- Like many other industries, the global food production sector is facing major disruption as a result of the coronavirus.
- Industry giant Cargill is primed to capitalize on the trend after spending the past several years creating the foundation needed to adopt more data-driven, technologically forward solutions.
- The largest private US company is a sector leader in the use of blockchain and is introducing new digital platforms to help customers better manage their workloads.
- Leading the effort is CIO Justin Kershaw, who told Business Insider he is changing the IT team to “be the growth of the company. Not just enable it, but actually be it.”
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Grocery stores quickly pivoted policies to create safer shopping environments — like grocery chain Publix’s rapid adoption of Apple Pay. And food-delivery applications from Whole Foods or third parties like DoorDash and Uber Eats had to address an overnight surge in demand.
But beyond the front lines of the food industry, producers have also been under pressure. Companies including National Beef Packing and JBS USA have shut down facilities as a result of the outbreak, helping to usher a time of reckoning for an industry that has been slow to innovate.
It’s a big opportunity as well, with the market for more advanced food production and tracking methods projected to exceed $300 billion by 2025, according to Bank of America analysts.
And Cargill is one of the industry players that has been preparing for this moment, already seeing the potential for disruption and investing heavily in a digital overhaul. Spearheading the effort at the largest private firm in the US is Chief Information Officer Justin Kershaw.
“There’s a generational turnover in top leadership and folks are stepping into these top-level jobs with more knowledge and experience around how to see data and information technology capabilities as assets,” he told Business Insider.
The sprawling $114 billion agriculture conglomerate has spent the last several years laying a foundation to bring more tech-enabled tools to market.
It launched a new innovation lab at the University of Illinois and became a sector leader in adopting advanced tools like blockchain.
Cargill also created a new digital lab focused on bringing together its IT team and business lines to create customer-specific products. It recently launched a new application called iQuatic to aid shrimp farmers. The digital platform helps better manage yields by, among other things, providing real-time tracking of the number of shrimp in ponds.
And the innovation efforts from Cargill could have a direct impact on the types of food we consume. The company, for example, is partnering with KFC to sell a plant-based fried chicken in China, a country whose poultry market is under pressure due to the coronavirus. It’s an early test case of how the pandemic may end up changing eating habits around the world.
Business Insider talked to Kershaw to learn the steps he took to break down barriers within the enterprise and encourage more collaboration — and what it means for the future of food production after the pandemic subsides.
At the start of the transformation effort, Kershaw had a relatively simple vision: enable the IT department to be the key value driver for the company.
He said he told CEO David MacLennan and other top executives that the department “would be the best place to put a dollar and get two back faster than anywhere else you could spend that dollar in the company.”
The effort is part of a broader trend across corporate America, where the IT department is no longer just a help desk. Now, it’s instrumental as the source of innovation and a team driving the future for many companies.
But getting the division to a point where it can begin to deliver value is a difficult transition. Alongside the foundational work — like curating databases so the information can be used to power new AI-based applications — there are ample organizational hurdles that must be addressed.
At Cargill, Kershaw began the journey by reorganizing the global IT department from 26 different units into one unified team. He also focused on talent, bringing in data scientists, software engineers, and other roles necessary to create a digital-first workforce.
Part of that effort was building up Cargill Digital Labs, an in-house innovation hub of sorts that combines IT professionals with experts from the individual business units to craft products for end customers.
The center utilizes agile teams, or cross-functional “scrums” of employees that are tasked with a specific product development goal and given all the resources necessary to meet that objective. The project management technique is increasingly relied upon by organizations that are looking to pivot to digital.
Kershaw and other executives developed new investment strategies to align IT projects with overall business goals. And a key aspect of the center’s success to date was getting members of both sides of the enterprise to have the same mindset.
“When you start to change the language and behavior … you start to get more people in the corporation to think like that and the portfolio for your IT teams to execute on starts to get richer,” said Kershaw. “Branding it as Digital Labs versus IT also helps as well because it changes the mindset of people that are going into it.”
Cargill also revamped how it relied upon third-party vendors by taking stock of its in-house talent and figuring out where those skills could be amplified by outside entities.
The company began using Tata Consultancy Services for key IT infrastructure needs. It is also in the process of streamlining 29 different financial management platforms to one unified system.
After spending several years on foundational work, the division is beginning to think about creating digitally enabled products and platforms for customers ranging from grain farmers to poultry producers.
Cargill, for example, is an industry leader in the adoption of blockchain. The company isn’t focusing on monetizing its use of distributed ledgers right now, but instead views it as a game-changer over the long term.
“We started experimenting with that early on in our own supply chain and quickly came to the conclusion that this is for real, this will be transformative in our industry,” said Kershaw.
Cargill also publishes its blockchain projects — like Honeysuckle White, a platform to allow consumers to track turkeys back to the specific source farm — on open-source websites to help encourage others to build upon the work.
Through its innovation center at the University of Illinois, Cargill also recently launched an application that allows producers to access specific information on what is growing in different fields across the globe, based on satellite imagery data and other sources.
And it has a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland focused on creating a new digital platform aimed at grain farmers.
“We’re actually challenging ourselves to be the growth of the company. Not just enable it, but actually be it,” said Kershaw. “The more we invest in it, the more we get out of it.”