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Data science key to Monsanto improving its supply chain

Brendan McGowan | Aug. 11, 2017
A drive toward digitisation in the supply chain has created major efficiencies for Monsanto, while underscoring the need for a culture of IT 'transformation agents.'

Data science, Swanson explains, has been employed to help maximize agricultural outputs while minimizing inputs (water, fertilizer, seed). Arable land is an inherently finite resource, and Monsanto's data science models have helped growers and distributors alike plot efficiencies. 

Monsanto has identified approximately 40 major decisions a farmer makes every year, from how much water to plot to which agronomic practices produce the most resilient plant phenotypes. Monsanto harvest advisors employ the company's Climate platform, Swanson continues, and use data to provide consultative guidance to growers. They analyze, for example, nitrogen leakage in the soil from fertilizer, as well as how to minimize the input (fertilizer) while maximizing crop output. The company has advised European farmers on efficiencies in water irrigation practices and farmers in India using its Farm Rise platform - allowing growers on the subcontinent to discern when to optimally sell such commodities as wheat.


The rise of the Digital Outreach Group

Swanson uses the term "digital radar" to describe the evolving set of capabilities that Monsanto rigorously tests in the pursuit of its ongoing transformation. Because IT helps support an integrated view of customer value and internal processes based upon a variety of data points, it is imperative that Monsanto's IT division help propel conversations on the organization's "digital radar," he says.

To this end, Swanson helped organize the Digital Outreach Group, a coterie of MBAs and scientists who discuss the organization's digital footprint and relevant potential investment targets. The Digital Outreach Group meets with more than 250 startups every year and approves approximately 30 proof of concepts (POCs). Among those POCs, Swanson says, perhaps five new technologies will be adopted within the company - from IoT to cybersecurity. The Digital Outreach Group collaborates closely with Monsanto Growth Ventures, the venture capital arm of the company that specializes in equity investments in agriculturally focused organizations.


IT leaders must ask how technology and data can help transform processes

Swanson strongly emphasizes that IT leaders must take an assertive approach to solving business problems and integrating customer solutions. At Monsanto, this is partly a function of governance. The CIO shares that he pivoted the organization to allow for a "thin layer" of IT leaders who sit on leadership teams, interfacing directly with cross-departmental colleagues. This structure allows teams, Swanson asserts, to ask how technology and data can transform what employees do, not just incrementally improve it.

Success, he continues, is also partly a function of process. He says organically embedding relevant data insights into Monsanto's day-to-day employee functions helps employees adopt new processes easily because they see the value; it is a matter of breaking through the "clay layer" of potential distraction and ambivalence by making employees' lives easier.


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