Sunday, July 28, 2013

Musing on Agribusiness, Modern Agriculture and Enterprise Architecture

Friends, peers and former colleagues occasionally ask me what I do for a living and when I say Enterprise Architect, they raise they eyebrows. And when I say an EA for a multinational agribusiness firm, eyes begin to glaze over.
My journey into the complex and fascinating business of modern agriculture started a little more than a year-and-half ago when I took on a role of Enterprise Architect with a multinational Agribusiness company. In my previous consultant roles, I was well aware of the intricacies of EA, trained and certified in one of the popular methodologies used in the industry (TOGAF). In a sense, I had a broad understanding of the practice and application of EA. I was, however, removed from the intricacies of the business of my employer, agribusiness.

Learning about the “business” is critical for Enterprise Architects given the role we play in bridging the IT-business divide. It also helps that my employer prods employees to gain insights on our business of Modern Agriculture. One such recent program was the campaign to complete the Masters of Modern Agriculture through CLA, which prompted me to reflect on my journey thus far.

As is to be expected, many executives and business and functional leaders here have a farming or agriculture background. One could argue many of us – even urbane city dwellers - are not too far removed from agriculture perhaps with just one or two degrees of separation from agriculture.

Think of farmers and farming and one might visualize the quaint old man in a turban in a paddy field in India or the frail farmer tilling a dry plot of land in sub-Saharan Africa or the tall guy in wrangler jeans and cowboy hat standing next to a lush corn field somewhere in Iowa or Mid-western United States. Though I grew up an urban kid, and mostly lived in larger metros in India, my link to agriculture in childhood began when we would visit my dad’s ancestral town in Tamil Nadu for summer vacations, a trip that would include trek to the lush paddy fields that his brother and extended family managed. Family discussions during such get-together would revolve around vagaries of nature, monsoon, labor shortage and the like, though I recall very little discussions on agronomy or the business of modern agriculture as western farmers know it.

That image of farmer extended to that of a “grower” after I joined my employer. Perhaps because farming and agriculture is a vocation, engaging with Mother Nature. And for most, if not all farmers, even for subsistence farmers, growing is a “business.” Even subsistence farmers aspire to eke out a bit more out of the land that they can barter for other life’s necessities.

Farming: Business, government and society

Policy makers and governments around the globe struggle with “food security” issue, feeding 7-8 billion people with limited resources that Mother Nature provides. Some of the answers lie in the judicious use of science and technology to aid modern agriculture including use of “sustainable agriculture” techniques, chemicals – fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides – and genetically modified and hybrid variety seeds that can ensure greater, consistent crop yields on limited land and resources available for agriculture. And this is where the business of agriculture step in.

Agri-business value chain is complex, and includes “input companies,” like my employer that are engaged in the business of research, manufacture and supply of crop-protection chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides - as well as biotechnology products, seeds including genetically modified, specialty breeding etc etc. Though this could be lifted out of a ag-biz promotional brochure, the goal is simple:
  • Maximize yield for the grower and minimize risk of loss from pests, weeds etc 
  • Enable sustainable farming with minimum resources – land, water, labor etc – at our disposal
All this to what end? Feeding the ever growing human population. And what you won’t always see in agbiz brochures is the increasing theme of enabling sustainable bio energy, ethanol and bio fuels!
Farming and Technologies

Twenty-first century agriculture is much more sophisticated and technology driven than most of us realize. On one hand we have large industrial scale mega-farms that use of GPS, automated Chemigation and irrigation systems, water pivots, genetically modified and hybrid variety seeds, sensors and drones and satellite images to monitor crops. On the other hand, we also have small subsistence farms like those prevalent in much of Asia and Africa where millions of farmers subsist on extremely small land holding. And in between the two extreme, we have all varieties of farmers including Ogranic farms, serving niche markets.

Enterprise Architects multinational agri-business firms, just like our peers in other businesses have to continue to focus on BDAT dimensions with the firm goal of aligning IS investments with business drivers. A sampling of architecturally significant use cases:
  • Supply chain: complex forecasting, demand planning manufacture, production, distribution of seeds and chemical products. Of course, some of this has an added business twist. The production of parent seeds is also impacted to a large extent by the issues our growers face: vagaries of Mother Nature. The supply chain of agro-chemicals is highly regulated by federal, state and local authorities, with an increasing focus on security. 
  • Partner integration: An agbiz company like most large multinationals has to integrate with partners, suppliers, vendors and others to ensure seamless interchange of data and information. 
  • Enabling Research and Development (R&D): In this business, a new product can take nearly 10 years from ideation in research to getting to market with a series of complex steps in between. Emerging technologies including analytics, big data management, high performance compute are increasingly being adopted to enable accurate, faster time to market. 
  • Thinking of future of farming includes scanning horizon to bring in newer technologies. This includes enabling complex agronomics enabled by timely information and data. Emerging thinking includes Digital Farming, Precision Agriculture, use of GPS, satellites and drones – enabling “use” of data. All of it targeted to provide actionable insights to end users, (in this case) here the grower.
Just my two cents and by no means a comprehensive list of the critical role of Information Technology plays in managing the complexities of agribusiness. And somewhere there comes to critical task of defining the blueprint for Enterprise Architecture that streamlines the process of bringing new techniques to the vocation of agriculture.

Links of interest

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Review: Transformational Outsourcing: Maximize Value From IT Outsourcing

Review of Sanjay Chadha's Transformational Outsourcing: Maximize Value From IT Outsourcing :

During a recent scan on the sourcing landscape, I came across Sanjay's book which takes a good view from the buy side of sourcing though it also considers the selling (outsourcing vendor's) perspective too.

The book starts with an overview of outsourcing models and terminology, a good primer for those new to the industry and a handy reference for rest of us. The section on outsourcing strategy has good insights and planning inputs helpful for sourcing managers. Likewise, the outsourcing design section is a primer on key design aspects.

The book made me reflect on the maturing of IT sourcing, especially offshoring. The author continually weaves traditional IT outsourcing best practices - that have been honed by industry experts over the past few decades - with offshore outsourcing techniques that have emerged in the past decade or so. Rightfully so since offshoring is now an integral part of IT sourcing and there is little distinction between the two. Pure play outsourcers who don't offshore some if not much of the work are a really small

Repost from Amazon review Technorati tag : Books

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is my wristwatch destined to go the way of Indian Telegraph?

Last week I had my battery replaced on my 10-year-old Swiss-army wristwatch and within a few days, it stopped working. Since then I have been walking around watchless. I continue to instinctively look at my bare wrist when I have the urge to tell time only to resort to pulling out my smartphone or look around to see if there are wall clocks nearby and sometimes resort to sneaking a peek at a passerby’s wrist watch.

(image: BBC)

I should perhaps take a lesson from the strategists in India who finally decided to pull the plug on Telegraphs (wsj blog). Just a few similarities between wrist-watches and Telegraphs:
  • Wrist watches and telegraphs are just things we grew up with, accepting them as an integral part of our lives 
  • Both have been subsumed by other technologies. Cellphones/smartphones which we all carry can also tell time. Technologies like SMS, cellphones and ubiquitous emails have long superseded most if not all the need for telegraphs. 
  • Just as in case of telegraphs where habits or nostalgia kept the system alive thus far, most (if not all) men who grew up with wrist watches continue to wear one. 
  • ROI on watches are not justifiable, just as they aren’t for Telegraphs. For instance, I go through new battery every year or couple of years. A $10/$15 “investment” to keep the lights on for a $200+ technology that has probably depreciated to 0 in the past 10 years since I got it
I have been meaning to go back to the mall and confront guy at the watch repair kiosk, assuming it is just a defective battery not a watch whose time had come. In the meantime, I continue to sit on the fence debating whether to pull the plug on my wrist watch.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Musing on US Citizenship and Edward Snowden saga

Following the Edward Snowden saga made me reflect on the power that governments have over citizen when it comes to asylum and citizenship, a power one cannot take very lightly.

Edward Snowden leaked US Government’s NSA secrets and has reportedly spent the past few weeks in a “transit zone” in Moscow. While there he has continually been in news applying for asylum for a slew of countries. In the meantime, the US government has revoked his passport and continues to pressure countries from granting asylum. (interesting list of countries where Snowden applied)

The saga also reminds one of the plight of Viktor Navorski, a character played by Tom Hanks in the movie “The Terminal.” The film was supposedly based on a real life incident “The most famous transit-zone dweller was Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who stayed in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport for 17 years, but he moved freely within the terminal. Some have noted that the film appears to be inspired by the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris from 1988 when his refugee papers were stolen until 2006 when he was hospitalized for unspecified ailments.” (wikipedia)

Play the Snowden saga against the immigration debate in America and one can see two sides of the coin emerge. One side are people like Snowden who willingly risk the privilege of American citizenship to make a point at the world stage. On the other side are millions who continue to make the trek to the land of opportunity, only to find they have to climb huge walls, sometimes literally and mostly walls of bureaucracy before they are granted the privilege Snowden is willingly relinquishing.

Few countries in the world are able and willing to offer asylum to someone wanted by big-brother. If anything, this saga shows the real might of America in the world stage.

Technorati tags: Edward Snowden, Immigration