Examining Cargill’s push to nurture growth through digital and data strategies

Aug 23, 20237 mins
Chief Data OfficerCIOData Management

Jennifer Hartsock, CDIO at Cargill Incorporated, joins CIO.com’s Maryfran Johnson to speak about elevating the digital and data mindset, and how the company’s ‘better together’ ethos helps to navigate its IT operating model transition.

Jen Hartsock, CDIO, Cargill Incorporated
Credit: Cargill Incorporated

For 158 years, Minneapolis-based Cargill is the largest privately held company in the US and employs 155,000 people across 70 countries, earning an estimated $165 billion in annual revenue. Having joined its executive team 18 months ago, CDIO Jennifer Hartsock oversees its global technology portfolio, and digital and data strategies, so she has to keep track of a lot of moving parts, both large and small, to help achieve the company’s big corporate strategy about being ‘better together.’

“It wasn’t that long ago in Cargill history that we had about 120 independent business units acting more like a holding company than an operating company,” she says. “At the time, these independent business units had their own IT, finance, and HR teams. So if you’re thinking about when many of my colleagues were doing a lot of the heavy lift on process optimization, we were thinking about it from an operating company and looking at ways to standardize, simplify, or automate the execution of those processes.”

Cargill delivers a vast array of products and services to food, agriculture, financial, and industrial customers across more than 125 countries, and Hartsock brings more than 20 years of technology business leadership to her role through previous CIO posts at Baker Hughes, Cameron International, and Caterpillar. Digital and data talent specifically is upward of 7,000, so the efficacy of her tech team relies on and how she’s able to nourish and attract talent.

“The world will continue to need more digital and data capabilities, so talent is how we get that done,” she says. “We’re still more outsourced than insourced and we’re trying to find ways to bring that more into balance. But it’s a very large and complex organization.”

She’s also a great believer in solving real world problems with technology, and driving transformative change. But digital means different things to different people. So bringing everyone along to the digital customer experience can be complex, depending on what level they’re interested in most.

“We have disconnected or unwired employees, and they’re about 100,000 of that 155,000, so not a small group,” she says. “We have to think about that population differently. One of the things we’ve been working on is an initiative called Powered by Plant to better enable our frontline workers to have amazing employee experiences, and to support our production supervisors of those frontline employees. They need to be out on the shop floor walking around supporting their teams. We have to find ways to differentiate for our colleagues just like we would differentiate for customers.”

CIO.com’s Maryfran Johnson recently spoke with Hartsock about delivering on digital, optimizing ERP outcomes and more. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On delivering digitally: We can get incredibly prescriptive around narrow or broad definitions of digital as it pertains to our businesses. So I sat one on one with people in small groups who visited our plants. Everywhere I went, I asked what they thought digital meant, and answers varied. Some had a very precise definition, some had looser interpretations, and everything in between so we decided on four major areas where digital should deliver on business outcomes. First is digital products and services, which means both standalone products and services, as well as augmentation. Second is digital customer experience. We’re largely B2B, so that digital customer experience had to be able to scale from individual bodega owners to large food distribution colleagues and other large organizations like multinationals. We had to find ways to scale that digital customer experience across that gamut. Third is squeezing out efficiency effectiveness from end to end as we’re a complex supply chain organization with tight margins and digital at our core. Fourth is the digital employee experience and how we make sure people have the tools they need to serve our customers the best way they can. When we look at our portfolio of investments, we have to understand which part of digital we’re trying to serve.

On data ownership: There are so many layers of how we invest in data. So there’s obviously strong governance of our large data domains. If you can’t have that, it’s harder to get meaningful insights out of them. We have a fair amount of process control around that data governance side continuing to mature, like everyone. And then when we think about the insights side of it, that’s where you start to see things, and we have some centers of excellence where we have data scientists and strength of expertise, especially for groups that may not have it themselves yet. But we also have a trading analytics team that partners so strongly with our centralized data team around governance, platform tools, and so on. But we gave them the keys to the kingdom a long time ago because they’re way closer to our traders. And they’re able to move with such speed and agility to serve candidly around constantly changing requirements.

On generative AI: We’re probably in the hype curve of gen AI somewhere, and advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning automation aren’t new to Cargill. So this next level of generative AI is something we’re incredibly interested in and thoughtful about because I think we’re in the early days, and we take our responsibilities for our purpose very seriously. In the early pilots, we don’t have any large-scale production. How we ingest large volumes of data, slash market research and help synthesize it for parts of our teams—these are the first use cases we’re going after, but they’re very narrow in scope with limited people working on them. And then we’re trying to educate broader Cargill about both the opportunities and risks. Because again, we know that in early hype cycle, there’s a lot we have to learn. And there’s also risk that if we don’t learn it the right way, we might not serve our purpose the way we’d like to. So we’ve been really thoughtful and have communicated broadly on what our expectations are.

On executive change: We just successfully completed a pretty major succession in January with Brian Sikes as the current CEO. By naming him early on, he was able to think about the strategy of Cargill with a leadership team in place. He could form his team, and I had the opportunity to join when Cargill was refreshing their business strategy as part of Brian’s move to the CEO role. We wanted to have better clarity on what it’ll take to help support our strategic business ambitions, leveraging digital and data capabilities. So first priority was to both define and then deliver on those strategic ambitions, and we wanted to have a better understanding of where digital and data show up throughout the business, inclusive of externally facing and supporting our employee experience. We have 155,000 employees and they need to have the tools to be successful everyday. In order to show up as business leaders that have digital and data domain expertise and responsibility, we have to help understand where it belongs and deliver on strategic ambitions.