Interview conducted with Bayer´s Head of Digital Farming, Tobias Menne, by Simon Schoop, Managing Director of 4-advice, Change & Innovation.
Nowadays, we deal a lot with new technologies, ideas and products. But which innovations really make a difference for long-term profitable growth? In this interview we talk to Tobias Menne about “Digital Farming” and how it will change the way agriculture works and how digital farming can help feed the world.
Simon Schoop: Which digital innovation has changed your everyday life most within the last 12 months?
Tobias Menne: Virtual Reality glasses; not the expensive ones but the very cheap ones – the cardboard boxes – for a couple of reasons. First of all, they allow me to be in Paris in one moment and in a field in Wisconsin in the next – and at the same time they are very cheap. For example I went to Paris and walked around the Eiffel Tower – I would say that was my most impressive digital experience.
Simon Schoop: Which three effects of digitalization are having the most impact at Bayer today?
Picture Source: Bayer
Tobias Menne: Making our products better. Improving the exchange of information and data between colleagues, and enhancing our process efficiency. I’m looking very closely at the process of generating agronomic data – for example, looking at trial management with questions such as, how do we collect data from our trials? Digitalization offers whole new possibilities – for instance, image science allows us to capture more data and generate information that is instantly on my desk. I have more data and different data – faster and cheaper than in the past.
“The three most impactful effects of digitalization are that it makes our products better, improves the exchange of information and data and enhances our process efficiency”
Simon Schoop: You are head of Crop Science’s Digital Farming initiative. Could you please explain briefly what your business is about?
Tobias Menne: In a nutshell it is about turning data into food and animal feed. In general, it is about what we observe in many digitalizing industries: we are transitioning from a product to a service industry. We are extending our value proposition, yet at the same time we are dematerializing our business. So we achieve great results with fewer physical inputs and with a higher level of convenience for the growers.
“Digital Farming is about turning data into food and animal feed”
Simon Schoop: What are the three core benefits that Digital Farming brings to farmers and which other target groups and benefits do you see?
Tobias Menne: First of all, the grower: the grower can take more calculated bets. With digitalization, he can see around the corner what is coming next. There is also a lot of value for society: 100 years ago, growers were optimizing for yield. 30-40 years ago they were optimizing for yield and efficiency and about 30 years ago, they started to take environmental costs into consideration. So farming is a much more complex animal today than it was 100 years ago. Digitalization helps to manage that complexity – to optimize yield efficiency and further reduce environmental costs, so habitat conservation, biodiversity and water conservation can be taken into account at the same time.
Simon Schoop: So do I understand correctly that such complex topics as biodiversity, which depend on many intermeshing factors, can only be tackled with digitalization?
Tobias Menne: Yes, digitalization is helping us better understand biodiversity and ensure that agronomic actions are not harmful.
Simon Schoop: Your industry is often seen rather critically by the media and consumers. Nicholas Negroponte has developed a model where one laptop bought in the first world finances an outdoor-suitable laptop for the third world, to improve education in the third world. How can your Digital Farming business help improve the image of your industry and solve third-world problems such as food shortages?
Tobias Menne: I believe that aiming to improve the image of the industry would be too shallow. For me, the underlying question is how we can improve farming with digitalization, for smallholders as well.
In my previous job, I was privileged to meet with some of the government authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conclusion from my discussion with these guys was that in a land without maritime access, without roads and without infrastructure provided by the government, the only way to improve the livelihood of people is by digitally providing information to a larger part of the mostly illiterate society. To put that in more concrete terms: we are bringing many elements of the technology that we are using and developing for large-scale farmers to smallholders via the smartphone. Essentially, we are giving them access to means that they did not have before which they can now use to establish better economic practices and simply get more out of their farming work.
Simon Schoop: In other industries we’ve seen that innovation often comes from the smallholders of their industry, from the small companies. Do you see that happening in farming as well?
Tobias Menne: What I see is that innovation in the digital space is not a big money game – it is rather a creativity and vision game. I would say you don’t need to be a big company to be successful.
Simon Schoop: Your department has been rather active in acquiring companies in the last year, e.g. the recent acquisition of proPlant. What are the reasons for that? Can you not find the right skills in-house or is it rather technology that triggers your mergers and acquisitions?
Tobias Menne: It is all about passion and skills. With these acquisitions we rarely bought any assets – it was rather the combined historic experience, competence and motivation of the people that we wanted. We didn’t buy a single patent.
Simon Schoop: When you look at people, organization and technology, how would you rate their importance for digital farming?
Tobias Menne: What I observe is that it´s very much about creativity. You need to be ready to expect the unexpected. We have established a different organizational design to enable us to interact and anticipate technology – in a different way to how most large organizations would do that. We are very much working in small project teams with a large amount of freedom – yet every person in our 70 people team is deeply rooted in their individual expertise. This is our way of staying product-focused and delivering.
“Be ready to expect the unexpected.”
Simon Schoop: I recently wrote an article on Hybrid Thinking. Hybrid Thinking talks a lot about T-shaped thinkers. How do you ensure that the interaction between individual teams and individual people, T-shaped thinkers, works well? [Hybrid Thinking is the individual combination of Design Thinking with empathy, human-centered perspective and other schools of thought to solve today’s critical problems that are characteristic of the hyperconnected global economy]
Tobias Menne: A functional organization is only there to foster the development of individual expertise. Day-to-day we work in project teams which are non-hierarchical, have a huge amount of freedom and have a very narrow product or feature focus. Having that combination yet still maintaining a line organization enables people to grow.
Simon Schoop: Which digital technologies are impacting your business the most and what will be the next major digital breakthrough that you see for the farming industry?
Tobias Menne: I believe the whole technology of image science is very much at the beginning. Recognizing environmental parameters remotely, without human interference, and interpreting them will lead to whole new data sources, which will transform how we look at agriculture. We are investing a lot in image recognition of weeds for example. And we are able – even with a normal smartphone, as we discussed for smallholder farmers – to identify individual weed species. With data science behind us, we can predict the probability of that weed being resistant or not. Now that cameras are becoming more intelligent and can build on individual spectrum bands, we might be able to recognize the nutritional status of a plant or diseases with optics before the human eye can see a change.
“It’s the technology of image science – recognizing environmental parameters remotely, without human interference, and interpreting them will lead to whole new data sources, which will transform how we look at agriculture.”
Simon Schoop: But does this work with just a normal smartphone that smallholders can use to take a picture?
Tobias Menne: No, not with a standard smartphone, but with an additional device that costs maybe two dollars. Here’s the trick: you take a specific box with exact light injection in a specific spectral band that will illuminate or trigger specific reflection points.
I think that is a wonderful technology – we think this is relevant for large-scale farmers as well as for smallholder farmers because they face a lot of similar challenges. With this smartphone, the smallholder farmer now has access to a more powerful tool than any large-scale farmer had a couple of years ago.
Simon Schoop: How do you rate today’s digital maturity of key stakeholders in the farming market?
Tobias Menne: We are all together at the very beginning of this. I think that we maybe have a level of digital maturity that is similar to what the internet was like in 1992. I personally remember very well how AOL sent out CDs with 30 minutes of free internet access by mail. I would never have imagined that someone would surpass AOL. They had the best starting point but they didn’t make anything out of it. We believe that our lessons are: a lot will happen. Although we believe that we are at the very frontline of this discipline, we need to be humble and we need to make sure that we do not call ourselves experts in any area, because this field is still developing.
Simon Schoop: How do you attract the right talent today (and tomorrow)?
Tobias Menne: Knowing that technology is evolving so quickly, we are looking for basic qualifications in IT, mathematics, remote sensing and agronomic modelling. The overriding hiring principle is to look for passion and ambition. We just hired a mathematician from Afghanistan who is doing some absolutely amazing stuff. And we are also looking in general at our team – we have unbelievable diversity, with people from the Philippines, Tunisia and Belarus. I believe this shows that we are really approaching hiring totally differently than before.
Simon Schoop: So you are not just going for STEM qualifications?
Tobias Menne: Although I´d say a lot is STEM, a lot is also other natural sciences, for example agronomy and modelling.
Simon Schoop: What can the HR function do from your perspective to support building digital leadership?
Tobias Menne: We are all on a learning curve for an organizational design that will meet the company’s need to develop digital products rapidly with the latest technology while being in tune with the requirements of the younger generation, who want to do a meaningful job that they enjoy. Personally I believe it is about finding a way of working together which will bring results, while allowing everyone to develop and have fun at the same time. That´s something we do very well together with HR.
Simon Schoop: Have there been any concrete success stories with HR where you would say, this really works for us?
Tobias Menne: We have brought about 70 people on board in the last 18 months. From an HR perspective, we had the discussion that we don’t feel really sure about how to go about this. We simply bring the people on board, and we also see how organizational structures are evolving organically. So we hired everyone into a competency pool. But we did not predesign any organizational set-ups. We are currently in the process of self-defining how we are organizing our way into the future rather than saying, “I’m more open than you”, and we are finding out the right competency areas and how can we make the best use of these.
Simon Schoop: What should be the reader’s key takeaways on digital farming?
1. Digital farming makes the world a better place, because we get quality food with less resources and with less costs for the environment.
2. Partnering is absolutely key for us – we will not crack it alone. That means cross-company, open-innovation efforts.
Thank you very much, Tobias!
Digital Transformation is impacting all businesses today, no matter which industry they are in. It´s the second wave of digitalization after the initial roll-out of the internet: online transaction costs as well as costs for sensors are plummeting continuously, enabling new disruptions of market segments and whole markets. Consumer behavior and expectations have already changed, not only in Generation Y. The altered consumer expectations lead to new business opportunities as well as to the decline of organizations which are not agile enough to cope with digitalization and leverage the rising digital potential and synergies with the traditional way of doing business.
Businesses that do not leverage lower transaction costs through online service delivery lose ground and decrease their competitiveness – and become vulnerable to new market entrants. Already, digitalization is clearly announcing the next tsunami of transformation, the internet of things (IoT).
IoT will change our world, not only in manufacturing, within the next ten years by connecting anything, anytime, anywhere.
Simon Schoop is Founder and Managing Director of 4-advice │ Change & Innovation, a Germany based niche consultancy and thought leader for digital transformation.
4-advice helps organizations to become truly agile and thus increase competitiveness leveraging the opportunities of digital transformation.
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