Syngenta Seeds CIO On Cloud, Digital And Mobile Initiatives In Sweeping Q&A

Esther Shein

When it comes to IT transformation, you could say Warren Boerger is responsible for planting seeds of change. Boerger is CIO of Seeds, at Syngenta, a $12.6B global provider of seed and crop protection solutions for row crops, vegetables, turf, golf courses, flowers and others. Enterprise Digitalization spoke with Boerger about the role of cloud and digital initiatives underway at Syngenta.

ED: Please describe your IT environment and whether you have a lot of workloads deployed in the cloud, on-prem, or both? If you’re doing a lot in the cloud, are you utilizing public, private or hybrid clouds? Are there workloads and/or apps you’ve decided not to move to the cloud, and if so, why? 

Warren Boerger: Our IT environment up until three years ago was heavily reliant on a third-party data center approach with a small on-premise footprint for speed and performance. Since that time, we have been in a state of transition, migrating some applications to the cloud, expanding our use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions and adding Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) as well.  

These moves have been primarily around the public and private cloud formats, driven more from the need for scalability and PaaS/SaaS features than from a cost-only perspective. I believe that the hybrid cloud solutions do have their fit in our environment due to the distributed nature of our global business and network access – so this is a relevant discussion topic for us. 

ED: What is your most pressing IT issue(s) right now and how are you addressing it/them? 

WB: The transition for any organization from an owned or third-party data center to cloud providers changes not only the architecture of the application and data stack, but also has a substantial impact on the network configuration. A key topic in the media today and with providers is the transition for large companies from a Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) mindset to a new set of network requirements. We are in the midst of that transition with our architecture, staffing, and service providers. From discussion with others in the profession, this is not a unique challenge for today’s IT organizations. 

Other current topics would be the digitalization of the enterprise and internal skill development.  

ED: What digital transformation efforts, if any, are underway in your organization? 

WB: Digital transformation from a strategy perspective can be approached in many ways. At Syngenta, our senior executive team has taken the approach of setting up a digital team that is focused exclusively on transforming the organization, and it sits outside of the IT team. This is a helpful approach as they can operate in a “greenfield” space bringing new thinking and approaches. That said, we clearly have a great deal of collaboration underway between the groups, which is bringing new thinking and skill development opportunities to IT. Specific areas of digital transformation include mobile, digital innovation labs, and analytics, among others. 

An area within IT which is not potentially mentioned enough in the industry as a whole is the benefits of Robotic Process Automation or RPA. We began a few years ago with a Proof of Concept for RPA, which now is hitting mainstream with several business functions for repetitive tasks. So as we continue to scale we are working through the usual questions for an emerging IT service – do you fund it from the functions receiving the benefits or do you handle it as a central service, how do you manage variable demand loads, etc.   

ED: What mobile initiatives are on tap for this year? 

WB: Our business is all about providing innovations to increase food production for a growing population. Therefore, we have to start with the research and development teams and how do we enable those insights to bring value to our customers through better product recommendations, leading to increased yields and better performance for them? One of those examples is the E-Luminate [analytics] platform, which is the mobile extension of our R&D insights to our customers. This was recently recognized as a winner in the Drexel University Top 50 Corporate Analytics programs. 

Mobile solutions for customers and the sales teams remain an ongoing focus as it will be for many companies. As a company we are now looking at solutions for other functions including production and supply, HR, finance, etc., beyond our existing SaaS platforms to improve productivity and efficiency. 

ED: With technology changing so rapidly, how do you keep your team’s skill sets – and your own – current? 

WB: We have just gone through a reorganization in IT to move some of our resources closer to the respective business units to improve our agility and focus on business outcomes. This shift is with the intent of expanding our use of agile and to begin a DevOps journey. The initial results are encouraging as you would expect both in terms of speed and engagement. We are working with a partner who is helping establish coaches in the respective areas to accelerate the operational maturity. 

For the last 15 years, we have been focused on service management and outsourcing. These skills were acquired through organizational training, recruitment and other companies following a similar services approach. We recognize that we need to strengthen our technical capabilities and skills in addition to working with our partners, so we are following a similar approach with a blend of external training, recruitment and engaging in discussion with other companies. This applies to myself as well as the team. 

With that said, we also recognize as a company that we have a need to improve our understanding and capabilities with digital and especially with digital natives being hired into the company through attrition and retirements. We are using reverse mentoring led by our HR team to connect senior leaders with digital natives early in their careers to have a two-way mentoring discussion as both have something unique to offer the other. This has been well received by all parties and will continue.  

ED: What keeps you up at night? 

WB: Going through our functional transformation and supporting our IT team, transforming the organization digitally and supporting a growing business, would all be candidates to keep me thinking into the night and I have spoken to some of those points.  

Cybersecurity is an obvious topic, but I would add an architecture topic to the list. There are several strategic architecture questions that we are evaluating for our enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Our ERPs are at the core of our business processes and data. As we talk about cloud, digitalization and analytics – the decisions that we are making today in this area are critical to be able to adapt to the accelerated rate of change that we are seeing in digital and IT. 

This article was originally published on Enterprise Mobility Exchange.