CIO50 2019 #2: Paul Littlefair, LIC

Technology, particularly agritech, is incredibly fast moving, says Paul Littlefair, CIO at LIC.

But, he says, by making bold and informed decisions about which projects and services to commit to and deliver, “I believe LIC is well placed to help solve future problems of the world’s food supply.”

He cites key figures that amplify the challenge ahead for LIC.

By 2050, he says, the world’s calorific demand will increase by 70 per cent. The demand for both human and animal feed will increase by at least 100 percent. The $5-trillion global agribusiness industry will only get bigger.

“For New Zealand and for LIC’s farmers to remain key players, we need to continue our 100 year legacy to improve the productivity of the national dairy herd through cutting-edge genetics, herd improvement, genomics and pasture management technologies,” says Littlefair.

“Our farmers work hard, and our latest technological iterations and work programs see us producing real-time solutions to make it easier for our farmers to farm, better. As we continue our commitment to using the available tools and field-leading knowledge, we are seeing that growth already and will be able to sustain it into the future.”

Littlefair is three years into an organisational wide digital transformation.

His major remit is to implement this transformation, which started with the setting up of a comprehensive framework for technological advancement.

“LIC develops 80 per cent of the genetics for one of New Zealand’s most important industries, and if we want to continue leading global pastoral dairy we must focus on innovative technology to enhance both genetics and farm management,” says Littlefair.

“This digital transformation has allowed us to create an infrastructure and cultivate a culture that not only provides, but seeks out the necessary tools to deliver practical solutions to our farmers, quickly.”

He says projects launched as part of this framework are now evolving, and are not only providing solutions, but delivering meaningful insights and recommendations to farmers in real-time.

One of them, the SPACE satellite pasture management service, which utilises more than 200 satellites to measure a farm’s pasture cover, is a robust example of this. The system uses AI and machine learning to replace manual recording of pasture cover. It’s being progressively rolled out across NZ.

Littlefair says SPACE has been integrated into LIC’s herd management system, MINDA, so farmers can access the information whenever they want.

“We are also looking at supplying this information to third parties for things like more accurate fertiliser orders and irrigation planning.”

He says another significant advancement in this space is LIC’s migration from legacy systems to Amazon Web Services.

He says the experience is akin to “changing the wings of an aeroplane while it’s flying”.

“But it has been worth the risk with over half a billion animal records now hosted in the cloud.”

With this data available, the Animal Evaluation System, which is tied to their genomic database and the lifeblood of LIC, is now well underway to being redeveloped in the cloud.

This will transform our current batch process, where we shut everything down for 18 hours while the legacy system processes the complex and intensive date on more than 30 million animals, to a real-time process taking just minutes.

“With the digital transformation well underway you might think we would leave our legacy systems untouched until their turn for transformation arrives; however as our strapline states, ‘there is always room for improvement,’” he points out.

He says their entire stack of over 600 systems, including the core COBOL platform are being replatformed and moved from their hosted data centre to MS Azure.

He says they began this process by conducting a series of experiments to determine if this migration could work. “Once we established it could, we began moving our systems over one at a time and expect this to be completed before the middle of this year,” he adds.

Taking an ‘extreme step’ to tackle change

He says the digital transformation focus represents more than managing their various systems.

“It stands for our commitment to our farmers, and our ability to complete these daunting tasks to provide the best outcomes for their benefit,” says Littlefair.

For instance, IoT devices have started entering information onto their systems, removing the need for data entry by humans. The real-time analysis of milk through inline milk meters has the potential to not only replace the manual collect-and-send-to-the-lab process, but collect more information, more often about production performance, says Littlefair.

“This is all driven by a commitment to being the masters of our own destiny; ensuring we not only have the right people in-house, but that they are educated and motivated to help deliver on LIC’s strategy, too.”

To enable this, Littlefair took the “extreme step” of creating an in-house LIC-tailored development school through Dev Academy.

This meant LIC’s entire development team who build their farmer facing software went tools-down for 10 weeks as they completed extensive cloud training.

“We wanted to cultivate a culture of team learning which recognised the need for not only field-leading, in-house expertise, but which also built trust with our developers by investing in their learning,” he says, calling it an unprecedented move in New Zealand.

“This decision was an investment in our people and a departure from traditional training,” he says.

He adds the training, provided by Dev Academy, came with a price tag. But the real cost, he explains, was taking the whole dev team off day-to-day work for nearly three months.

“While three months sounds like a long time to have no developers, it also meant we could cover a lot of material with Dev Academy in that time,” he says.

“We wanted to take ownership of our future and set our people up for success and become really cloud native; this meant extensive work in writing secure, high performing code as well as troubleshooting and testing.”

The developers received practical and relevant education alongside their colleagues, and came out with functional products as well as stronger relationships with each other. The programme also introduced mindfulness work techniques.

He says LIC also worked with a number of partners such as Hypr, Abletech, Techspace, Enlighten, Amazon and Microsoft.

“While we know that, in theory, harnessing technology and innovation is a recipe for success, introducing the necessary changes is much harder - especially when it comes to capturing the hearts and minds of people within an organisation.”

“At LIC, because we are a co-operative, our customers are our farmers, but they are also our owners; so their enthusiasm and support is a necessity.”

He says one of the reasons for the opposition to change was the prior experience of its members. “Change programmes have been hard for them.”

He says their adoption of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) has been instrumental in earning the trust that’s required to move at speed.

“Breaking larger work programmes into smaller chunks allowed the organisation to move forward, producing items on time and on budget,” says Littlefair.

In fact, these programmes have been so successful that Littlefair was invited to present at the annual global SAFe summit in Texas last year.

Support from the executives was critical in all of their programmes.

He says all of LIC’s senior executives are required to sponsor certain technology projects. Fortnightly demonstrations are held as part of the SAFe process.

“I see a culture of transparency as critical to building that trust within the organisation, so I ensure my communication is frequent and varied,” he says.

Littlefair holds regular face-to-face town hall meetings, and distributes a fortnightly video blog and weekly email.

The growth mindset

For Littlefair, a key factor in thriving in an ever-changing environment is having the right mindset.

In this case, having a “growth” mindset as related by Carol Dweck in the book with the same title.

This means having a focus on continuous learning and exploration which ultimately leads to greater success and fulfilment.

“We are finding out that, generally, successful people have the habit of being curious and are always trying new things, seeking to learn and understand,” observes Littlefair.

“Once you lose this, continued success is not assured, because what got you where you are today, will not necessarily get you where you need to be tomorrow.”

“Technology exists in a constant state of change, and we also know that change can be hard and it generally is,” he adds.

But as Chip and Dan Health point out in Switch: How to change things when change is hard, we often instigate change ourselves, says Littlefair. One example is the decision to become parents.

“So it’s not that we are necessarily resistant to change, but sometimes struggle to embrace the opportunity and benefits, given some of the perceived challenges and the risks.

“So how do we recognise this, embrace the opportunities that change brings and challenge those around us to do the same?”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

6 digital transformation success stories