IT management eases when CXOs cotton on

Life is easier for Nik Vorgic thanks to the aggressive interest his CEO and CFO take in information technology.

But the IT manager of highflying agribusiness Queensland Cotton Corp has two other invaluable allies -- patience and perseverance.

Those qualities proved worth their weight in gold when Vorgic ushered in new systems cutting across all divisions of the $800 million business.

The systems included an SAS data warehouse that raised challenging issues related to data quality and the cross-company nature of the project, he says.

Addressing data quality required cooperation from people in all parts of the company.

"Most people are operationally focused," Vorgic says. "If they can't see tangible benefits immediately, their attitude is why bother."

Persuading them to clean up their data at the same time they did their normal jobs was a difficult message to get across.

It helped to have senior executives lending their authority to the clean-up task, but "you have to understand it is going to take more time than you thought," Vorgic says.

"You have to be gentle and persevere. It is a matter of selling and prompting and prodding and it takes patience while using the occasional stick."

An ongoing Internet portal project is making the internal data accessible to the 1000-plus growers who form Queensland Cotton's customer base.

Both projects are part of a shift in focus from physical infrastructure to IT-related assets that has been mandated by Queensland Cotton CEO Richard Haire.

Haire's view is the growers will demand "almost unimaginable" levels of information from Queensland Cotton in future.

The agribusinesss processed a record 1.2 million bales of cotton last financial year and earned record revenues to become a world Top 10 cotton company.

Despite that, intense competitive pressures shrank its after-tax profits compared with the previous year.

Queensland Cotton believes opening its corporate information systems to its grower customers via online links will deliver gains along the entire supply chain.

Convincing growers to use the redesigned portal shouldn't be difficult because cotton farmers are arguably the most advanced users of IT in Australian agriculture .

Figures quoted by Queensland Cotton suggest 80 per cent of its growers have PC systems and 40 per cent are on the Internet.

Their tractors sport geo-positioning systems, they use satellite images to identify their most productive land; they also laser-level their fields to maximise irrigation efficiencies.

The portal, construction of which was outsourced to Brisbane Web design company f5, gives growers customised access to the company's SAP and SAS systems.

The impetus for the company's Internet strategy came from CFO Stephen Toms and the company is still on a learning curve, Vorgic says.

For a modest investment, it is making a range of customised data available from its internal systems that lighten the administrative burden on customers.

That is attractive to growers "who would rather be out farming than doing administrative chores," Vorgic says.

First deliverables are a range of reports and information services held in a secure section of the portal accessible to growers via personalised logons.

The reports give at-a-glance summaries of each grower's dealings with Queensland Cotton, down to the quality of bales delivered from individual fields.

The service also delivers current pricing and supply requirements, market summaries and market analyses so they can make instant sales decisions.

The Web information can be downloaded into Excel spreadsheets and plugged into farm accounting or farm management systems.

Some 20 to 30 growers have registered for the service, which has been piloted since late October.

Several hundred more are expected to sign up for the value-add relationship service over the next few months.

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