Shirley Cunningham, CIO at Monsanto

Shirley Cunningham, CIO at Monsanto

shirley-cunninghamMy first CIO 2.0 conversation with Shirley Cunningham, the CIO at Monsanto, was truly a 2.0 conversation. Shirley has a rich background. Hailing from Scotland, she held many positions in MIS departments (Management Information Systems) across various industries before joining Monsanto in the late 90′s through an acquisition. She became the global CIO 3 years ago.

As CIO at Monsanto, Shirley is a member of the strategy team. Becoming a member of the strategy team came with a change in role for  IT – that from being an order taker to a strategic partner sharing responsibility for the business’s growth. They morphed from being the implementers of ERP systems and other technologies to a team that now worries about customer space transformation though information and technology, advanced decisioning, and customer and product pipeline. And while the IT department at Monsanto supports all functions, most of its resources are dedicated to R&D and the customer space.

Being a strategic business partner rather than a support organization requires a deep understanding of the business – that is why over 35% of Monsanto’s R&D IT group has science backgrounds with 10% having PhD’s. They don’t just support the product development process – they are a key driver of it. This shift from being a more traditional IT department not only required a whole new level of leadership; it required a complete mindset shift. If you would have asked a random person in IT what they were doing a few years ago, they might have answered “I am an Oracle DBA.” Today, you are more likely to get the answer “I support a system that helps us collect $3.5B in revenue.”  People now think of their jobs in terms of the value that it delivers to the company, which is not just great for the company, but also energizing for the individuals. And therein lies a virtuous circle – when people are more energized, you have more innovation, more creativity and thus more energy and excitement.

They have a metric-driven culture. Not just one where they focus on understanding the cost of transaction and other classic metrics, but one where they measure the outcomes and values of technology usage. So they will measure the value of being able to assemble a genome on their product pipeline and their ability to commercialize products. A dedicated, and very agile, enterprise information management group helps them do that.

Word of mouth is very important in the agricultural space – with most of it happening in coffee shops. As some of those conversations are moving online, it will be very important for Monsanto to have a seat at those virtual coffee shop tables. That is one reason why Shirley thinks there is a lot of value in having employees be active in communities and social media. They are still in the early days, but plan on developing this capability in the future.

Monsanto is of course known for its culture of innovation – which is driven by its overarching goal to double the yield in agriculture within the next few years. They are passionate about innovations that impact sustainability and they think really big when it comes to their mission. This “change the world”  type attitude makes for a great innovation culture – one in which people constantly think beyond the boundaries. It also helps with the type of people they attract to the company.

Monsanto actually started an innovation lab – which is unencumbered by corporate standards – and where people can work on getting early proof of concepts. Employees first submit ideas to peer review, after which a VC-like board approves funding for further development.

Innovation at Monsanto is not contained to its corporate walls – they also co-innovate with suppliers and academia. Cross-enterprise innovation takes a lot of effort on both parties, and there always needs to be clear win for both of them.

Another interesting aspect of Monsanto’s culture is the fact that they are  non-hierarchical. They have been operating that way for 15 years and they seem to be one of the only companies that has been able to achieve this at scale. Solid lines and dotted lines like you would find in typical matrix organizations are non-existent – everyone has multiple solid lines. Those employees that come from more structured organizations take a while to get used to this non-hierarchical structure, but ultimately it makes for a great place to work. People know that they can walk in and talk to anyone, including the executives.

In closing Shirley had a few words of advice for executives at other companies – CIO’s need to step up and take ownership for things that they traditionally would not have done before so that they can have a bigger impact on the business, and they need to take more risks.

Well said – Shirley is clearly a 2.0 CIO.

Other things we talked about include:

  • What worked and did not work with the “two-in-a-box” concept of pairing up a business leader with a technology leader
  • The consumerization of IT and how all companies will have to be ready for that
  • How they deal with risks, like IP leakage risks, through awareness and education
  • The importance of being active on a local community basis while being a global company
  • The role of rewards and recognition within an innovation culture
  • The importance of a successful collaboration culture in an innovation culture
  • The role of values and the importance of reinforcing those values to ensure a good corporate culture
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