by Divina Paredes

The power of data, digital and diversity: Insights from a CDO

Jul 02, 2019
Artificial IntelligenceBig DataCloud Computing

We hope to tie more environmental functionality and capability solutions to the digital platformDave Scullin, Ballance Agri-Nutrients

Dave Scullin was over two years into the role of chief information officer at Ballance Agri-Nutrients when he was asked to step up to the newly-created role of chief digital officer.

As part of the transition, he also moved from reporting to the CFO to the CEO and to being part of the executive team.

For Scullin, however, the key change is the recognition that digital is at the heart of the business.

As the inaugural chief digital officer, he is responsible for delivering a personalised service for customers, real-time data to drive decision-making, and more simplified business processes.

That is the main reason for the change, with the organisation’s goal to create a digital business, he says. “It is an important role, the CEO wants a close connection to it.”

He says the shift did not entail restructuring the ICT function either, as this has been completed prior to the appointment.

“I did not change anything, other than keep the good work we were already doing,” he says.

Ballance Agri-Nutrients is a farmer-owned co-operative with around 19,000 shareholders, and a network of fertiliser storage and dispatch facilities across New Zealand.

Scullin joined Ballance Agri-Nutrients as CIO nearly four years ago, coming from LIC where he had the same role.

He had also worked in analytics and data management roles at Rio Tinto, Fonterra, and Waikato District Health Boards.

At Ballance, Scullin led NZ’s first deployment of the SAP S/4HANA technology platform, creating a“digital core in place”.

This has provided the foundation for the launch of the MyBallance digital platform, which provides real-time data and allows farmers to place and track their nutrient (fertiliser) plans and orders 24×7. It can be accessed through a smartphone, tablet or computer.

The digital solution, which uses multiple SAP HANA applications, won the “Best Run Award” at the SAP Innovation Awards in 2018.

Speaking to CIO New Zealand at the recent SAPPHIRE conference in Florida,Scullin talks about some of the projects he and his team are working on as part of the co-operative’s digital transformation programme.

MyBallance, he points out, has exceeded all their adoption targets.

“You start understanding more about your customers in the digital world when you start interfacing with them that way,” he states.

“We learned a lot more about our channels, as well.”

According to Scullin, another area they are working on is sustainability and environmental compliance.

Ballance has launchedMitAgator that is integrated to the MyBallance platform.

MitAgator geo-spatial software helps farmers make cost-effective decisions around reducing water contaminants on the farm.

“Our sustainability advisors work with farmers to create risk maps of all of the key four water contaminants on the farm.

“Using independent validated research from AgResearch and algorithms for all those contaminants, they were able to generate automitigation scenarios,” he explains.

Scullin adds that, “We can advise farmers on how to protect the environment from these contaminants.”

Another project is a pasture planner that will help farmers optimise the placement and timing of nitrogen fertiliser application on farms.

“We hope to tie more environmental functionality and capability solutions to the digital platform,” says Scullin, noting that the organisation sponsors the annual Ballance Farm Environment awards.

“So we are farming not just productively and efficiently, but in a sustainable environmentally-friendly manner,” he says.

He also shares that their digital platform connects to SAP data analytics and farmers can see historical usage information and patterns.

This, he says, entices the farmers to go online where they see their farm map capability and their activity in the geospatial context.

Before, this was a manual process.

“We will send our teams to the farm and they will go back and provide a report,” he says. “It was all done just in isolation out of our ecosystem.”

Scullin says they will continue to focus on digitalisation efforts on their operations and manufacturing divisions.

“All of those need to be aligned to give customers a great digital experience,” he says.

At the moment, he says, customers can order in MyBallance and assume all the stocks are there.

He adds that as part of their digital supply chain transformation, they can tie the inventory to the ordering experience.

“We can let them know whether the products are in stock. They will be able to check whether it is available and in the location they want to pick it up from.”

Source: Ballance Agri-Nutrients

He discusses the importance of tapping organisational data – from staff and customers – as they implement these programmes.

“We use the data to understand our customers, and change strategies based on that information,” he says.

They do the same with employee engagement data.

“We value our employees. We want them to be happy at work and be engaged,so we survey regularly, through an annual engagement survey and three-monthly pulse surveys,” he states.

According to Scullin, providing staff with flexible working practices is part of this.

Two of his direct reports are mothers who have young children. “They have the ultimate flexibility as far as I am concerned.”

They start working in the office at around 9 am and leave at 3 pm do to the school pick up, and they make up time by remote working from home.

He says Ballance provides a number of staff development programmes and internal leadership growth options.

Scullin discloses that in his own team, he personally meets one-on-one with his direct reports every fortnight.

He also has a regular catchup with four or five members of his team regularly.

The attendees come from different functions across ICT. They share what they are working on and the areas they would like to improve.

He says the team also organises quarterly afternoon offsites.

“We just have fun together, have a beach barbeque or go karting, and then we have a full team meeting every month.”

“We also get my teams up sharing what they are working on,” he says.

They invite leaders from other business units to present their functions and discuss how digital can help enable their business.

Members of his team, meanwhile, have to spend their time in other parts of the business, such as manufacturing, sales, and distribution.

His department holds an annual team building event. They invite their vendor partners and look back at what they did in the past year, as well as show their roadmap for the next year.

They also include community focused activities, such as building bikes for needy children in New Zealand.

Showing ROI

Every year, the team organises a digital expo for the board of directors.

“It is a good way to show them the ROI of the digital investments,” says Scullin.

The team prepares ‘trade stands’, each of which has a theme around digital transformation.

Recent presentations include the work the ICT team is doing with the data science team. One such project aims to predict customer churn before it happens so they can intervene.

They have also set up stands focusing on customer experience featuring the MyBallance digital platform and mobile apps that simplify their purchasing and invoicing processes.

The directors generally spend about 20 minutes in each stand.

Scullin says his team loves the opportunity to showcase their work to the board and also answer their questions.

He also meets regularly with CIO and CDO peers from other organisations.

They organise get-togethers so their respective teams can share their experiences on a range of digital transformation projects.

Ballance is part of the SAP customer reference programme, says Scullin.

Teams from other organisations visit them and they share what they have learned from their projects.

“It is also a great opportunity for us to demonstrate what we have achieved,”says Scullin.

“It is great for our company brand and profile,” he adds.

“Your talent will see you as an innovative organisation doing great things.”

A major focus is building a diverse team.

To me, a normal modern workplace now is to just have people from all backgrounds and culturesDave Scullin, Ballance Agri-Nutrients

“To me, a normal modern workplace now is to just have people from all backgrounds and cultures,” says Scullin. “It actually makes it a fun team too, as you learn about the world through your colleagues.”

“If you are doing innovative things, you attract good people and regardless of where those people come from and what their beliefs are, they should be treated equally,” he explains. “That is the culture we have.”

“It is about building a really robust, capable, enthusiastic team with the right set of skills to execute strategy and to always measure your execution,” he says.

He shares a leadership insight that has worked for him throughout his career: “Stay very connected with your customers, both internal and external.”

“Understand what are their business problems and challenges,” he advises. “Whether a farm customer, a production planner or an HR adviser, empathise with them and understand their frustrations.”

Elaborating on what this means for today’s chief digital officers, he states: “You have got to have a broader digital strategy that is aligned to your business strategy, and a roadmap.”

“You have got to have the support of the board, the CEO and CFO, to understand how digital is changing the world and [that] we need to invest in them.If we don’t, we could well be disrupted or left behind.”

He stresses, “And the final thing will be table stakes but still really important, which is operational efficiency within the technology function.

“It has got to be highly secure, you have to invest in that, it has got to be safe and operationally stable.”

“You try to do all those things in the right balance,” he says.

No caption

Sign up for CIO newsletters for regular updates on CIO news, career tips, views and events. Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz

Send news tips and comments to @divinap