the environment, which allows us to unlock the data, we are making big investments in decision science, analytics, and predictive and prescriptive models. I have a group, at the enterprise level, around decision science. What are our key decisions that we need to make, internal to the company? If you think about what we do with growers, there are about forty grower decisions that they make every harvest. How much nitrogen to apply to the soil, how much water, what hybrids to plant, what commodity prices will be, etc. We are taking that same concept of what we are trying to provide externally with our growers and apply that internally. What are the key decisions I need to make on which products to progress in the pipeline? What are the key decisions around how much products and where, around the world, I place them in my supply chain? What is the best way to reach customers and give them the best insights that they need? We are applying models. We are applying data to those insights to be in front of our decisions, not behind them. That has been a big step change as we think about applying those models across all key aspects of our decisions in the company.

Second, I think this evolution around the Internet of Things and connected information, well beyond Monsanto into our adjacencies and how we shape the agriculture ecosystem, will become important as we think about linking data and technology up and down the food supply. I think opportunities are there to help connect and provide the information capabilities that help improve our ecosystem beyond just the domain that we are in.

I look at all the different startups and other companies that are trying to evolve. We spend a lot of time with the venture community. We did about one hundred and fifty reviews at other companies. We did thirty proof of concepts last fiscal year. We applied five different emerging technologies in many different areas of our business. We continue to evolve that, with small companies, and with large companies. We have the opportunity to shape technology information, not just in the agriculture space, but even more broadly. So we are actively engaged in that as well. That also gives us new insights and allows us to disrupt our thinking and apply some different ways to think and do it at scale and speed. That is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities. Can we do this iteratively, not just in years or months, but in days and weeks? That is the mandate we are trying to drive towards that allows us to have a continual learning environment. It continues to shape our thinking. Those are some of the trends, but also where IT is going and can go if companies are willing to embrace it. It could have tremendous impact for the growth of those companies. Those that do not, will not exist. Technology and information is too important to the success of any company in any industry. We are taking it seriously at Monsanto, and will drive that agenda.

Originally published on Forbes.com