advice for agribusinesses

3 Pieces of Advice for Agribusinesses Wanting to Keep Up with Innovation

December 5, 2016

Editor’s Note: Joseph Byrum is senior R&D and strategic marketing executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation, and Delivery at Syngenta. In his third of a three-part series on open innovation, Byrum gives three pieces of advice for agribusinesses considering using open innovation to keep up with their peers and not get left behind.

When it comes to innovation, traditional agriculture companies are all about stability. They follow time-tested methods that just plain work. But how can they make the leap to the next level if their focus is on what has worked well for them in the past? To achieve a true step-change in productivity, they need to have both the right processes, and the right culture, in place.

open innovation
Joseph Byrum

Open innovation can be an effective way for tradition-bound companies to look ahead, instead of to the past—something we as an industry must do if we are to deliver the innovative products growers need to step up food production to meet the demands of a growing world population. Open innovation is a way of driving new thinking by posting business challenges online to engage a broad community to develop an effective solution.

For open innovation or “crowdsourcing” to deliver useful, innovative solutions, it may require an internal employee mindset change for acceptance. Here are three tips that can help in that process.

1. Look outside for tools and ideas

Some businesses resist changing their ways. A long list of once-dominant firms wound up as bit players in the marketplace because they failed to recognize the need to take that next great leap before it was too late. It is particularly important for tradition-minded firms in agriculture to attract and then listen to outsiders with new ideas. Syngenta has found that crowdsourcing is an excellent way to tap external ideas in a way that’s acceptable to the internal culture.

For example, we wanted to find math and statistics experts to assist with our data analytics strategy. We found that open innovation is effective in harnessing external talent on a consulting basis. In addition, putting out math challenges for monetary awards provided the incentive for solutions we need. The external talent supplements our existing capabilities and does not replace our internal expertise. In fact, internal staff are needed more than ever to direct this talent in a productive direction. By ensuring that internal staff remain involved in the process, they come to see the “outsiders” as an asset that allows them to do their jobs better, not as a threat to their job security.

Getting this cultural aspect right is one of the company’s biggest and most important challenges. The key to success is defining the problems that the external teams need to focus on and guiding that team in a way that makes it clear everyone is working toward the same company goals together.

2. Expect duplication

Often, businesses can tend to be risk averse. Failure for them is a waste of resources. So, new initiatives are put through a wringer that often ends up killing them. Every company has its own process, but they all demand that R&D follows a logical, step-by-step sequence that ostensibly conserves resources and minimizes risk.

But real innovation does not happen in lock-step fashion. A better approach is to run multiple experiments at once. Many will fail, but you only need a few to succeed. And the risk of failure can often be shared among partners within a research network.

Syngenta learned this lesson while developing a data analytics tool to help in managing crop yield trials, where promising new seed varieties are put to the test in the field. There are many moving parts in this process—location, growing conditions, and so on. The math for sifting through more than a trillion possible combinations to determine an optimal trial strategy proved enormously complex.

Teams assigned to the project came up with more than a dozen approaches that, on paper, appeared to work. However, many of these solutions did not hold up in the field. Because multiple teams were working in parallel, these dead ends did not slow the process. Eventually, Syngenta’s teams of internal and external experts landed on an approach that worked.

Such results are only possible in a culture that tolerates the duplication and failures that line the road to ultimate success with open innovation.

3. Swing for base hits, not home runs

New approaches are unlikely to provide solutions in one fell swoop. More likely, open innovation will be used to explore new directions, then testing hypotheses, and finally to the design and implementation of new strategies. And, all along the way, it is important to keep score and measure progress, because organizational rejection can be swift when traditional ways of doing business are being challenged.

Progress will be incremental, and resistance may be strong, leading some managers to give up before the project is complete. Persistence is essential.

Syngenta saw this at work in persuading its plant breeders to use the new data analytics tools it acquired through crowdsourcing. These seasoned experts knew what they trusted — their experience and their green thumbs. They were skeptical — perhaps even leery — of a computer that might be able to help them do their job. But, slowly, as the results came in, they realized the opposite was true. Data analytics gave them new and powerful decision support tools, and they became vocal advocates for the new tools and processes within the company.

Delivering more innovation faster can no longer be just an ambition for our industry, it is essential. A massive leap in agricultural production is needed if we are to meet the needs of the decades ahead. The companies that make the cultural adjustment that enable this to happen can succeed; others may find themselves left behind.

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