Bayer Crop Science CIO and head of digital transformation: 5 keys to meeting goals

When digital transformation is in your job title, your organization takes the mission seriously. Here are five strategies for CIOs leading the charge
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CIO Disrupt Yourself

Here’s a measure of how seriously our company takes digital transformation: It’s in my job title.

That’s how deep and wide our transformation runs: After Bayer acquired Monsanto, “Head of Digital Transformation” was added alongside my CIO title. Putting Digital Transformation in my job title reflects the seriousness and scope of our mission. We’re not just transforming our business, but an entire industry. There are three pillars to this evolution:

  • Innovation: We must continually create innovative products and services.
  • Sustainability: We must create innovative products and services in a sustainable manner, not just for our environment and communities, but also for our customers – the growers and farmers. If they’re not sustainable and profitable, we’re not successful.
  • Digital: We made enabling technology – digital - the cornerstone of our strategy. 

We then combine these three pillars together, to create and support tailored solutions that allow us to be hyper-personal and as effective as possible for our customers. Needless to say, this is no overnight task.

Four phases to our transformation

So how do we actually execute this? We’re doing so in four phases, and in this order:

1. Defining the business strategy. This is table stakes for successful transformation: What do we want to do? If you can’t answer that question clearly, you’re going to spin your wheels. We have such an important vision and mission at BayerCrop Science: shape agriculture to benefit farmers, consumers, and our planet. When the executive team and I work together on the digital strategy, it is always in an effort to achieve that vision.

2. Identifying the necessary skill sets. With our strategy in place, we then evaluated our team: Who are the people we need? What skill sets do we need to develop? It’s incredibly important to identify not just capabilities but competencies. On the capabilities front, of course, our organization needs data scientists, full-stack developers, user experience experts, and so forth. We retooled the IT department to move away from some of the commodity skills to more forward-looking capabilities that align with our strategy.In addition, we have an ongoing need to build competencies that augment our skills, especially around business acumen. You may be the best UX person around, but if you aren’t competent with your business acumen, you won’t be successful.

[ Struggling to engage everyone in transformation? Read 3 kinds of employees who hurt transformation momentum. ]

3. Creating our portfolio of work. Strategy is critical, but it’s only as good as the work you’re doing to fulfill it. We had to ensure that we built the portfolio, with the right people in place, to drive our strategy. It’s a digital-driven portfolio, which means we’re the big needle-movers in IT: We make the big decisions that power the digital portfolio we need. That required us to take a really hard look at the most important priorities – you can’t pursue a kitchen-sink list that tries to do anything and everything – and then funded and invested in those areas. We created visible ways to measure the outcomes of our work.

Some companies start with the operating model and ask: “OK, what strategy can we achieve with this structure?” But that gets the order wrong.

4. Building the right operating model. Finally, you have to look at how you operate: Are you structured as an organization to deliver the portfolio with the right people to achieve your strategic vision? Some companies start with the operating model and ask: “OK, what strategy can we achieve with this structure?” But that gets the order wrong. We had to aggressively disrupt and reorganize the IT organization at Monsanto to do this, and we’re beginning to do it again at Bayer. It starts with the first three phases in this sequence.

Again, this takes some effort, to say the least, but this sequence charts a visible course for actually achieving an ambitious, long-term transformation.

5 keys to success for CIOs leading transformations 

Having done this at Monsanto and now as part of the broader Bayer organization, there are some lessons learned that I want to share with other IT leaders. Keep these things in mind as you execute your company’s own digital transformation.

1. Measure business acumen: I mentioned the necessity of identifying not only the right skills or capabilities you’ll need, but also the right competencies. This is one of those things you must clearly define and champion, or it will get lost in the crowd. We had to tie the competencies we were looking for – things like innovation, digital business acumen, digital thinking – to the capabilities we needed, and we clearly defined what those were. 

Just as importantly, we developed ways of measuring those competencies, essentially a maturity model: If you were a beginner at business acumen, you had these qualifications or competencies. If you were an intermediate, you’d have this level. If you were a leader, you’d have an even more advanced level. You can and should do the same with a capability model: If I’m a developer who knows one set of languages, I might be a beginner, and so forth. And then you map those capabilities and competencies to each other. Don’t overlook this step when identifying the people you’ll need.

[ Read also: Digital transformation: Are you using outdated IT metrics? ]

You’re not going to convince everyone. You have to find a few advocates and start small and get them to be amplifiers for you.

2. Define what kind of CIO you are: When I started at Monsanto, I didn’t care what the job description said. I knew what I wanted to create; I knew I wanted to help shape the business. Luckily, I joined a company that was very forward-thinking, very strong in science, that believed in constant disruption. But you must have your own vision for what kind of leader you’ll be, because ambitious transformation is never easy. You’re not going to convince everyone. You have to find a few advocates and start small and get them to be amplifiers for you. For me, it was partnering with the heads of R&D and supply chain at the time, and working together on achieving some high-value goals. It accelerated from there.

3. Always tell your story: Don’t ever minimize the importance of communication – telling people your story, spotlighting what you’ve done, sharing how you’ve done it. You must educate people and get them on board with what you’re doing, based on continually delivering value and then shining a spotlight on it. We don’t just do PowerPoints; we build real relationships, we partner with others in the organization who believe in what we’re doing, we get out and really share what we’re doing and the value it’s creating. We even did a digital “show-and-tell” event, where we had digital booths set up. Our extended leadership team could go from booth to booth and see our portfolio in action and the impacts of our work.

4. Be prepared for failure: You can’t do this successfully without thick skin. You are going to fail along the way. We have made plenty of mistakes to go along with our successes, and you’ve got to embrace and share those failures as part of telling your story. You must be willing to get a few bruises and scars in this process. If you’re not, don’t even bother, because you’ll never survive.

If I fail, it won’t be because I didn’t try hard, but because I did something wrong.

5. Stop making excuses: I’m not a big fan of excuses. If I fail, it won’t be because I didn’t try hard, but because I did something wrong. Obviously, transformation is company-specific and culture-specific. But I hear other IT executives sometimes say things like, “Well I can’t do much because we’re highly regulated.” Maybe it’s because I spent 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry, but that’s an excuse. You can do amazing things even in a highly-regulated environment. Nobody is in more control of IT’s destiny than me, and if I look at it that way, then I can’t make an excuse that I’m not getting the funding or I don’t get support or so on. You’ve got to own it.

[ Are you leading transformation using an outdated rulebook? Learn the new rules of CIO leadership in this Harvard Business Review Analytic Services research. ]

Jim Swanson is a global business and technology leader and currently Chief Information Officer of Johnson & Johnson, the world’s premier healthcare company. Based at the company headquarters in New Jersey, Jim is responsible for amplifying Johnson & Johnson’s business impact and shaping its direction through the strategic use of technology.