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