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Monsanto CIO: How we got started with digital transformationqrcode

−− James Swanson shares two keys to rethinking IT to help drive digital transformation: Talent and brainstorming

Jun. 22, 2018

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Jun. 22, 2018

Monsanto Company
United States  United States

By James Swanson, Chief Information Officer at Monsanto

When I joined Monsanto four years ago, we embarked on an IT transformation that was neither easy nor simple, but we’ve emerged more successful than ever.

Transforming our IT organization meant rethinking our structure and the role we wanted to play in the greater business; fully articulating our strategy and gaining buy-in and support; and iterating and disrupting our own way of working.

This transformation started in my first year here. I knew where I wanted to take our IT organization, but I didn’t have enough domain knowledge to articulate the plan. I did a lot of listening and learning in that first year, and tested elements of what I wanted to do in small groups. This was a very important step that enabled our organization to slowly get comfortable with where we were going.

We held hackathons, we embedded models into our workflow, and we did a lot with external partnerships because I’m a proponent of bringing outside thinking into our company. All of these were ways to pressure-test ideas within the organization.

Once I had enough domain knowledge and we had tested some ideas, we used a seminal event to enact a lot of this change at a broader scope. Monsanto went through an organizational restructuring, which was the perfect opportunity to set our people strategy into motion.

Identify talent needs

We started by identifying pockets of excellence within Monsanto, many of which were in our R&D group. We wanted to give them a horizontal view of their role and enable them to think beyond the domain that they were in. To scale them horizontally across the organization meant restructuring the IT function in order to remove bottlenecks.

First, we identified critical talent segments that could drive a digital transformation. This included roles like high-end, full-stack engineering developers, data scientists with Ph.D.s, and domain experts, such as Ph.D. agronomists or geneticists who had both the engineering and domain expertise necessary to translate the science of what needed to get done in order to deliver a solution.

We also identified the services we needed that would not require internal personnel. In running our global help desk, for example, we needed internal solution partners, but we could create and manage services with third-party global providers. Defining the strategy, then defining the talent segment required to execute and pivot the organization, was a foundational exercise for us.

Next, we established global enterprise teams. We did this by shifting people from R&D, supply chain, and commercial to become part of our products and engineering function, for example.

In that function, we tasked product managers who brainstormed road maps and capabilities they wanted to build for our platforms over time. We built up engineering groups with the high-end developers we needed, along with the data science team, complete with the Ph.D. mathematicians to build the models. And finally, we created a data stewardship team, focused on ingesting data and making data available.

Then, we added top-notch talent capable of thinking and tackling big questions, like: “How do you take data and technology and transform and disrupt your business processes?” They weren’t order-takers to the business; they were equal partners in reshaping and disrupting supply chain, R&D, and commercial.

In supply chain, for example, you might have a business logistics person, manufacturing person, an IT person, and even a finance person. The diversity of that team is critical to our strategy; IT doesn’t have all the great ideas and neither does R&D, but together we can be pretty powerful.

Learn, refine, adapt

Restructuring our IT organization took about a year, followed by a year of refining. We didn’t get everything right on the first try – no one ever does – because there’s no such thing as a perfect operating model. It’s about continuously learning, refining, and adapting. I knew the vision we had was sound, and I knew it was worth the pain to get there.

Key to pushing through the pain were advocates, who we found in supply chain, in R&D, and in commercial. We helped them achieve success, and in turn they became our best marketers, so to speak. We were also very fortunate to have engaged business leaders who were willing to go with us on this journey. When we enabled them, they became our advocates, too.

Drastically changing our operating model, and doing it rather quickly, wasn’t easy; we’re still very much on this journey today. If you truly want to be transformative, you need to be pushing the envelope and you need your business partners engaged with you. If IT does it alone, it fails. That partnership is what makes the difference.


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